A Template for Creating Noir Stories in Audio Drama

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microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

A friend of mine and I were talking recently about creating Noir stories. This is a summary of my understanding of how those old thrillers and detective tales are constructed.

Noir isn’t necessarily reliant on the 30’s and 40’s setting. One of my favourite modern audio dramas is Harry Strange. It’s basically neo-noir (a noir character with a noir code, fighting evil in the modern world). Harry Dresden, likewise. Likewise, Veronica Mars does a great neo-noir – complete with computer hacking. Blade runner presents us with future-noir. I’m actually pretty sure most of us are pretty familiar with the genre (enough to experiment with it) if we think about it a little.

From my perspective the key to noir is in the characterisation.

Noir characters are isolated loners and the key to understanding them is realising that they are displaced in time. Noir uses the same tropes as certain cowboy stories that involve an out-of-place medieval code of chivalry that lands in the middle of lawless frontier life (see any of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood – as well as Once upon a time in the west).

When the Knights of the old west are dumped in a gritty city (hard boiled, cynical, yet sticking to their code because it’s who they are and it can’t be abandoned because it would be a betrayal of self) that’s what we understand more traditionally as noir (see the Maltese Falcon in particular). When these Knights of the Forties land in the present or future it’s still noir – essentially because of the character having that sense of being displaced in time and place – misunderstood, mistrusted, and alone. The voice-over patter is helpful but not essential and the classic noir metaphors can easily be updated. What matters most is the unyielding core of the character’s self-defined morality and a story that challenges that core at every possible turn.

The character arc of a noir character is far more important than the plot itself and typically adheres to the following pattern.

It begins with the character down-at-heel and waiting for trouble to walk in.

The arrival of said trouble follows along with the presentation of a dilemma.

Dangers and setbacks follow – accompanied (most importantly) by repeated temptations to abandon his/her personal code and not see the situation through to a resolution.

Resisting these temptations exacts a heavy price usually costing him/her any advancement or benefit that may have been on offer. Essentially a high cost to the hero is exacted for choosing to stay true to oneself.

This results in the character coming full circle back to where they began (but stronger for not having betrayed their own conscience) and in the denouement we see them waiting once again for the next round of trouble to walk through the door.

Further thoughts on the essence of noir? Have I missed the point, misinterpreted the genre, or otherwise trampled over what Noir truly is? If you’ve got any thoughts on what makes a noir tale tick, then please, add them here. I’d love to hear them.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “A Template for Creating Noir Stories in Audio Drama

  1. Rather than unstuck in time, what is really signature about the noir character is the gap between their idealism (however tarnished it may be) and expectations, and the sordid reality of the world they’re inhabiting.

    Too often people get caught up in the tropes: the fedora, the gumshoe, etc etc. A few of my favorite neo-noir movies are “Blood Simple”, “L.A. Confidential,” “Fargo” and “Lone Star”, all shot in the 1980s and 1990s. “Blood Simple” and “L.A. Confidential” are very recognizable as noir, inhabited by PIs, cheating lovers, and shaded windows, but what made “Fargo” and “Lone Star” fresh was showing how noir exists in the kind of settings thought antithetical to noir. (Likewise, “Leave Her to Heaven” is a candy-colored noir; the most chilling scene takes place on a picture-perfect lake in the summertime.) The lead in “Fargo” ends the movie still flummoxed; how the hell do people do the kind of evil things she’s just witnessed? And “Lone Star” absolutely tramples over the cliches most people have about Texas, comforting us at the end with a taboo: it’s not just Chinatown, Jake. It’s all around us.

The signature noir character is Phillip Marlowe, and the idea of him trying to be a chivalrous “knight” adhering to his own moral code (cf: “The Long Goodbye”) even while working in a loathsome environment. I think you’ll see that this idea of the person who is trying to be honorable in dishonorable times and places still connects deeply with audiences. Arguably that is why older audio dramas like “Night Beat” and “Gunsmoke” are some of the most popular and critically acclaimed. (If you’ve only seen the TV version of “Gunsmoke,” start listening to the original show. It’s considerably more adult.)

    Traditional noir was seated in the paranoia and cynicism experienced by World War II-era GIs who returned to America, discovering that gender roles had been turned on their head, and that maybe their sacrifice and grit as young men hadn’t really been returned by the people they were fighting for. Noir also came about in a time when PTSD still wasn’t acknowledged as such, and if you watch these films considering the veteran experience, there’s a lot there. (Try “Crossfire”, “The Third Man”). Even an early heist noir like “Five Against the House” had a huge subtext about the veteran experience, in this case, the Korean War. Ditto “Point Blank”; There is a lot to mine there, especially for those who are willing to consider where we are today in the world. Maybe your story won’t be about a veteran, but it’s about someone else who made a huge sacrifice, and now experiences doubt.

    Likewise, “The Blue Gardenia” was an intriguing noir in that it focused on a woman, not a man, and not a man’s view of a woman (which is what makes “Laura” and “Vertigo” so compelling, but also stomach-churning at times). Like “The Blue Gardenia,” the audio drama “Night Beat” also led with a newspaper reporter – not a cop or detective.

    So, TL;DR -

Consider the character who is trying to follow their own moral code, who has idealism for a better world in dire, even disgusting times.

    Consider using a non-cliched environment and lead character to tell your story.

    1. Hi Patience,
      Thanks for dropping me a line. You’ve included so many great thoughts!
      The phrase “Displaced in time and space” seems to have rubbed a few people the wrong way. Perhaps it would have been better if I had simply identified the noir protagonist as an outsider and left it at that – but it didn’t seem to do justice to the notion that the noir protagonist isn’t tied to any specific time or place.
      The protagonist of noir stories has, in my view, a self-defined morality (even more than idealism) that makes them an outsider to what is going on around them. That’s different from suggesting that their moral code comes from a different time (and I can see where I’ve created confusion with the opening comments in my article). The protagonist’s inflexibility with regard to the way they “live by their code” is the notion that, to me, harkens back to the past – albeit an imaginary one that never really existed.
      Though they might share some of the values of their contemporaries, they don’t take on the collective mores of the herd, whether that be the mores of organised religion, or middle class respectability, or even gangster “family” values. This inability to be pigeon-holed makes them outsiders and gives them that feeling of being “displaced in time and space”. Their morality is well defined. It shines a light on the hypocrisy and failure of all that is around them. For all the flaws, the noir protagonist stands in judgment over the milieu in which life is lived.
      I love the comment you made about Chinatown being everywhere. That’s a fantastic insight (and one of my favourite, ever, movies).
      I’m a big fan of “Gunsmoke” too and a long time listener with regards to the audio show, so thanks for the shout out – it’s always great to discover another fan of that great show.
      A great example of the moral isolation of the noir protagonist is the episode “Kitty”, in which Matt wants to take Kitty to a town dance, exposing the hypocrisy of much of the town he serves as sheriff. Matt is, in lots of ways, the archetypal symbol of law and order – a paragon of the white-hat wearing hero – but he’s also a killer, and defies his society’s simplified moral judgments. Ironically, he is, himself, a simple man – who thinks in black and white terms – and that simplicity leaves him baffled by hypocrisy when he encounters it. Of the two of them, Kitty is the social realist.
      Anyway, thanks for your insightful comments and examples. They’re a great help in unpacking the genre.

  2. One of the noir genre archetypes is the person caught like a fly in a web of dark intrigue. D.O.A. being the classic example. A lot of Noir in the late forties and early fifties dealt with this kind of story telling. In the Dark Corner the private eye is not a chivalrous knight. He is a man being punched by outside forces beyond his understanding as he is stuck in a Dark Corner. All the while swilling a combination of Gin and Vodka by the glassful.

    1. Great point! My focus tends to be on serial storytelling where it’s easy to overlook that archetype and the darker tones that noir explores. Thanks for the input.

      1. One of the things I like about some of the 40’s noir is the use of background sound. There are many a noir movie that didn’t have a score, but just background sounds very radio like.I remember D.O.A. had a lot of background sound. Easy to replicate in audio.

        1. A D.O.A style program sounds like it might be a great future project for you folks over at RTP. What do you think?

          1. From the beginning I made a decision to not have a music score. I decided to put all money resources to buying scripts for my programs. Also I thought it would be a more complication then I would want to handle as the only sound designer and editor. So instead of music I use background ambience even if it is just a room tone. I think background ambience really makes the story pop out. Also it helps set place.

          2. I love the work you folks have been doing on the Radio Theatre Project (I’ve been listening for a long time). I’m even more impressed now that I know you’re basically been a one person production team. Kudos.

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