Aural stories

The aliens are invading, and they’re coming for your parking space.

Okay, so that’s a silly way of looking at this weekend’s upcoming radio play in Somerville.  I’m not even tangentially involved with the production, but I’ve watched some parts of it come together, and it’s got me thinking about storytelling that doesn’t touch either the screen or the printed page.  (Incidentally, if you’re in the area, come see the show.  Aliens!  Coffee syrup!  A stationary marching band!)

Radio plays and audio fiction are media I know very little about.  I’ve seen a couple of radio plays performed — and that I say I’ve seen them tells you something about how my perception of them is a little skewed — but I don’t often listen to them, nor do I often listen to podcast fiction, despite the many good sources for it.  And that’s a shame, because stories told this way play on the audience’s attention in entirely different ways.

Audio fiction isn’t quite the same, but there are some shared elements — you have only the description as it’s read, and to follow the story you have to be willing to concentrate.  I can almost fall more easily into an author’s world when I’m listening than when I’m reading, simply because I have to stop and pay attention.  I can’t just scan the page, looking for the next clue to the plot or the clue that I missed on my first read.  Done well, it can be enchanting: one of my favorite Christmas traditions is to listen to Christopher Plummer reading E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (the whole, trippy thing, not the chopped-up version in most retellings).

I have mixed reactions depending on how the reader voices different characters; I got sick of one audio novel because all of the villains had the same nasty nasal tone.  (One friend of mine says that she’s never heard any author read their own work well.  I have to admit I take that as a challenge.)  And like radio plays, there’s the possibility that the intensity of emotion won’t carry over well, becoming laughable or just strange.  I always feel a little silly when reading big dramatic scenes aloud, just because I’m skittish about whether they sound as good outside my head.

So this is, again, my way of asking the great wide internet for recommendations: What podcasts or radio plays would you recommend? Are there certain stories that just work better when read aloud?  What doesn’t work so well in this medium — either through poor performance or the source itself?  And does putting a folding chair out really keep the aliens from your parking space, or does it just draw the wrath of public works?

2 Responses to “Aural stories”

  1. 1 John Chu
    October 28, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Ha! Trick question. It keeps the aliens from your parking space *and* it draws the wrath of public works.

    Srsly, listening to a story isn’t the same as reading a story. One of the things that disturbs me about the proliferation of podcast short fiction is that they are reading out texts that weren’t explicitly written to be heard. “Said” may be an invisible word on the page, but it definitely isn’t to the ear. And if the reader is relying on dialogue tags to distinguish between characters rather than doing different voices, that’s a huge missed opportunity.

    (This isn’t to say we shouldn’t podcast fiction originally written to be read. The folks at Escape Artists do a brilliant job of picking fiction that works as audio and getting readers who make the most of them. The best piece of podcast fiction I’ve ever heard is still “Goosegirl.”)

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