Believe it or not, podcasts have been around for nearly two decades. And while you're probably more familiar with non-fiction podcasts—like the 2015 true-crime sensation, Serial with over 80 million downloads within their first year—there are hundreds of fiction podcasts that have gained fame and pushed the audio storytelling format to new heights in recent years. In fact, the number one podcast on iTunes in 2015 (the same year Serial launched), was actually a fiction podcast called, Limetown—written and directed by Zack Akers and produced by Skip Bronkie.
So while non-fiction podcasts still outnumber fiction podcasts, fiction podcasts are still a rare "undiscovered country" in the entertainment landscape. And screenwriters are starting to explore this fresh new space—especially as more and more Hollywood decision-makers flock to well-crafted fiction podcasts to hunt for hot new intellectual property.
(Limetown was recently made into a series as was the hit fiction podcast Homecoming, among others.)
The biggest difference between the success of the fiction and non-fiction podcast genres isn't just the subject matter—it's the script. And the exciting thing about these fiction podcasts is that even though they've been around for decades (and were inspired by much older legacy audio formats like radio dramas), there aren't that many established rules that writers need to abide by.
Here's a deep dive into how to write for fiction podcasts, how you should format your fiction podcast script, and a few ways you can enhance your fiction podcast scriptwriting to take advantage of the explosion of interest in fiction podcasts over the next few years.
How do you format and write a fiction podcast script?
Back before the internet, screenwriters had to get their hands on hard copies of produced screenplays to learn the craft of screenwriting. These days, if a budding screenwriter wants to learn from the best, they can Google a movie title—along with the keywords "script PDF"—and they have the script right there on their screen.
But if a budding fiction podcast writer wants to find a fiction podcast script, they're not going to find much in the way of a podcast script. So let's explore what can be found about this new medium and break down three simple formats that writers can follow. But before we do that, what the heck is a fiction podcast, anyway?
Fiction podcasts are rooted in radio dramas
On October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles captivated the country with a radio drama adaptation of H.G. Well's novel The War of the Worlds, which tells the story of a Martian invasion of Earth. The radio script was written by Howard Koch, who would go on to win an Oscar for co-writing Casablanca. Koch changed the primary setting of the novel from 19th-century England to the contemporary United States, with the invasion beginning over the rural Grover's Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.
But this was no simple radio drama. The format was a simulated live newscast of what were perceived as developing events.
"I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening," Welles later said, "and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play."
The famous fictional broadcast was so effective it brought a very real panic to thousands of Americans.
Radio fiction was all the rage until televisions replaced radios in households after World War II and into the 1950s. In the 1960s, color television took hold, and the classic radio drama became a thing of the past. Instead of listening to dialogue, sound effects, and music, households could now see the action, drama, and hijinks unfold in front of their eyes. Visual storytelling dominated media for the next fifty years.
Fast forward to today. Thanks to the popularity of non-fiction and fiction podcasts, writers are experiencing an exciting shift back to the glory days of well-crafted audio storytelling. But what's even more exciting is that podcasts have one distinct (and important) advantage over popular radio fiction from the past. People today can download and listen to podcast episodes whenever they want.
The rebirth of audio fiction podcasts
The early days of podcasts between the years of 2008 to 2014, gave us popular downloads like We're Alive, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Our Fair City, and Sayer. Exciting audio adventures that thrilled listeners with zombie apocalypses, old-time radio serials, and sweeping science-fiction landscapes.
Welcome to Night Vale rose to international success in 2014 and 2015, about the same time as Serial swept the airwaves. The fiction podcast told the story of the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local "weather" (which is actually a different musical number each episode), local news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events. It's delightful fictional storytelling.
With the success of these early fictional podcasts, the floodgates opened. Storytelling podcasts like the aforementioned Limetown, as well as The Black Tapes, TANIS, and The Message, and a slew of small indie podcasts popped up everywhere, trying to emulate those early successes.
Soon major podcast networks began to see the advertising dollars start to flow. This launched rabid investment in serialized fiction podcasts on a much larger scale and budget which brought major Hollywood talent into the podcast genre. A new (and successful) storytelling medium had been born.
But despite these early gains, podcasts—particularly fiction podcasts—are still in the early stages. No one really knows exactly what a fiction podcast can accomplish. According to 2019 estimates, just around 5% of the top 100 podcasts on iTunes are scripted fiction. But those that are unique and enthralling can gain huge cult followings. And that's what attracts the big players in Hollywood.
Why Hollywood loves podcasts
Movie studios, agents, TV networks, development executives, producers, and streamers all love one thing—intellectual property. The philosophy is that with intellectual property comes instant already-engrained buzz from the IP's original fanbase. In the eyes of Hollywood, it's less risky compared to original spec scripts and pilots. And while that philosophy doesn't always pan out, Hollywood isn't going to stop prioritizing IP any time soon.
If it's IP, it jumps to the top of the consideration list.
So it was obvious that Hollywood would come calling when fiction podcast buzz began to grow.
- Amazon Prime picked up Homecoming
- Syfy snagged fiction podcast hits TANIS, The Bright Sessions, and Alice Isn't Dead
- FX and Sony Pictures Television picked up Welcome to Night Vale
- NBC nabbed The Black Tapes
- Facebook acquired the rights to Limetown
And that's just a few quick examples of Hollywood aggressively looking to this new medium for acquisitions. If a writer can stand out in the indie fiction podcast space with great writing, they're much more likely to entice industry interest. What's even more exciting is that nobody really knows where this will all go.
Once a single feature or television adaptation of a fiction podcast becomes a massive hit, Hollywood will want to explore even more. And sometimes they won't be willing to pay the big dollars for major podcast network properties. So who will they turn to? Those indie hits made by undiscovered talent.
Can you sell a fiction podcast script?
The majority of non-network fiction podcasts are either self-financed by the writers (and any directing and producing collaborators), or they raise their budgets through crowdfunding ventures. So while it's possible to make money selling fiction podcast scripts, only a few major podcast networks have the money. And they're usually only willing to spend it on big names.
Can you sell your fiction podcast on spec, as screenwriters can with screenplays? The jury is still out on that one, as far as it being an industry norm. It happens, to be sure, but the details are sparse.
Companies like Audible accept podcast script pitches. This usually means a one to two paragraph pitch. If they like what they see, they'll request a full pitch with four to six pages containing a description of the world of the show, character breakdowns, story beats, and full story arcs of the series.
The good news is that they don't require submissions to come through agencies like movie studios and major production companies. That's a win for screenwriters used to the Catch 22 Hollywood situation of needing representation, but not being able to get representation because no Hollywood studio or company is interested in your work. But it's not a huge market. Yet.
How do fiction podcasts make money?
Podcasts make money by selling merchandise, but the majority of podcast revenue comes from advertising. Creators can charge various advertising rates based on their total number of downloads (listens). According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Pricewaterhousecoopers, revenue from podcasts could reach $1 billion by 2021. Fiction podcasts hold a smaller share of that revenue compared to non-fiction, but that's still a lot of money.
However, since fiction podcasts are such a new medium, there's no reliable way to gauge what a writer can make because it depends on so many elements that are out of the writer's control.
Limetown co-creator Zack Ackers told WGA East, "[Advertisers] buy ads in the show, and you can… the front-end ads and the mid-roll ads and some back-end, but it's mostly the front-end ads and the mid-roll ads that monetize the show. And you can get sponsors for a whole season, or you could do individual advertisers per episode if you're lucky enough. So that was how that worked..."
The first season was produced out of their own pocket, so they didn't really make any money until they signed the deal for the TV show and publishing rights. The point is, while you can make money from a fiction podcast, you should focus less on the money with fiction podcast scripts and more on crafting a fantastic concept and story to draw the attention of listeners—and Hollywood.
What are the most popular fiction podcast genres?
According to a 2018 podcast study, Science fiction is the most popular genre for fiction podcasts. A whopping 44% of the podcasts surveyed by the study were science fiction themed, followed closely by Fantasy (23%). The horror genre seems to have slowed down since 2016 but still sits in the third spot for genre podcast popularity. Since it has been dormant for a while, listeners may be searching for the next great horror podcast.
Podcast popularity by genre:
- Science fiction
- Mystery (true-crime)
While these represent current trends in fiction podcast popularity, you don't always want to chase a hot trend. Welcome to Night Vale and other success stories were all trailblazers in their genre. So while the top genres above may be desirable now, that doesn't mean they will be once you finish your fiction podcast script. As is the case with all scriptwriting, pay attention to what audiences want, but never be afraid to write your story—no matter which genre it falls under.
It's that balance of giving the masses what they want, and what they didn't know they wanted.
The difference between screenplays and fiction podcast scripts
Before we delve into the various idiosyncrasies of the fiction podcast script format, it's vital to understand the difference between writing a feature-length or television pilot screenplay and writing a fiction podcast script. Luckily, that's easy:
- Film and television are visual mediums
- Fiction podcasts are an audio medium
Feature and television scripts have scene descriptions detailing what should be seen, fiction podcast scripts only tell us what is heard. It may seem kind of obvious, but that's really the biggest difference between writing a script for TV or film and one for podcasts.
Audio is everything in a fiction podcast script. Fiction podcasts scripts have no use for visuals. That means podcast writers can't just leave it up to podcast producers, podcast network executives, directors, voice actors, and sound designers to determine what the sound design will be based on visual descriptions you would normally write in screenplays. If you want to write a great fiction podcast script, you need to have an ear for your story—not a vision.
So forget about scene description. You don't need it. For some, that's a breath of fresh air. For others, it is intimidating because that means everything is going to primarily rely on the one screenwriting element that so many screenwriters are scared of most—dialogue.
Dialogue is everything in a fiction podcast
Let's be real. It would be silly to have a fiction podcast rely on sound effects throughout the majority of the story. Yes, in film and television, you can showcase a story that has little to no dialogue, relying on the visuals and physical actions and reactions of the characters to tell the story.
But in a podcast, the spoken word is everything. Dialogue is king. So you need to take your dialogue skills to another level. Gone are the notions of less is more and say more with less. That's for screenwriting. You're a podcast writer now. Say what you need to say.
Read ScreenCraft's The Single Secret of Writing Great Dialogue!
And consider this upcoming writing competition:
In an audio medium like fiction podcasts, the dialogue tells the story. This can be done either through narration or through vocal character interactions. Thus, it's a tricky transition. You can't simply take your screenplay, cut it into parts, and create an effective fiction podcast. That won't work.
You need to turn your storytelling view goggles off and put some storytelling headphones on to amp up the concept of sound. That's how you need to "see" your story. Through the ears of future listeners. Sound effects and foley can (and should) be part of the equation. But dialogue is how you tell an effective audio story.
- Are you drawn Welles's The War of the Worlds radio broadcast-style with breaking news and frantic dialogue?
- Do you match that with phone calls like the fiction podcast Limetown?
- Can you weave narration between different audio elements also like Limetown?
The best way to write your fiction podcast story is not through your mind's eye like you would a feature or pilot. It's with your mind's ear.
TV shows and fiction podcast shows
Before we dive into the format of these unique scripts, let's put something into perspective for you. A fiction podcast series is much like a television series. Each has multiple seasons (hopefully) consisting of multiple episodes. With each episode, you need to showcase a window into that season's narrative, telling a complete mini-arc that progresses into the next episode, and the next, building towards the season climax.
There are exceptions, of course—hopefully fiction podcasts can create even more out of the box examples. Audio drama is really the Wild West of the entertainment world right now. But as of right now, fiction podcast shows have more in common with TV shows as far as having episodes and seasons.
Three fiction podcast script formats
Okay. You're a storyteller. You've developed a compelling concept that can be told effectively through the speakers and headphones of listeners. You've built your characters up, complete with character arcs—both inner and outer.
Your story arcs are set, and your audio narrative is ready to go. So how the heck do you write a fiction podcast script?
The good news is that since fiction podcasts are such a new medium, there's a lot more leeway with the format than television or feature scripts. All that you need to do is convey your audial story vision through an easy-to-read, distinct format that communicates two things:
- What we hear in the background
- The spoken words we hear from characters
To showcase how simple this can be, we've compiled three fiction podcast sample scripts and transcripts below. Each format has its own idiosyncrasies and objectives, so choose one that fits your style and goals.
We will use the first three minutes of the hit fiction podcast thriller Limetown: Episode I. You'll also be able to listen to the first episode of the series as well.
Fiction podcast script format: Transcription
This format is primarily taken from a transcription of Limetown: Episode 1. It represents the transcription format, with the vaguest of detail when it comes to character names and their eventual abbreviations. Narration isn't given a character name like it would in a script. Instead, it's shared in bold.
Character names are on the left-hand margin in CAPS, followed by dialogue. And sound effects are shared in various forms. Different "scenes" are noted as simply 911 Call, News Report, and such.
Fiction podcast script format: Narrator focus
The second version of the format is similar to the first, but with more clarity in the format. We're able to differentiate dialogue from sound effects more quickly. We have a better visual of when a "scene" shifts to another format or location. And character names are never abbreviated.
The significant changes in this podcast script format are:
- The narration is given its own character heading—NARRATOR.
- All sound effects are in the left-hand margin in bold, with exception to a sound effect meant to affect the dialogue of the character directly.
Again, this provides more clarity. This version is perhaps the closest to what a majority of fiction podcast scripts are and have been, with obvious variances.
Screenplay-style fiction podcast script
This final format style is currently used by some fiction podcast writers but isn't as prevalent—for now. With Hollywood getting into the mix, you need to remember that they are creatures of habit. The screenplay format has been roughly the same — with variances throughout the years — for over half a century. Why would they want to change it now?
Yes, fiction podcasts are a different medium released on an entirely different platform. However, all of these mediums always influence the other when they come together. We've seen that happen with television and film. And we're starting to see it happen with web series and now fiction podcasts.
You'll see that this style resembles a screenplay. But instead of scene description, you'll see all audio cues in bold. The added element of scene headings in CAPS and bold is accentuated with script scene numbers for added clarity. In our opinion, this is the possible fiction podcast script format of the future. Some podcast writers are using it already, but we may see this become the norm.
It offers the most clarity and is so much easier to read and decipher. Yes, it adds to the page count, but the added clarity is worth it.
Listen to the Limetown: Episode 1 below. Compare and contrast what you read in these examples with what you hear in the first three minutes of the episode. Click below for the PDF files of each version that you can use reference as you create your own fiction podcast scripts.
And remember, fiction podcasts are a new medium. The format is evolving as we speak. So feel free to use these examples as templates to work from or make your own! If you find a better way to format them, go for it. The most important thing to remember is that the point of the format is to communicate the audio elements as quickly and clearly as possible.
Version #3 is perhaps the best way to accomplish that.
Now go write the thing!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter's Creed starring Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O'Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies