Script Writing for Narrative Podcasts

I have previously talked about how the script is the most important part of a narrative podcast; that it’s where the heavy lifting takes place. It doesn’t matter how good your sound quality, music, and production values are if you don’t ultimately have an interesting and well-written story to tell. Knowing this, today I will focus on some important aspects of narrative podcast script writing: points that can help you ensure that you have written a script that will translate well to the audio medium and be capable of grabbing and keeping listeners’ attention.

Script timing

Before you focus on your story, it is helpful to have an idea of how the length of a written script will translate when transferred to an audio recording. You need to understand how long you want your podcast to last prior to writing the script, so having an approximate word-count-to-time estimate can be quite helpful. Obviously, the timing of a podcast can vary depending on how your story is structured, how quickly actors speak, the use of music breaks, and so on, but these word count examples can help give you a rough idea of how long what you have written will take to listen to:

  • Fifteen minutes: 2,700 words
  • Thirty minutes: 5,500 words
  • Sixty minutes: 9,500 words

These are merely estimates, but on the whole, you can expect one minute of recorded audio to encompass approximately 170 words.

Narrative structure

Since a narrative podcast is telling a story, writing your script with basic narrative elements is important. It’s often easiest to plan out the spine of your narrative and then fill in content around your story. Focus on including the basic elements of dramatic structure:

  • Story arc: beginning, middle, and end to your story
  • Exposition: the introduction of background information, such as setting and backstories
  • Conflict: situations where characters are challenged or must overcome some adversity
  • Climax: turning point for the characters’ story; beginning of overcoming the conflict
  • Denouement: resolution to conflict

Characters

The richness of a narrative podcast’s characters is a way you can connect with your audience and get them invested in your story. Make sure you know your characters before you start writing. Who are they? What motivates them? It can be helpful to sketch out a profile for each character prior to writing. You don’t have to use all their background in your script, but developing your characters will give them a level of depth that can help your audience to care about and connect with them.

Conversational dialogue

You want your audience to forge an emotional connection with your characters. In order to do this, your characters need to feel like real people, which means they need to talk like real people.

Conversational writing needs to flow naturally, not sound artificial or like a voiceover. Use the active voice and simple, easy-to-understand words. Have characters say “you” and “I.” Keep dialogue short and succinct. The best way to determine if your script is conversational is to read it out loud. If you have to stop to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, then your sentence is too long. If you stumble over words, then your idea or wording isn’t clear.

Focus on keeping dialogue simple, natural, and short. If a character’s dialogue doesn’t sound to you like something a real person might say, then it won’t sound like a real person to your listeners, either.

Don’t be afraid to make your audience part of the story as well. If you have a narrator, have the narrator use “we” and “us.” Talk to the audience like they are involved in what is happening, like they are also a part of the team. This allows you to forge a more personal connection with your listeners, which in turn leads to better information retention.

Setting the scene

In order to make your story more real, you need to devote some time to helping the listener visualize the scenes you have created. Use descriptive terms to set your scenes and inform the audience where events are taking place. This can be done either by a narrator or in the way that your characters speak or think.

You can also use audio clues to help set your scenes, things such as background noises and sound effects. Since podcasts are an audio-only medium, you need to write scripts for the ear, not the eye. Unlike reading a book, listeners cannot linger over text until they understand what you’re saying. Scripts written for the ear literally move at the speed of sound, and thus you need to be able to build your scenes quickly and in simple terms.

Take the time to plan your stories

Don’t be afraid to spend a good deal of time planning your stories and script writing. As I have said, the script is the star of your production. Write it, read it out loud, write it again … whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable with the story you are telling and the way it is being told. Ultimately, if you don’t like your story, it’s likely that your audience won’t, either. 

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