John Scalzi: Writing For Audio Made Me A Better Writer, Period

Cut dialogue tags and consider the narrator — tips from the Hugo Award-winning author of Audible Studios' "The Dispatcher."

When Audible came to me looking for an original audio-first novella, they showed up at just the right time. I had an idea for a story I’d been rolling around in my head for a while, and it was just about to drop: something about a world in which people who were murdered came back immediately (and were pretty annoyed at what had happened to them). I pitched the story that would become The Dispatcher, they said yes, and off I went to write.

So far, so good. Except that I usually write stories for print first, and this one was going straight to audio.

Does that make a difference?

Well, the basic storytelling is the same. You have a protagonist (in this case a fellow named Anthony Valdez) with an interesting job (he’s a “dispatcher,” whose job description is “licensed therapeutic murderer”), who finds himself in the middle of a plot crisis (a friend of his has disappeared and he must help find him), and there’s a ticking clock (if the missing friend’s not found soon, things are going to get grim). Set up the pins, knock them down, add a few twists and turns, everyone’s happy.

This classic storytelling mode works whether the medium is print, audio, or screen. It’s nice and hardy. Reliable, even.

But there are things unique to the audio medium that you have to pay attention to while writing. Like the fact that everyone’s first experience with the story will be through their ears. Which means you need to write the story to be spoken. Which means you have to try to put yourself in the shoes of a narrator: Is what I’m writing going to be something they are actually going to be able to read effectively?

If the narrator is having fun, there’s a good chance the listener is going to have fun, too.

Now, a moment of appreciation here for audiobook narrators. These people are pros. No matter what you throw at them, they have a very high chance of making it work. They’re actors; they’re used to having words put into their mouths and then speaking them out to thrilling effect. They can take a jumble of exposition and give it drama, which is a hell of a thing. In my career, I’ve been blessed with excellent narrators — William Dufris, Tavia Gilbert, Wil Wheaton, and, for The Dispatcher, the awesome Zachary Quinto — and I know at times they’ve made my prose sound better than it might otherwise.

Even so, I try not to make their lives any harder than they have to be. So I write with speaking in mind — naturalistic dialogue. Exposition that is conversational. A rise and fall in story and scene so they can vary their delivery, so readers won’t get bored. And, here and there, a bravura scene that they can really have fun acting. If the narrator is having fun, there’s a good chance the listener is going to have fun, too. And it’s good for the story, anyway. So: Make the narrator’s job easier, and make them happy.

Another audio-first consideration: getting rid of writerly things that have the potential to throw the listener out of the story and the flow of narration. Like dialogue tags. In print, having “he said” and “she said” at the end of dialogue makes good sense — it helps direct traffic and pacing. They can get repetitive, but most readers eventually gloss over them — they know they’re there but their brain starts processing them more like punctuation than words. They see them, but they don’t sound them out in their heads.

But in audio, every “he said” and “she said” is spoken out loud by the narrator. I was never more aware of how much I used dialogue tags than I was while listening to one of my audiobooks. It became so obvious to me, in fact, that after I started regularly selling my books to audio, I started reducing them even in work that was going into print first. And for The Dispatcher, I tried to keep them to an absolute minimum.

The Dispatcher

The Dispatcher

By John Scalzi

The Dispatcher

By John Scalzi

This had the effect, I think, of making my writing better overall. Dialogue tags are useful, but they can also be a crutch. I had to find other ways of making it clear who was talking — and a lot of that came down to making sure the voice of each character was well defined even before a narrator gave them separate voices. Writing for audio improved my writing, period.

Writing for audio has specific challenges, but it put new tools in my writing toolbox and sharpened other tools that were already there.

Which I think is an important point. Writing for audio has specific challenges, but it put new tools in my writing toolbox and sharpened other tools that were already there. That’s no small thing. I’m always trying to get better at my job, and I like it when a story I’m writing stretches my abilities or causes me to think in a new and different way. It beats grinding out the same old, same old every time.

The Dispatcher’s structure, while written for audio first, works equally well on the page. I think in the future I would like to play more with the possibilities that audio provides me, maybe write something that is truly meant to be audio-only. That’s something that excites me. I like having a new medium to play in as a writer; I want to find out all that it can do and everything I can do in it. What shape that would take, whether it would be a single narrator or a full-cast endeavor, whether it would be original or an adaptation of something that exists — even whether it would be a single recording or something along the line of a series — these are all possibilities.

I really like the idea that there is more to explore in audio and more challenges for me in it. I hope listeners do, too. We’re in this medium together. 

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