Script Writing that Engages the Ears

If you’re just getting started, script writing for audio can be a struggle.  Even if you’ve written for the stage or the screen, our minds are so adept at visual thinking, that turning off the visual senses and thinking with your ears requires some practice.  With that in mind, this article will provide some script writing tips to keep your audience’s ears engaged and stir their imagination to fill in the visuals for themselves.

Research your influences

Whether you’re influenced by stage, screen, or radio, there’s a wealth of knowledge to gain from watching, listening, and reading works that influence your style, voice, genre, and approach to writing and producing content.  Find three or four works that really influence your new story and dive deep into all of the elements used to tell the story: objects, characters, props, and settings.  Consider how you can put these storytelling elements to work to tell your own story.   

Read some scripts

script writing

Read, read, read, read, read!  Read scripts.  Audio scripts.  Screenplays.  Stage plays.  Anything you can get your hands on.  When you read scripts from several scriptwriters, you’ll discover that outside of a basic structure, there are a lot of ways to tell a story.  Each writer has a unique voice and a unique way of using dialogue, action lines, shots, and other story elements to convey character, motion, and emotion

Pay particular attention to visual elements that may not translate well to sound.  While it’s possible to invoke visual information through, dialogue, it often comes off as stilted.  Consider ways to explore the visual scene through sounds instead of images.

Watch some films

person holding remote pointing at TV

Films – especially horror films – make great use of sound.  From the subtle ambience of a desert wind to the slow scratchy footsteps of a character walking into frame, listening to a film is an enlightening foray into another way of watching.

A Quiet Place may seem counterintuitive to sound by the title, but the lack of dialogue, creature design, and the intense Foley are what make this movie work right from the opening scene. 

The film, for me, is a study in not only script writing and sound design but telling a great story with minimal dialogue that is every bit as compelling.

Listen to audio dramas

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There is a bevy of great audio fiction out there. 11th Hour Audio features content from some of the most outstanding producers in the craft.

Even if you’ve already heard their 11th Hour content, listening to more content from these producers is a great rabbit hole into listening to different styles and methods of audio storytelling.

It’s important to fill your script writing toolbox with techniques and ideas you can use in your own stories.  We all grow as artists by learning from each other.

Script Writing With The Goal Of Engaging Your Listener

Your listener has five senses.  Unfortunately or as a feature, audio limits you to using only your hearing.  All of the other senses need to be filled in by the listener’s imagination.  So, how do you use one sense to invoke the other four?

Write For The Ear, Not For The Eye

man in white crew neck shirt standing under blue sky during daytime

Film relies heavily on visual information.  Audio scripts have to be get creative to convey otherwise visual information to the listener

You may be tempted to fill in this missing information with spoken decor – dialogue that explains and conveys the visual, but this gets out of hand quickly, and often isn’t necessary to good script writing. 

Instead, try to immerse your audience in enough audio information to fill in the gaps.

Paint a Picture with Sound

sonic wave, modern, audio

Movement is sound.  Lean into objects that move or have distinctive sounds.  Footsteps, breaths, vehicles, fireplaces, wind, the crunch of an ice cream cone, the slide of a knife through a character’s chest.  Audio storytelling relies heavily on using familiar sounds to ground the audience in the space.

Remember, while dialogue is a sound, it is not the only sound that conveys meaning.  Resist the urge in your script writing to make your character talk too much or unnaturally and trust your audience’s imagination. It is sound, not dialogue, that is the driver of audio storytelling.

Use words with sounds

noise, comics, onomatopoeia

Thinking in sound is an exercise.  It takes time to develop a language for sound. Having a catalog of words with sounds and sound-oriented words is a marvelous tool to have in your kit. As you write more with them, you’ll have to think of the right words less and be able to focus on writing more.  Here are some great places to get inspiration:

  •  Onomatopoeia – punch, lick, slap, scrape, click-clack, whirr, whoosh, cough
  • Words associated with sounds – drive, walk, cook, clean

You’ll notice that a lot of words associated with sounds are verbs.  Give your characters and objects action in your script writing and the audio writes itself.

Sonic Settings

man, woman, couple

A good setting will establish a lot of your scene through sound without much effort. 

Choose settings that are familiar to your listener – planes, trains, offices, police stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and even spaceships all have associated sounds that invoke familiarity.

Immersing your audience in a familiar environment is a simple way to get and keep their attention while you weave the story around their unsuspecting ears.

Pick The Right Cadence

brown wooden framed analog clock

Pacing is incredibly important to good audio storytelling. 

A rushed or slow scene can make or break a script, and only a portion of the pacing is in the delivery. 

Scripts with overloaded dialogue or too many things happening in one scene can bore or confuse your listeners, respectively.

Word choice and tempo of speech are key to pacing. Do characters finish sentences or speak over the top of each other? Do characters speak at length or in short direct sentences? All of these script writing choices determine the cadence of a scene

Start with impact

water ripple

Reeling your listeners into an audio-only universe is a challenge, no doubt. Regardless of your genre, it’s important to hook your audience right from the beginning, before they have a chance to get bored.  

This doesn’t require a huge action scene – although they are pretty effective.  Impact in script writing comes from grabbing the audience’s attention.  Immerse them in a familiar scene. 

Engage them with a compelling conversation.  Drag them face-first into a fight.

Whatever you do, grab them by the ears, and don’t let go.

Close with impact

Human Fist

Once you’ve got your audience hooked, you’ve set up the expectation for a payoff in the end.  A satisfying ending that makes the destination worth the journey. 

Again, it’s not always necessary to end big or loud to make a significant impact on your audience.

Keeping them immersed in the story and giving them a solid sonic experience throughout should be a defining goal of your script writing.

Interested in learning more about creating audio? Learn more about the craft of audio drama here.  Fancy a stab at some horror? Join us in October for the 11th Hour Audio Challenge and show us what you’ve learned!