The following are things you should start to figure out before you go out and collect your sound. And continue to figure out while you’re collecting it. And consider again when you’re putting your piece together. In all memorable sound pieces, the sound you collect determines the structure and presentation more than anything you can do afterwards in the writing or the mix.
Aim for compelling, sound-rich scenes. Don’t leave a scene until you have the sound that can recreate that scene. By the time you’re in the middle of collecting your sound and interviews you should pretty much know which are good candidates for (at least!) your opening, closing and “what-it’s-all-about” scenes.
While background sound—the lull of street traffic or birds outdoors or waves—is good behind a short script or inside a clip, it’s often too lame to drive one of these anchoring scenes. You want something distinctive. Don’t just hold your mic in a crowd for a minute. Walk around; point it at individuals—talking, laughing.
With these anchor scenes in place, it’s usually pretty clear how to get from one to the other. For example, a digressionary “how did it get this way” scene might follow a “what’s it all about” scene—and set the direction toward the final scene.
Present strong characters. Strong characters require strong entrances and good lines. Introduce characters with material that shows what they’re like, as well as their role in the story. For example, when Rhoda Metcalfe introduced us to the stoners who were abalone poachers, she signaled that this was a story about social conflict, not just a threatened species.
Memorable exit lines make solid connective writing a lot easier. It’s all right, for example, to flip sentences in a clip to achieve this.
Let people make your pictures. As much as possible, get subjects to describe what’s happening, what they’re doing and what we’re “seeing” on radio. You shouldn’t have to do it all the talking. It’s also a good way to break the ice with the person, and it might give you a line that makes for a good entrance or transition.
A colleague from Newfoundland said he was taught to “look for the doily” whenever he entered a home with his recorder. “What a nice doily! A lot like my aunt makes.” was good enough to get a shy person to open up. There’s a doily, figuratively speaking, in every home and office. Even in a cubicle you might see something personal. Better still, find a doily relevant to the story. If the person is a teacher ask them to show you drawings or essays or remember outstanding students. Ask questions with answers that help connect the character with the listener.
Use scenes where characters do what they’re in the piece for. We don’t want to hear every person just sitting at a desk or a computer or in a café. If he sells real estate, go out with him while he’s showing a house or closing a deal; if she’s a doctor, listen to her consult with patients. Let a writer read some writing or go somewhere she’s written about; go to the market with a family that’s scraping by. It just might get you something substantive as well. Good things happen to reporters when they go out.
Get your subjects to tell stories. Don’t ask the subject “How did you feel when you found out?” Better: “What did you DO when you found out?” or something that might start a story. “And what did you do next?” “Yeah, and what made you think of that?”
Before you ask a question, think: could a person say just “yes” or “no.” If so, ask it differently. Don’t ask: “Is it a good thing?” Ask: “What difference will this make?”
Make distinct scene changes. Shifting sound and scene underlines dramatic shifts in the story. Give scenes good entrances—another reason to get foreground sound to layer over the background.
Contrast the sound of your scenes. As much as possible, play intimate scenes against crowded scenes, loud against soft; or play against type—in a crowd, go up close to one person cheering or laughing.
Don’t bore us with facts. Filling in background information is hard to do without bringing the piece to a halt. Pick a time when the conflict or drama of the piece will leave listeners hanging in suspense—a turning point. When your character faces a decision, stop. Tell us how he got there. The listener will tolerate scripts longer when there’s a good sense of what’s at stake.
Good use of sound is not gimmicks; it’s not bells and whistles. It’s what makes a radio piece work—that and a few well-chosen words. A photo editor once said: “A picture isn’t worth a thousand words. But a picture and ten good words are worth a thousand and ten words.” We can add that good sound and some well chosen words—and a solid structure—are worth a million and ten words.
Some relevant sound clips (some may take a minute to fully load):
Structure and digression—Capetown Tabloid (Jan 28, 2008). Making the structure essentially a “day on the job ” of a couple of tabloid newspaper people, Rebecca Zandbergen gets a grabby opening and a closing payoff for herself—while bracketing the heart-tugging scene with a murder victim’s family AND setting up a digression at a journalism conference discussing what it’s “all about.” Strong characters (some good entrances) and contrasting tones of scenes.
Dynamic scenes—Baboon Break-ins (Sept 10, 2009). A couple of short scenes at the top establish the drama and the menace of the marauders, and suspense for digression. More important, the opening sets off a more engaging structure than the straight sequence of scenes you normally hear in one of these situational pieces. The action jumps around a little more. Rhoda Metcalfe did a similar job with turning her story about threatened abalone populations from a wildlife piece to a story about human conflict.