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Narration in Radio Drama 

Advice from Tony Palermo


Here are notes regarding the uses of the narrator in radio drama scripting. This comes from a post I made to the Radio Drama list.


Since radio is a "blind" medium, the narrator can function as the audience's "seeing-eye dog"--setting the scene, conveying the action, and providing exposition. It sure saves time and alleviates confusion that can cause listeners to give up and tune out. A while back, in an article on my site regarding "stereo placement", I commented about  how I used a narrator to escape from having to "dolly the mike" to convey that the Lone Ranger was sneaking up on the bad guys. My narrator "bridged the gap" between what was unseen and what was heard.

Unfortunately, the radio narrator is sometimes used to "head the audience off at the gap"--meaning they can intrude and break the spell of the drama. There are several ways to handle narration and I'll explain a bit using examples from several of my own dramas--and one that's decidedly not mine.

The Traditional Narrator

The narrator is a great problem solver for radio dramatists, but I prefer to limit the traditional omniscient narrator's appearance to the beginning or end of a scene. One of my favorite narrator bits is the 1950s soap opera style where they lead the listener right into the scene. All the way in...

NARRATOR:          Barbara Jones, devoted wife and mother, is at

                   the hospital visiting her brother, Raymond

                   Brown. Raymond has returned home after

                   disappearing two years ago while on a jungle

                   Safari. At Seville Memorial Hospital, we join

                   Barbara and Dr. Jackson Debbs at Raymond’s

                   bedside as Barbara says...

BARBARA:           Doctor, is it true Raymond is suffering
       
                   from...(GASP)
"Island Fever?"

MUSIC:             RIPCHORD

I think most of us would agree with using the narrator in such a fashion. This type of narration saves time, covers lots of exposition, and here, even tells us EXACTLY who is speaking. Most importantly, this narrator disappears once we're in the scene. Some people object to this type of narrator as too old fashioned and piercing the bubble of drama, but it can be done well if you work at it.

The Omnipresent Narrator

However, it's easy to overuse the narrator. I heard a recent radio adaptation of a literary classic. It was so faithful to the book that the authorial text was given to the narrator. Here's what it was like:

NARRATOR:         John felt flustered.

JOHN:             I'm upset over... losing my job.

NARRATOR:         And Mary tried, fruitlessly, to comfort him.

MARY:             There, there, John.

NARRATOR:         Thus was the die cast for the dissolution of  their...

While I've paraphrased the actual dialogue, the intrusive narrator was all over the scene. This is NOT a Firesign Theater parody--it was a serious modern radio "adaptation." Whatever it is, you can't believe John and Mary are having a real scene because the narrator keeps popping up between the listener and the characters. When you're reading a book, all that "he said" stuff disappears, but in radio, it's right out there vying with the characters voices--and it's jarring. This is leading the audience around by the nose...with a pair of pliers! Be careful or you'll turn your own drama into a parody.

Eavesdropping is what the audience is doing when they listen to radio drama. If the audience is invisible, let them watch the show themselves.

Radio dramatists are like the great and powerful Wizard of OZ working his fire spouting magic show. If you want your audience to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," it's best to keep the narrator out of the way... Unless you make him a character.

The First Person Narrator

This is my favorite device for handling narration. It can be as intrusive as you want, but doesn't break the spell. In fact, it actually helps cast the spell! It's the classic radio detective style where Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, or Johnny Dollar narrate the story and then segue right into the action.

MUSIC:             NITE CLUB RUMBA--UP AND UNDER.

RICK LOWELL:       ...Johnny Valletta’s Coronet Club was more

                   swanky than most, but just as crooked. (PAUSE)

                   And who should be there, but a certain redheaded

                   stick of dynamite--Myrna Stanton. She spotted me

                   and staggered right over...

SOUND:             WALLA--NITE CLUB. GLASSES CLINKING.

MYRNA STANTON:     (TIPSY) Mr. Lowell! Are you back for more?

RICK LOWELL:       It’s in my blood, Myrna. I just love being

                   manhandled by goons and dames...

This narrator is a staple of detective novels, but Raymond Chandler, who popularized this style admitted, "Marlowe is swiped from Orson Welles’ radio technique of the first person narration passing into direct dramatization." Chandler stole from radio--how's that for a testimonial?

Using the first person narrator, you can move quickly from scene to scene or even bridge gaps in the same scene. This narrator can also imbue the exposition with much needed attitude--something that is difficult for the typical "radio announcer" narrator.

Editorial comment by a traditional, objective narrator sends up a red flag--it appears too heavy handed--as in Walter Winchell's narration to TV's "The Untouchables". He was a subtle as a blowtorch. Entertaining, yes, but with a thumb on the scale--because he was an  outsider. But, put the same words into a character's mouth and it's instant "attitude."

One Small Drawback... Time

The dramatist's problem with first person narrators is one of time--when IS this story being told? Since the narrator/character is telling us the story and we are seeing it in flashback, they must have *survived* the adventure to tell the tale. A minor point perhaps, but it can dampen your drama by reducing the stakes of any conflict.

This is akin to a James Bond film. The peril is lessened because there's no way James is going to be killed off. Narrator/Characters are tough to kill. Your audience may not be aware of this conceptual issue, but you should consider it. It's not impossible to kill the narrator and I've done it myself.

I used an 80 year-old pirate character to narrate a horror story about his exploits as a young man. The old pirate/narrator segues in and out of the story. When we're in a scene, it's his young self speaking--as a character. As scenes end, we're back to the old man narrating from his deathbed. (In production, I used two different actors using a similar accent.) Here's an excerpt from a scene midway through the story...


(pages 10-11 from my original radio drama)
Grim Scary Tales                                                                       The Pirate's Curse                                                                  10.

MUSIC: [A-7]                A LONELY DEATH -[BED]-CONTINUE UNDER.

(dialogue continues for a while until...)

CONQUISTADOR:               (FRIGHTENED) Wait! Shhhh. Did you hear that?

BAPTISTE:                   What? Hear what?

CONQUISTADOR:               That! I remember! The harpies! Noooo!!!

SOUND:                      FLAPPING WINGS. SIREN CALL. A MAN SCREAMS--FADING.

OLD NEVILLE/NARRATOR:       The Conquistador was carried off by the ghastly winged

                            demon from Atlantis. (PAUSE) My crew was unnerved

                            by this. Seamen are very superstitious and now they had

                            good reason to fear. I tried to calm them down...
 

SCENE SIX: - EXT. - ABOARD THE SHIP - NIGHT
 

SOUND:                      CREAKING. WALLA--PIRATE GRUMBLING. “CURSED” “OMEN”
 

YOUNG NEVILLE:              All right. All right! None of your jaw, you swabs!
   
                            None of
your jaw--else I trim your lace jackets for you!

POMPEY:                     But Captain! It’s an omen! An omen! At the rising of the

                            moon--a star rose after--and followed it!

SMOLLET:                    Pompey’s right! It’s the sign of a tempest brewing. We

                            need to leave this wretched place!


At the end of the script, the old pirate winds up his scary tale and then in classic horror fashion, the "creature" returns--but this time it KILLS the narrator! Luckily, my horror series host character was still alive to do the wrap up. Here's an excerpt...



Grim Scary Tales                                                        The Pirate's Curse                                                               20.

DOÑA TERESA:           Old man, don’t you recall that you pledged yourself to me?

                       Forever? We’ll, I’m here to claim what is mine. (SQUAWK!)

 NARRATOR:             No! Wait! You’re not my Doña Teresa! You’re one of them!

                       One of those savage harpies! No! No!

DOÑA TERESA:           (SQUAWK!) You thought you’d escaped the curse? But no!

                       Your soul will be with mine... forever!

NARRATOR:              (SCREAMS) Ahhhhh...

SOUND:                 FLAPPING WINGS. WIND--UNDER.

HOST:                  Some say love never dies, but sadly, it does. However, it’s

                       far worse when it comes back... looking for you! Just

                       remember, nightmares can come true. (PAUSE) We’ll return

                       in a moment, but first, a word from our sponsor...


And So...

As this article ends, I hope I've been able to clarify the issues that use of the narrator device presents to radio dramatists. There are many unique aspects of using literary conventions in the radio drama medium. You'll have to experiment with them to fully explore their useful qualities and limitations. The key is to re-think them as radio devices and not just equivalents of print or film storytelling techniques. As usual, when it comes to radio drama, you must always strive to "write between the ears."


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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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Last modified: 03/02/11