The best stories – even the written ones – have audio. Maybe it’s a sensibility: voice or style, which Ben Yagoda explores in his craft book The Sound on the Page. Maybe it’s a structural/pacing device (think of the pop, pop, pop of the heartbeat in Jon Franklin’s “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster”) or the lingering effect of straight description, like this bit from Martha Gellhorn’s “The Third Winter”:
We admired the shells and at this moment, like a dream or a nightmare or a joke, the siren whined out over Barcelona. I think that one of the worst features of an air raid is the siren. The howling whining whistle rises and screams and wails over the city, and almost at once you hear, somewhere, the deep hud-boom of the bombs.
A skilled writer can evoke sound even with silence. In “The Spike,” George Orwell used quiet to magnify the cacophony of the workhouse slums of 1930s London:
Nobby and I set out for Croydon. It was a quiet road, there were no cars passing, the blossom covered the chestnut trees like great wax candles. Everything was so quiet and smelt so clean, it was hard to realize that only a few minutes ago we had been packed with that band of prisoners in a stench of drains and soft soap.
We like the following trio of archived Storyboard pieces about audio because some of the ideas apply across platforms. You can click through to the full posts – featuring the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s Alan Guettel and Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullins and Clark Boyd – but here are some highlights:
1. Be in the scene. In Part 1 of the three-part “Sounding Out Your Story,” Guettel, a CBC producer, offered tips to freelancers about how to distinguish their narrative pitches, using a four-minute clip called “Connie Watson Buys A Burka” as an example. A snippet:
For Connie Watson, things were pretty cool in Kabul in October 2003; but she learned if you’re going to Kandahar, you best pack a burka. So she went shopping. It’s good example of being with people doing what they do for a living—even though most of it was scripted and voiced later.
2. Get subjects talking chronologically. In talking about interviewing for story, Mullins, anchor and senior producer for PRI’s The World, said:
When they’ve practiced or repeated so much of what they have to say that they’re speaking on automatic pilot, that detracts from the interview. When I can get them speaking in terms of chronology, in terms of a thought process, in terms of watching a story unfold and then maybe bringing it back to the beginning, that’s when the audience is naturally going to listen. People have an ear for storytelling, and everybody wants to hear a good story.
3. Gear up. Boyd, The World’s technology correspondent, offered a cheeky tips list, including this one, about not giving up until the sound is right:
Audiophiles love their stuff; we cherish both our mics and our methods. I once saw a sound engineer cover a $1,500 microphone in a thin piece of plastic, seal it with rubber bands, and then submerge it in a tub of water, all in a bid to capture the sound of loud music being piped through that water. Why? We wanted to illustrate how fish “hear.” It took five hours to get it right. At least, we hope we got it right. We’re not fish, after all.