Limetown. Homecoming. Alice isn’t Dead. Welcome to Night Vale. 2 Dope Queens. What do all these titles have in common? Each one started as a fiction podcast and either became or is currently being developed as TV show.
Fiction podcasts are an exciting new narrative form that's not only rising in popularity, but also providing Hollywood with fresh adaptable content for television, particularly as Hollywood is shut down due to the coronavirus. Hollywood wants to develop good podcasts into tv and movies. You just have to know how to write a great podcast script.
The best part writing a podcast is that you can get started right now, especially if you already have a screenplay to adapt. Here are eight simple tips to help you adapt your film or tv screenplay into a fiction script podcast.
1. Write with your ears, not your eyes
Films are a visual medium. And as screenwriters we all know it’s the imagery on screen that tells the story. A lover’s look, an empty frozen wilderness, or a burned-out dystopian land—these images set the scene and mood for a story. But podcasts aren't like that.
A podcast, like radio or even a novel, needs to be told exclusively through sound. That requires a big shift in thinking, but it's not difficult to do.
Dialogue, obviously, is a big part of what the listener will hear, but it’s just one element. Imagine your listener is wearing a blindfold. You need to take them by the proverbial hand and guide them through the sounds of your world.
Let's say you've written a film screenplay about a pirate, like Blackbeard. To adapt this screenplay to a podcast you just have to exchange the visual imagery for audio cues. Instead of a fancy pirate with a peg leg and gold earring, the listener hears the uneven stamp and scuffle of his pegleg clomping across the creaky wooden planks of his ship. The stormy ocean hisses and thunders. Ropes are pulled tight in the wind and sails unfurl with a crisp snap. Gold coins tinkle from a treasure chest and a cannonball splinters a ship to floating debris. Maybe his parrot squawks. You can even use some old timey pirate-style dialogue.
The point is, an 18th century pirate ship is a rich sonic landscape for your fictional podcast script. Use it.
2. Format your fiction podcast script like a screenplay
To be clear, there are no industry standards for how to format a fiction podcast script. Some writers even create them in Google Docs. But if you are adapting your screenplay that has already been formatted in software like Final Draft, keeping that familiar format provides one big advantage: Your screenplay is formatted so that each page equals one minute of screen time – or in this case, air time.
A 20-page script will give you roughly a 20-minute podcast
Just make sure you go through the script and remove all your “action” and add sound effects.
3. Should your podcast have a narrator?
You can absolutely write for a narrator in your podcast script. In fact, an omniscient voice describing the location and even the action is a great way to adapt your screenplay to the podcast format. Welcome to Night Vale is especially great at this. In each episode, local radio DJ, Cecil Baldwin, literally reads the community bulletin and news updates for his small desert town. And it's effortless scripted storytelling.
Again, there are no rules (yet), but there are also clever workarounds and cheats you should consider. Some fiction podcast characters keep audio journals to explain in detail everything that is happening. We're Alive, a popular first-person account of a zombie outbreak (they recently hit 200 million downloads), relies on a running account from our survivor narrator.
On the other hand, many fiction podcasts don’t have a narrator at all. Music, sounds, and dialogue are edited to make the setting and action clear. You will still need some expositional dialogue at certain points in the story when sound alone won’t do the trick. The best fiction podcasts make this narrator-free type of storytelling feel effortless, like the audio is flowing over you.
Coming from a screenwriting background this writing style might be a challenge at first. But listen to more fiction podcasts. You’ll get the hang of it and soon, you might not even miss the narration at all. The bottom line is that you are the master of your universe and get to choose how you tell your story.
4. Keep podcast scenes to three or four characters
Too many voices can be confusing for podcast listeners, especially if your actors are not diverse in age or gender. The fewer the characters, the easier the scene is to follow. When adapting your screenplay to a podcast script, give each character a distinct style of speaking and when casting voice actors, make sure they have different vocal qualities. Accents can help with this, so can slang, when appropriate.
5. Structure podcast episodes like a TV season
If you think about a season of television, there is one major arc for the season, with smaller arcs in each episode. This is a great strategy for writing or adapting a screenplay to a fiction podcast. You can even be obvious about it.
Feel free to call your first episode the "pilot" and the last episode the "season finale." Audiences will appreciate the clarity. Plus, fiction podcasts are generally 10 to 30 minutes long, so it usually works really well. They key to using this episodic TV structure is to keep the listener’s attention through conflict.
What does each character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way of them getting it? There should be loads of conflict in every single episode. Just like in a screenplay, torture your protagonists and give your story a strong antagonist.
6. How to write a podcast hook
As you divide up your screenplay into smaller, digestible blocks full of conflict, don’t tie up the end of each episode with a neat bow. It’s imperative to add a hook. A hook is a type of cliffhanger that will leave a conflict unresolved–at least until the next episode.
- Has a character decided to call off their wedding?
- Did a sexy, mysterious stranger entered the bar where your protagonist has been a bartender for 20 years?
- Have the magic beans for which you traded your cow begun to grow?
The hook is what drives your listeners to click on the next episode to get the answers, or at the very least, linger in the listener’s mind until they have time to enjoy the next installment. Writing a compelling hook is an essential skill for all storytelling, but it's especially important if you want to write—and sell!—a podcast script.
7. How to use special effects (SFX) in a podcast script
Use the special effects abbreviation, SFX, in your fiction podcast script before describing the sounds. It's up to you if you want to indicate where the musical interludes happen.
If you have iMovie or GarageBand, you can access lots of free sound effects and music. If not, there are many websites where you can download both free and paid mp3 sound effects and music. Just remember less is more. The SFX are there only to help tell the story. It’s important that the SFX don’t steal the focus or become jarring.
8. Create a signature sound
Every fiction podcast has a signature sound or unique soundscape that helps tell the story. Some have a darker in tone with musical accents that utilize the sharp keys of a piano to create tension. Others embody lively atmospheres that sound youthful and cheerful. Don’t worry if you don’t yet know what your signature sound is—you'll find it as you develop and shape your podcast.
If you need help defining your audio theme, ask yourself:
- If my story/podcast was a genre of music, would it be punk rock or country?
- What sounds would quickly identify my podcast's genre to the audience?
Think about the mood and tone of your story and remember, your listeners will likely expect to have a similar sonic experience each time they listen to your fiction podcast.
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