Mary’s tricks for writing fiction for audio

During recent conversations, I’ve become aware of three things.

  1. When I say that I think about writing for audio, people imagine radioplays.
  2. The way I think about writing has been influenced by also being an audiobook narrator.
  3. Some of the writing for audio stuff would actually be useful for other writers.

So… here we have a giant expository post about audio and fiction.

One of the things that being an audiobook narrator has done for me is make me really remember that writing developed to convey the spoken word. I talk about this when I’m teaching how to read aloud, but also when I’m teaching writing. Punctuation, for instance, often represents breath and delineates the natural pauses in speech. You become painfully aware of this when you hit a sentence that you just cannot parse because it’s missing a comma.

You remember this joke, right?

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Let’s eat, Grandma!

Punctuation saves lives.

When you say those aloud, you read them differently and the punctuation records that difference. There’s that old saw that action scenes should have short choppy sentences.  I think that’s because the periods represent breaths coming faster, the way it actually would in an action scene. Conversely, stripping the punctuation will lead to something that sounds breathless. So, now I use punctuation and sentence structure deliberately, even in narration, to give a subtle clue about the tone of a scene.

Most of the the audio tricks are not structural, but are in the small details that will make it easier for the narrator, and more importantly, easier for my listening audience to follow.  Some of these tricks are things that might be useful for other writers, or — to be more accurate — these are things I wish other writers would think about before I have to narrate their lovely book.

So… here’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing a story that I know is destined for audio. And to be honest? Most fiction these days stands a good chance of having an audio production so I think about it most of the time. And just the standard caveat — these are guidelines. I’ll break any of them if that’s what serves the story, but I also weigh the cost of doing so.

Mary’s Tricks for Writing fiction for audio

I tend to signpost the start of  a new scene a little more. In print, we can use design elements to indicate that a new scene is beginning. You know the standard # as a scene break, or the double linebreak? Those are all visual ways of distinguishing that there’s been a break and we’re in a new scene. In audiobooks, you have to do that entirely with the words and your interpretation of them. Why not use music as my design element? Because that slows the momentum of the story. The biggest benefit of thinking about this is that, even in print, it makes it easier for a reader to orient themselves when we start a new scene.

I try to keep my cast of characters in a given scene small and of disparate type.  It’s hard on a listener to distinguish between a lot of different voices, even if the narrator is Mel Blanc. Just listen to Writing Excuses, even with four different people, the guys sometimes bled together. When I’m teaching people how to give an effective reading, I tell them to look at their selection and make sure it’s something suitable for being read aloud. Not all fiction works well in audio. The side effect of this for print is that I’m more likely to write a diverse cast, instead of having ten white men of the same age in a room — and seriously, I had to narrate that once. It gives me more distinct characters.

I lean towards first person.  When I write for Audible, where my primary audience is going to be listening, I step away from third person, which is my usual go-to POV. This is mostly a personal preference, but I feel like if you have someone talking to you, that person will be who you relate to. I might as well take advantage of that and go first person to create the illusion of a more personal connection. There’s nothing wrong with audiobooks in third person, but I suspect the rise of audiobooks are one  of the reasons that the first person narratives is coming so strongly back into fashion.

I try to be very, very conscious of the presentation of information. The listener can’t back up to re-read. They also can’t skim in audio. So I need to be really sure that the information is coming in the order necessary to understand the story. Again, in print, this gives me a cleaner narrative.

I avoid parentheticals. Seriously… those look good on the page, but when you are trying (this is really just a problem with audio, although even on the page it can create confusion sometimes) to connect the end of a sentence to a beginning that the reader has forgotten (they always forget) it can get complicated to make understandable and (go ahead and try to read this aloud (also ask me in a bar about the two-page nested parenthetical I had to read)) you’ll see what I mean.

I skip any dialog tag I can.  Truly, I do this for things intended for print too, and that’s just a stylistic choice. I only include if I feel like there might be some ambiguity about who is speaking. On the page, I can rely on paragraph breaks to help delineate who is speaking. You don’t get that visual cue in audio, but most narrators do at least some vocal distinctions between characters, which serves the same function.   Where it differs is that in print you skim the “he said” “she said” but in audio you hear every single redundant one of them.

I avoid homophones. Take the word “moue” for example. It’s a lovely word on the page and describes a flirtatious pout. But there is no way to read, “She gave a small moue in reply” as anything other than, “She gave a small moo in reply.” Believe me. I’ve tried.

My favorite example of homophone fail is a friends’s story about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, in which they brought along their dog Seaman. He read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience.  The story had the line, “Then, Seaman erupted from the bush.” I leave you to imagine the consequences of that…

But besides keeping in mind things that audio fiction does well and things that it does poorly, it works pretty much the same as print fiction.

Radio plays on the other hand are completely, totally, wildly different creatures. I’ve written a couple when I was working with Willamette Radio Workshop and besides the formatting, the way language is used is totally different.  Since you are probably mostly interested in writing fiction, I’m going to demonstrate the difference — Show, don’t tell — rather than attempting to teach you to write for radio.

Way back before Shades of Milk and Honey was a novel, it was a radio play.  I was working on a serial before realizing that a radio play about a visually based magic was not the best plan. When we sold the novel Shades of Milk and Honey,  while included the audiobook rights but I asked my agent to make certain that we held onto all the dramatic rights because I had the idea that someday I’d still like to do the radio version. However… visual magic.

Still, it’s useful in this context because you can do a direct comparison between the two forms. This is the first scene, which you can compare to the first chapter. Much of the dialog is the same, but you can see where I am using language to represent action, even though it’s fairly clunky. If I had gotten out of draft form, I would have been able to replace some of that with sound effects.

The biggest difference is that the novel uses language as the primary method of telling the story and setting the scene. A radio play, even though language is a key element, shares the burden of storytelling with music and sound effects.


A serial radio drama.

Mary Robinette Kowal

(scene 1 – the Wentworth parlor)

  1. SFX: Harpsichord music fading to pastoral soundscape, with birds.
  2. SFX: Footsteps on gravel. Door opens and shuts, cutting off pastoral soundscape.
  3. JANE: [coughing] Melody, what in heaven’s name is that stench?
  4. MELODY : Oh, Jane. When I visited Lady FitzCameron with Mama, she conjured the loveliest hint of jasmine in the air. It was so elegant and…
  5. JANE: Mercy! [more coughing]
  6. MELODY: I can not understand how she manages such a subtle touch.
  7. JANE: My dear, Lady FitzCameron went to Pomeroy’s Finishing School as a girl, it is hardly surprising that she can manage such delicate folds of magic with one of the best educations for which a woman can ask. (Magic FX) There. That’s better.
  8. MELODY: How do you do that?
  9. JANE: Please do not squint, dear. It is unbecoming.
  10. MELODY: What does it matter? I have no hope of catching a husband. I am so abysmally poor at all of the arts, and dear Father can not afford to dowry us, no matter how respectable our name is.
  11. JANE: (laughing) You have nothing to fear. Your face shall be your fortune.
  12. MELODY: Do you truly think so?
  13. JANE: Had I half your beauty I would have more beaus than the largest dowry could settle upon me.
  14. (pause)
  15. MELODY: Mr. Dunkirk sends his regards.
  16. JANE: I hope he is well.
  17. MELODY: He asked if he could call this afternoon. (sigh) That is why I wanted to freshen the parlour.
  18. JANE: Shall I help you set the parlour to rights then?
  19. MELODY: Would you?
  20. JANE: Of course. Perhaps a roseate glow in the northwest corner, like so?
  21. SFX: magic
  22. MELODY: Lovely.
  23. JANE: I think honeysuckle, so that it does not appear that we are aping Lady FiztCameron.
  24. SFX magic
  25. JANE: And now a touch of music.
  26. SFX: Simple air upon the piano,
  27. JANE: I’ll just tie the folds off like this and…voila!
  28. SFX: Music fades so that subtle music played as if in the distance. Door opens and footsteps enter.
  29. JANE: Father.
  30. FATHER: Hello, my dears. The parlour looks splendid! Are we expecting company?
  31. MELODY: Mr. Dunkirk said he would honor us with a visit this afternoon.
  32. FATHER: Did he? But I saw him not fifteen minutes ago passing though our fields with the FitzCamerons. They looked for all the world as if they were going hunting. Are you certain you did not mistake his meaning?
  33. MELODY: I am certain. But perhaps he preferred to spend the afternoon in the company of a lord than a farmer’s daughter.
  34. SFX: running footsteps out of room.
  35. FATHER: Good heavens. What has gotten in to the child? Does she think that the whole neighborhood must dance attendant on her whims?
  36. JANE: She is young and…I fear she may be developing an attachment to Mr. Dunkirk.
  37. FATHER: Does he return it?
  38. JANE: I do not know. Certainly his behavior has been above reproach in every instance of which I am aware.
  39. FATHER: Then we must hope that Melody will not embarrass herself.
  40. SFX Front door slam in distance.
  41. JANE: I fear that is what she has set out to do. Oh! Look out the window. She is crossing out fields to Lady FitzCameron’s home.
  42. FATHER: I will go fetch her, before she can do any damage to our neighbor’s good opinion of her.
  43. SFX: footsteps departing. Front door.
  44. JANE: (to self) I almost wish he would let her follow her stupid whims. Oh, but such folly would not turn Mr. Dunkirk’s attention to me.
  45. SFX: hard chord on Piano
  46. JANE: It is best for me to put it out of my mind.
  47. SFX: Piano and Magic. Door open. End song
  48. MR. DUNKIRK: Forgive me, Miss Wentworth. I had told your sister I would call, and am later than I intended.
  49. JANE: Mr. Dunkirk. You have just missed her, she has gone for a walk with my father. But please be welcome. May I offer you tea or a brandy?
  50. DUNKIRK: Thank you. I had no idea you were such an accomplished magician.
  51. JANE: It is an idle amusement, sir.
  52. DUNKIRK: Magic and the other womanly arts are what brings comfort to a home. I hope to have a home such as this one day.
  53. JANE: Indeed. I am certain that your home will be most gracious.
  54. DUNKIRK: But only if I have a wife with the gift of magic. Other men might seek a lovely face, but I should think that they would consider exquisite taste the higher treasure. Beauty will fade, but not a gift such as this.
  55. SFX: front door opened. Footsteps
  56. MELODY: (a cry of dismay)
  57. SFX: footsteps fleeing.
  58. FATHER: Good heavens! Um. Oh. Hello Mr. Dunkirk.
  59. DUNKIRK: Mr. Wentworth.
  60. JANE: If you will excuse me. I feel I must check on Melody.
  61. DUNKIRK: I hope she has not suffered an accident.
  62. FATHER: (mumbling) Ah. er. Melody…twisted her ankle while walking.
  63. DUNKIRK: I will leave you to tend to her.
  64. SFX footsteps
  65. DUNKIRK (cont.) May I call again?
  66. FATHER: Of course! Come whenever you like.
  67. DUNKIRK: Then I will see you soon. Your daughter is a credit to you, sir.
  68. SFX: door open and close
  69. FATHER: Well. Melody didn’t need to worry after all. ‘A credit’.
  70. JANE: Indeed.


Here, I’m still dealing with the same broad structure as a novel, but the way in which I use language to carry the story is entirely different. I wind up having to make the characters say things to describe what they are seeing, whereas with straight up fiction, whether spoken or audio, I can just create a word picture for the audience. Yay for narration!

So, whew. That’s my giant post about audio and fiction. Any questions?


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4 thoughts on “Mary’s tricks for writing fiction for audio”

  1. As someone that lives in Los Angeles, I spend a lot of time in my car. As a result, I consume a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. So I definitely have some thoughts on the topic.

    There’s this audiobook that I listened to that was written by a blogger. In the book, she used some blog reader’s comments (usually stories) to illustrate certain points. However, she did not do a good job signaling where that start and end. So I would be thinking “huh, I did not realize the author went through that”, and a minute later, thinking, “oh wait, that’s someone else’s story.” It can get confusing.

    When I listen to Writing Excuses, obviously I can tell which voice is Mary’s. And I can usually tell that it’s Howard speaking because he talks about drawing and the serial format. Dan and Brandon tend to blend together for me.

    Traditionally, each Taiwanese puppet show is voiced by one person and one person only. Since the same person is voicing every single character, when the writer was not careful and wrote too many similar characters talking in the same scene, it can suddenly start to sound like it’s the same person mumbling to himself.

    I tend to prefer audiobooks that are narrated by the author. (Most of the audiobooks I listen to are non-fiction.) You can often hear their passion for the topic. On the other hand, I’ve listened to a few books that are not narrated by the author that just sound robotic. One interesting approach I’ve come across is James Altucher’s Choose Yourself. He read some sections word-for-word, but went off on tangents or started rambling about a topic on others. That was an unusual thing to do, but certainly sounded authentic coming from him.

  2. This is brilliant stuff, Mary. Thanks for sharing it. This kind of stuff is what sets you apart from other writing coaches. You really don’t think about writing in the same way a lot of teachers do and your take is fresh and truly interesting and thought provoking. I had the same reaction the first time I heard you on Writing Excuses a few years ago. (Apparently Brandon saw the same thing.)

  3. This was fun for me going the opposite direction – I got recruited to help with a community radio-theater production and have been figuring out how to take the novel writing skill set and tell an audio story.

    It really has taught me the value of making dialogue do doubler/triple duty – tone, description, plot, setting – almost everything from language. And our sfx for the show are non-existent so there’s a lot of creativity that comes into play there.

    That said, it is so cool to see Shades as a radio piece! I was thinking about doing the same and developing the drama into a novel after I finished the series.

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