Opinion: The fundamentals of audio storytelling

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Audio storytelling

Unspooling the basics - from characters to production, Indira Rangarajan of Mirchi, writes about the rising wave of audio storytelling and how to get it right.

Find your favorite chair. Sit down. Close your eyes. Yes, you. Close them. Take a deep breath.  Start to notice the sounds around you. The honking in the street opposite, crows in loud conversation with sparrows, the vroom of a bike on concrete, the doorbell ringing. What stories are they telling you? An ordinary day, just like every day? Almost relaxing, isn’t it?

Now, what if this was the dead of the night, say 2 AM? The same sounds - a sudden honk slicing the silence, a flurry of birds in motion, a screeching bike on concrete, and your doorbell ringing without warning. Can you feel your heart race? Can you feel the fear? Same sounds, different emotions.

Audio fires up the imagination like nothing else does, but it’s not all given. And only only one of our senses is heightened, we must constantly build up images of the story in our mind, taking us deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters. Audio is work. Way more work than watching video passively, but way more satisfying. Audio shows, not tell.

Here are some of the basics of storytelling that remains the same no matter what the medium. A good story is a good story.  

The Conflict

The best stories will have an increasing level of tension, characters going through stressful challenges, giving you almost an unbearable need to have them resolved to feel satisfied. They will have flawed personalities, odds stacked against them, a need to prove something to themselves and others; perfection is boring. Imagine a story where the protagonist knows what to do, when, and how to do it. A likable character with all the answers. Problem solved. Yawn.

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The Plot

The best stories will have a spine, a plot that is cohesive with a beginning, middle, and an end. While the spine can be familiar, the rendition needs to be unexpected. Can it spotlight a changing trend? We all know fairy tales, the brave prince and the dainty princess. Can we switch that? Or make it a tale of two princes in love?

The Narrative

The best stories will grab you from the get-go. The first minute or two needs to reel you in. Especially in audio, it makes sense to dive right into the narrative, in active voice.

Imagine these two scenarios – one story starts with “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl and one day as she walked back from her school like she did every day, she lost her way.” The other starts with a little girl’s voice quivering, “Help, help me, I’m lost!!”  We are very quickly in the middle of the action in the second scenario and that keeps us hooked.

The Overall Production

If you are not invested in the characters from the start, no amount of fancy sound production is going to save the piece. Sound effects are a very integral part of any audio story, no doubt. But while we know that the use of these effects enhances the listening experience, what’s more, important to know is when to stop.

Overproduced pieces very often try to hide that lack of story. If you find yourself getting overawed by the wooshes, the glugs, and the booms moving from one ear to the other, then you are not listening to the story itself. It’s like watching a Bollywood film for the scenic locations and gorgeous outfits and wondering what the plot is. It’s true that sound effects and shots in an audio drama increase the level of mental imagery and helps you visualize the scene, but it needs to be done in a way that’s not distracting from the main story.

The Purpose

Audio stories need signposts. Listening to immersive audio fiction does require some investment of mental energy so it is helpful to add some questions and signposts along the way. If we are in the middle of a mystery, it could be like a little recap of what’s happened so the listeners can reorient themselves quickly. It’s also helpful to keep the number of characters limited unless it’s already a familiar story like a folk tale or an adaptation from a book that people have already read.

Before everything else, of course, is a question, why do we need to tell these stories? Why should this story be told? Who would really care? Would this story change how we see the world? If the answer is yes, then you have a winner!

The piece has been authored by By Indira Rangarajan, National Content Director-Digital, Mirchi.

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