HOW TO ADAPT A STORY TO AUDIO DRAMA – PART 1
Some of us enjoy adapting stories for audio production… but frankly, it’s not an easy task. Today I thought I’d talk about one technique (among the many a writer might try) that I find helpful for adapting a prose piece to audio. Ready, here it is… invent a sounding board character or two.
Now, the purists among us are already screaming in horror at this suggestion. After all, those who love the source material are bound to hate the introduction of new characters to a beloved story (warrior-elf-maiden-love-interest appearing in the Hobbit anyone?). But here’s the thing… Audio is, well, an auditory experience. We have to hear things to know what is going on… and that means we need dialog… between characters. So, judiciously used, this technique can help.
DRAMA IS DIALOG
The BBC did a murder mystery play a few years back where there was no dialog at all – a great experiment, and interesting to listen to, but there’s a reason it didn’t catch on as a mainstay of auditory story-telling. Dialog is the undisputed ruler of audio-drama. It is our main entry into the story. Sound, music, and narration all support this, but dialog is primary for the telling of the story. If your story is all sound, well, that’s an interesting experiment, but it isn’t generally sustainable as a means of dramatic storytelling. All music? That’s a concert. All narration? That’s an audio book. But if your piece is all dialog it would still be an audio drama. It mightn’t be as good as if it included music and sound effects etc., true, but it would still be audio drama. Audio drama depends on dialog, and dialog, by definition is conversation… and conversation requires a conversation partner.
The voice-overs of the noir era are flavorful and fun, but they’re basically a form of narration and get old quickly. It’s just easier (and more interesting for the audience) to have a second PERSON there to talk to. And it doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a corpse or beach ball or a shrunken head or even the audience itself (if you’re comfortable with breaking the fourth wall). Anything to give the character a reason to speak, think out loud, or communicate to the audience.
In film we’re fairly familiar with these devices. Ferris Bueller talking to the camera in the shower is a way to get dialog happening. Rick Deckard providing voice-over in Blade Runner is another (though I personally prefer the version where all that voice-over is cut out). Film isn’t a great example of course. Jeremiah Johnson, is a (masterful) film where there is very little dialog for a very long time, and the visual storytelling allows this to take place, but even here, we need the presence of others to give the story voice (and eventually we get some, admittedly short and simple, dialog).
Interestingly, it was a film that helped me find a solution to the adaptation problem in audio drama. I had been struggling to adapt a short story I had written about a single character. The character was moving through scene after scene, reacting to events, thinking etc. and, while it worked as a prose story… it kind of failed as an audio drama. The self-talk of the character got old quickly and ended up being a form of stream of consciousness narration. That was a solution, but I didn’t like it. Then I watched Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. It’s where we watch a guy stuck on an island alone for four years… without spending a lot of time in voice-over and internal monologue (though these techniques are used as well). But the moment of revelation, for me, came in the invention of Wilson, the blood soaked volleyball. The ball gave Hanks “someone” to talk to… and made the writing of the script a thousand times easier.
I thought about it for a bit and went back to my adaptation, adding a character for my lead to talk to, a companion to comment on his actions, question him, oppose him from time to time, etc. The adaptation worked. Not long ago I adapted a prose story of mine about a detective who finds himself trapped alone inside a coffin. Internal monologue and voice-over weren’t working for me… so I added a corpse inside the coffin with him. Talking aloud to the corpse may not have been a perfect solution, but I’m a lot happier with the result. Short stories in particular are short on characters and therefore harder to adapt. Shifting time around so that characters discuss the action in flashback, or providing new companion characters to talk to as the story progresses can overcome the problem created by, otherwise difficult to dramatize, stories.
I’d like to demonstrate the value of adding characters to scenes in adaptations by reference to a story some friends of mine were discussing on another fb page recently. It was just a passing comment or two on how difficult it is to adapt O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and how much narration was required to support the story. Since it seemed topical, I’ve chosen the first scene (and only the first scene) to work with.
Here’s the prose from the first scene from O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”.
ORIGINAL TEXT – THE GIFT OF THE MAGI (OPENING SCENE)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
AUDIO ADAPTATION – THE GIFT OF THE MAGI (OPENING SCENE)
And here’s my adaptation using an invented character as a sounding board to assist in communicating the scene…
SCENE 1: INT – DELLA’S FLAT – MORNING (DELLA, MAGGIE)
MUSIC: OPENING THEME – LET IT FINISH.
SOUND: (WALLA) TINNY PERIOD RADIO MUSIC IN THE BACKGROUND – ESTABLISH AND UNDER
DELLA: (SIGHING) One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That’s all. And sixty cents of it is in pennies.
MAGGIE: Don’t look so downcast. I’d never have saved so much. You’re such a miser.
DELLA: Don’t say that. Even as a joke. It was hard to save this money. Embarrassingly hard. I had to dicker and fight and bulldoze the vegetable man and the grocer and the butcher week in and week out to save it. They all run for cover when they see me coming now. I just… (STARTS TO SOB).
MAGGIE: Easy, Della. I’m sorry, Ok. I was just teasing. I know how hard you’ve found it. I was here the day you moved in. This old flat of yours came furnished at $8.00 a week and you’ve looked after it as if everything in it were a treasure since the very first day. You’ve paid your way and kept yourself respectable. Nobody judges you for it. In fact, I admire you.
DELLA: (SNIFFING) Thanks Maggie… it’s just…
MAGGIE: I know. Tomorrow’s Christmas and all you’ve got is a dollar eighty-seven.
DELLA: I never really understood how good we had it before. Thirty dollars a week was a long way from rich, but we got by. And Christmas is tomorrow and it has always been such fun. Jim loves it. But now that Jim’s had to take a pay cut, well, twenty dollars a week never seems to go far enough, and expenses are always more than I calculate… I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear all this.
MAGGIE: It’s okay, Della. Here, dry your eyes on this. Look at you, you’re a sight.
DELLA: (LAUGHS A MOMENT) I can imagine. Just a second while I look in the glass.
SOUND: A COUPLE OF STEPS – LET IT FINISH.
DELLA: (LAUGHING MORE) Oh my. I do look a fright.
MAGGIE: Perhaps, but even all puffy from crying you’re still beautiful. You’ve got the most beautiful head of hair I’ve ever seen. Everyone says so. It’s to die for.
DELLA: (HAPPY) It’s true isn’t it. If there are two things we Dillingham’s take pride in, it’s Jim’s watch and my hair.
MAGGIE: Now see. You can still count your blessings. That’s something.
DELLA: (QUIETLY TO SELF) Yes… my hair. I’ve always been so vain about my hair… (SUDENLY LOUD AGAIN, TO MAGGIE) Maggie, I’ve got to go!
MAGGIE: Wait, what? Hang on, I’ll grab my coat and come with you!
SOUND: WOMEN LEAVING FLAT – LET IT FINISH.
MUSIC: SCENE ENDER – LET IT FINISH.
So, that’s enough of that. It was churned out fast so I’ll be the first to admit the above is not great art. As a technique, inventing a new character like Maggie won’t satisfy the purists, and it can be put to very poor use (see the elf-maiden-love-interest in the Hobbit for example), but it can help bypass the need for excessive narration or clunky internal monologues.
Anyway, some other folks in this community have just released a complete adaptation of “The Gift of the Magi” this week; one that uses, you know, real actors and stuff (makes me envious just thinking about it). Right now I’m going to go and give it a listen.
For those who are interested, here’s a link to that BBC play with no dialog that I mentioned above…
If you have other techniques that can be useful for adapting tricky stories, please share them in the comments. I’d be really interested.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.