Writing for Audiofiction

I have been in love with Audible since 2007 when I was living in France and I got my first mp3 player for my birthday.  In France, I was living the life of ease (only worked 12 hours per week) and so found myself with a lot of free time. I also discovered that I can’t clean house with nothing else going on, so I began a subscription to Audible.com and have never looked back.  I added my local library to my list of places to get my audiofiction when I was a metadata data-entry monkey. Audiobooks made the long, long mindless hours less tedious.  These days I listen to a lot of audiofiction because it’s a friendly format for my illness. Too much text is hard to process, but listening to a good narrator (who doesn’t speak a mile a minute) works well for story-gorging.

So, with the above as my qualification for experience, I want to address a few problems that arise due to writers’ ignorance of the audiofiction format.

– –

Once upon a time, all stories used to be aural. No, not oral, aural. People listened  to stories.  They did not see them. These days, people see stories.  We read them in our heads, not even reading them aloud the way the Romans did. (Reading a book quietly to yourself would have been quite strange to them!)  These days we divide books

into paragraphs, with visual breaks

to pack a punch.  Sentences can be very very very long and drone on and on. Or they can be short.

“Books are visual,” he said starkly.

Can also be written as,

“Books are visual.” Starkly.  

Our brain skips “he said” and “she said” except as a reminder for who is speaking. We don’t think the pronouns in our head, yet they still register in that place that organizes, sorts things out so the story can form coherently.  The problem comes when there is a long interchange of rapid-pace dialogue but the writer gives little clarification to who is speaking. Such as,

“Beat one,” he said.

“Beat two,” she said.

“Beat four–“

“No, I think we’re on beat three. You forgot–“

“I don’t care about three, it’s unlucky. Beat five.”

“Oh, fine. Beat eight.”

“This is getting boring. Let’s stop.”

You would think the above doesn’t happen very often. You would be surprised by how many such cases exist.  There is one in nearly every book I’ve listened to. The dialogue is supposed to be rapid fire, but if there is only one narrator doing both voices, no matter how talented they are it can get quite confusing. I’ve heard some done well by excellent narrators (still confusing) and some done poorly by average narrators.

Another common complaint that you will often see in reviews is that, especially for first person narration, it is often hard to distinguish when the protagonist is thinking or narrating to the audience and when she is speaking to another character.  In a visual format, the difference is clear.  This is narration and “This is dialogue.”

But the difference can be very hard if you narrate like this but then “Speak like this” without adding anything to verbally distinguish the two (such as the verbal tags I thought  or “I said”).  Some writers even go so far as to do things such as this:

“Yes, just put the chair over there.” If only you would listen to me when I say things the first time! “Yes, right there. Good.  Thank you, Max.”

Say that out loud. Can you get it right? Can you differentiate the inner-voice and the outer-voice? Some narrators can. Most can’t very effectively, especially when they have to focus on not just this one paragraph but all the rest of the text around it.

No matter how excellent the narrator’s acting skills are, this makes for difficult fiction to listen to. A listener’s mind has to be actively engaged to understand exactly what is going on and how things are being said or thought.  However, most of the time, listeners are driving or at work. Their minds are engaged in something else and they don’t have the energy to spare to parse out confusing passages that are there and gone in a few seconds’ time.

In the end, lack of clarity isn’t entirely the narrator’s fault. It’s the writer’s.

To be continued!

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2 responses to “Writing for Audiofiction

  • Lindsay Buroker (@GoblinWriter)

    I had trouble with the last one when we were doing the audio for the Emperor’s Edge podiobook. I was doing italicized thoughts back when I wrote that book, and that doesn’t translate well at all into audio. I know we inserted a “she thought” here and there, and that the narrator kind of read those bits sotto voce, but, yes, potential for confusion. That’s part of why I stopped doing internal thoughts like that.

    • Laura

      I really like the way your narrator handles it. I think she’s the first voice-actor I’ve heard who who’s handled the back-and-forth well which was a pleasant surprise. I think a major part of it is that she reads relatively slowly, so she’s given herself the time to break between her sotto voce reading of the internal and external dialogue. Audiofiction ten or so years ago wouldn’t have allowed her to do that. Casette tapes and CDs were expensive and so audiofiction publishers encouraged their narrators to read as quickly as possible so they could fit the book onto X or Y number of tapes. Now with mp3’s, there isn’t as much of a rush to get through the book. However, that doesn’t stop many narrators from reading at a lickety-split pace. *amused* I think the fastest book I’ve ever listened to was Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston. She read what should have been a 14 hour book in 7 hours…. Made my head spin. :p

      And I’m glad to hear you’re thinking about the audio format! I’ve only heard of one other author who has ever mentioned how she’s handled the differences. Everyone else just seems to take for granted that it should be exactly like the printed book.

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