We’re living in extraordinary times, from the pandemic to the incredible revolution sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a reminder to all storytellers that we need to support the kinds of stories that reflect the reality we live in: that cop shows have glorified cops for far too long, that we haven’t been questioning underlying structures of our world in the way that we need to in order to create dangerously and be good allies.
I have a lot on my mind, but am still reading and learning and will return here at a later point in order to productively contribute to the allyship conversation when it comes to the role us writers need to play.
Stories retain power, even as it feels as if the world is falling apart. But now, the way we create and share stories needs to be different.
Enter: the scripted podcast.
What Are Fiction/Narrative/Scripted Podcasts?
You’ve probably heard them before: Homecoming, Limetown, Welcome to Nightvale, Carrier, etc. — there’s a ton of amazing scripted podcasts out in the world, and chances are you’ve listened to one of them.
What separates a scripted podcast from, say, a true crime podcast or unscripted podcast, is that the scripted podcast seeks to immerse you completely in a world and story.
Generally, scripted podcasts are more bite-sized than audiobooks, and feature clever uses of sound effects and perspective. The performance is the point, unlike audiobooks where the focus is on the words being read to you. (Usually, without any character shifts.)
Scripted podcasts are often reminiscent of early radio dramas like War of the Worlds, where your perspective comes through a radio host or journalist’s tape recorder — or something else that makes sense in terms of the structure and form of the show.
How to Write a Scripted Podcast
I recently wrote and produced my scripted podcast The Last Station, about a radio host broadcasting after the end of the world. She thinks she may be the only human left after apocalypse, but one day — someone calls in to the radio station. She’s not alone, and the caller himself presents a new set of mysteries. It’s a sci-fi/mystery series about finding hope at the end of the world.
What’s also cool is that the podcast will operate in part like an actual radio station, with music from real Los Angeles bands I love and have met through my company Kingdom of Pavement.
Regardless of what form you’ve written in the past (novels, TV, features, limericks, etc.) anyone can write a scripted podcast.
Are you looking to write your own scripted podcast? Here’s how to do it:
Step One: Find a Concept That Fits the Scripted Podcast Form
The reason why the podcast form is so cool is because there are no rules. You can create episodes however long makes sense, you can throw in musical breaks, you can have your main character talk to a radio audience or tape recorder or have a narrator — it’s completely up to you!
However, I’d encourage you to pick some sort of perspective or device to justify the audio format and podcast format. Whatever story you pick should feel natural to this medium, and should be audio-driven.
I’ve listened to scripted podcasts that were nice stories, but they played like audiobooks/didn’t really have a device or perspective. It was like I was listening to the sound of a TV show with the visuals turned off, and the audio format wasn’t really used in an interesting way.
The way you use your form is part of your art. So how can you innovate and tell your story through a unique perspective?
Step Two: Pick a Compelling Main Character for Your Podcast
Scripted podcasts are intimate. Someone’s in your ear telling you their hopes, dreams, fears — it’s a powerful way to tell a story if your main character is compelling enough.
That’s the key: the reason why Welcome to Nightvale is so incredible is because it was like listening to a one-man show, and Cecil’s performance is captivating. It’s mesmerizing to listen to, and he’s able to deliver nuance and contrast in a way that’s funny, heartfelt, and beautiful. I’d even argue that when they start bringing in other voices later in the show’s evolution it becomes slightly less powerful: the intimacy is dampened a little. You lose out on this one stranger talking in your ear and addressing you directly. When there’s more actors, you then become a passive observer in a conversation, rather than a confidante for a single character.
So, I would encourage you to see if you can root the story in a main character, or a narrator that talks to the audience like a confidante. Maintaining that intimacy will help you tell a moving story.
That’s not to say that you can’t write a scripted podcast with an ensemble cast. You definitely can! But if you can find ways to keep that intimacy — such as the fly-on-the-wall dynamic of Homecoming with the recordings of sessions feeling particularly “forbidden” to listen to — will help you make it feel like you’re eavesdropping on something you wouldn’t have been able to hear otherwise.
Also, your main character or narrator is going to be an anchor for the show, so make sure they’re complex and interesting. Maybe they are an unreliable narrator? Maybe they’re not telling you everything? Maybe they’re slowly unraveling?
For The Last Station, we have to dual narrators, Marina the radio host and Holden the shortwave operator. They both have different perspectives (Marina is trapped in her radio station and Holden is a cowboy traversing the post-apocalyptic Arizona desert) so they can learn about each other’s worlds without it feeling too exposition-y. They also both have goals and secrets, which will play out during the season.
But what I really tried to do in the pilot is make you feel for Marina in her isolation. Her loneliness and lost love is something I feel like we can all relate to in quarantine. The amazing actress who plays Marina, Portia Juliette, delivers an incredible monologue about why she thinks this radio is important to you, listeners. How she wants the music to challenge and change you and scoop out your soul and make you examine everything you’re too scared of. How you need this — and so does she.
Marina is my vehicle for telling a story about loneliness and isolation, but she’s also speaking for what I think is the greater community of artists and writers trying to create and put out work during this time.
I can only speak for myself, but I hope that The Last Station Podcast and the other stories I’m telling will comfort you and challenge you — and also introduce you to some great music — during this chaotic year.
Step Three: Build an Interesting World for Your Scripted Podcast
In creating The Last Station, I tried to build a near-future post-apocalyptic world that would very slowly start to unravel as you continued to listen to the series.
The emphasis, as with everything I write, is on characters, first. But, in the pilot the characters say things about how the stars change places every night and how there are wandering bands of Marauders who are burning things to the ground.
Whatever your world, you’ll need to build it through clever ways in dialog and in sound. How can you do that? How can you imbue a sense of place and time without a character just saying what they’re seeing?
Step Four: Nail Down Your Podcast’s Structure
When writing a scripted podcast, think about what the attention span of your viewers are going to be.
For our podcast, we’ve got two dual characters, Marina and Holden, who broadcast separately. Marina on her radio station, and Holden from his shortwave radio. Each episode weaves in both of their broadcasts to tell the story from both of their perspectives.
The thing that’s cool about scripted podcasts is that perspective is a fun part of your toolbox that you can really play with. That perspective can also inform the structure of your episodes and your season.
Step Five: Write Your Scripted Podcast Episodes with an Ear Toward Audio Storytelling
With every episode of The Last Station, we try and find new way sot tell the story through sound. My team of writers and I are challenging ourselves to think outside the box, the same way we do when we write scripts in the visual medium.
When you’re writing scripts for a scripted podcast, you can do it in whatever form makes sense for you and your actors. Personally, I just use standard script format and the action lines are the sound effects instead of what’s on-screen.
Step Six: Continue Writing and Collecting Interesting Sounds
As you continue to write your scripted podcast, continue to collect sounds that inspire you as well! I’ve listened to music, ASMR, weird sound libraries, and more to hunt down tracks that inspire me.
At the end of the day, writing a scripted podcast is just like any other form of storytelling: you just need to follow your characters and write about what’s interesting to you.