Part 1: Idea & Script Development | So You Want to Make a Fiction (or Any) Podcast
Multitude is a podcast collective and production studio. This piece is part of a ten part series by them to help you create a fiction (or any) podcast. Did you see the introduction? Make sure you check that out and come back next Tuesday for Part Two.
You want to start a fiction podcast? Great, welcome to the club! From movie directors to high schoolers, everyone is getting their hands dirty in audio fiction. And for better and for worse, there have never been more podcasters, podcast listeners, or opportunities to collaborate than there are now.
Coming up with an idea for a fiction podcast may seem to be closer to other creative endeavors, like writing a movie script or a novel: you wait for inspiration, it hits you, you write it, you become famous and meet David Boreanaz. The American Dream!
But in reality, you still have to contend with the podcast landscape, standing out in a crowd of big-budget public radio creations, chat shows about libertarianism, and approximately one million Dungeons & Dragons shows.
Therefore, this section is split into two sections: podcast idea development and writing & script development.
Idea Development, or a Fiction Podcast Is Still a Podcast
You have your premise and your writer is raring to go. But hold on—did someone already tell this story?
A fiction podcast needs to stand out in the increasingly crowded podcast landscape. Ultimately, your show has to answer “How am I unique?” Maybe there’s a genre hole that needs to be filled, like NEXT STOP stepping into the American sitcom space for audio. Maybe there is a story that hasn’t been told from your voice or perspective yet. Maybe your structure is different, or you have special access to people and places and talents that others don’t. Maybe there’s an adaptation that hasn’t been done yet (still waiting on that Titus Andronicus pod). Make sure you know what makes you you and how you stand out from the crowd.
That also involves understanding the landscape you’re entering. For any art form, loving a thing is a prerequisite to making that thing. If moviemakers need to watch tons of movies and writers need to read tons of writing, then you need to listen to tons of podcasts!
Listen broadly and thoughtfully. If you’re attentive as you listen and take good notes, you will be well-prepared to make informed choices about your own work. So it is to your benefit to become an expert in the podcast genres you’re joining. Listen to shows that cover similar subjects or genres, as well as shows that you love but might not be directly related to what you’re working on. And you gotta take notes!
Here are some questions to ask yourself while you’re listening:
- How does this podcast describe itself? Do you agree, or would you describe it differently?
- Who do you think is this podcast’s target audience? It is never “everyone.” Be specific.
- How long is each episode? How much does length vary between episodes, or how has it changed over the lifespan of the show?
- How does the show sound? How is it edited? How do they use music, silence, or sound design?
- What moments grabbed your attention? When did you find yourself zoning out?
- If you met this show’s team at a party, what would you ask?
- (More questions available on our Do Your Research template!)
Although podcasting is still in its nascent stages, we’ve passed the point where Just Being Better is enough to make you different from other shows. Find your own approach. And hold on to these notes—this will be the basis of your marketing plan, helping you to identify and reach your audience.
Remember: you are not asking, ‘How am I going to crush my competition?’ Podcasts that share something with yours are your colleagues, not your competition. If you don’t have the patience or desire to listen to a lot of shows in your genre, you might need to reconsider your game plan. Building relationships with fellow podcasters is also the best way to grow your show, as we’ll cover in our Marketing section, so make sure that your new community is one you really love.
Who Is the Writer?
The story of NEXT STOP is almost apocryphal to us at Multitude. We’re at KCBC, a brewery in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. We’re sipping sour berry beers, talking about podcasts, as we always do. And Brandon Grugle, who would go on to become the series director, said, “Man, there aren’t really that many podcast sitcoms out there. You know, like, Friends-esque sitcoms.” And Eric, our head of creative, goes, “I know. But that’s stupid.” A few days later, Eric hits everyone up in Slack: “Dammit, Brandon. Here are three sitcom scripts.”
That was in February 2019. Immediately, we did two things. The first, Eric made Brandon sign a contract to make the scripts at some point (and confirm that Eric was his muse):
Our second step was to give Eric writing deadlines and notes on those first drafts. Immediately, it signaled to Eric that his work was valuable and something we wanted to pursue. Even though we didn’t know what we were going to do with them, or if this show was ever going to get made, we treated this as a real project, something we wanted to make.
This also quickly solved an important question: who is the Writer? (Note the capital W, so you know it’s a big deal.)
The closest comparison to fiction podcast scripts are television scripts: they’re about the same length and there are multiple episodes that come out in succession. So you need to decide who is steering the story ship. If you want to work with others or you have a cadre of people who like to work together, have a writers’ room. We are not TV writers and cannot speak to the dimensions of what that might look like. But from watching enough Saturday Night Live, we know there is a head writer who is in charge and makes the tough decisions. For a podcast writers’ room, that head writer is probably the person who came up with the idea, and they’re the one who knows what they want to see in the final product. Putting someone in charge from the jump helps to break ties if the opinion is split on something and puts responsibility in one person’s hands to make decisions, which is so important in a creative endeavor.
If you want to do it yourself, great! You’re Aaron Sorkin, and you have a unified vision of goodness. But unlike Aaron Sorkin, you should listen to others who can help you (and don’t write Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). This is the tact that Eric took. He was motivated to write all ten scripts by himself and did it! But, he didn’t do it alone.
The Writer Has to Work With Others
Eric couldn’t do it by himself, nor should he. So once he drafted scripts for all ten episodes of NEXT STOP he shared them with the rest of the production team: Amanda, who is the Executive Producer; Julia, who became the Assistant Director; and Brandon, the Director. All of us gave our feedback on big-picture elements like the story arc, episode order, and character development, and minute details like individual jokes. After a few rounds of us reading, Eric editing, and reading again, we were happy with the scripts!
But… none of us are professional writers, so us being happy with them only means so much. So we reached out to a writing consultant. The job is what it says on the tin: they consult on the writing and are there only for the writer’s benefit. Bringing an outside consultant brought an unbiased opinion from a new perspective.
We reached out to Octavia Bray, a writer on Raven’s Home who was incredibly enthused about working with podcasters. And her feedback really, really helped. We renamed so many characters (Gillian was originally named Cassie, which sounded too much like Cam), we fleshed out Ally’s arc through the season, and even swapped the order of the second and third episodes to better suit the story.
No writer wants to hear it, but editors are incredibly helpful.
Another person who can help the scriptwriter are the people who will eventually turn the writer’s words into audio. The writer has an obligation to the production not to write anything too fantastical, complex to record, or confusing for the listener. This doesn’t mean taking the fun or interesting part out because it’s hard. In fact, that’s why people love writing genre pieces in audio fiction. A laser blast sounds like a laser blast and I don’t need to 3D print it! But the emphasis here is on “fantastical.” Writing something that is hard to picture in the mind is very difficult to process for an audience who can’t see it. And it’s going to be a hell of a time for the person who needs to sound design it.
Think about a conversation between friends at a party. If two or three people are talking, you’d probably be able to follow that conversation. But can you track five people’s voices? Ten? Optimizing for audio is a writer’s responsibility and a prerequisite for being a creative team player.
Eric realized he’d have to look the director in the face every day, so he kept this in mind. Most conversations have no more than five people in it, and there are discernable scenes with specific ambient noise (train station, apartment, crowded bar, etc). But Eric also stretched Brandon’s ability to create something really cool. A lot of conversations happen over wires—via text, Slack, phone calls, and voicemails—and each has different sound design to create distinct ambiances for each form of communication. And there is a tap number. No spoilers.
Helping the writer work within the sandbox of audio is the job of someone that we’re calling the Sound Director. Think of it like a cinematographer in a movie, selecting the equipment and techniques that will best serve the script as it’s turned into an actual motion picture. A Sound Director’s job is to figure out how—technically, practically, logistically—the script will become recorded sound to make an actual podcast. Their job starts before the scripts are finished, having conversations with the writer about what is possible, what boundaries can be pushed, and what wonder they can create together. In some productions, the director or producer may take on this role, but the important part is that someone helps the writer think about how their story will translate to sound. Encouraging the writing and production sides of your show to collaborate closely from the jump will help everyone work more efficiently, dream bigger, and create a show everyone will be proud of.
Alright. Get writing! And remember—get off of Twitter, it is not going to help you!
See how these lessons were put into practice in NEXT STOP, an audio sitcom from Multitude.