Listening to “Retention,” Part 1
Note: For the next three days, I’m going to be discussing the origins of “Retention,” the episode that I wrote for the audio science fiction anthology series The Outer Reach. It’s available for streaming here on the Howl podcast network, and you can get a free month of access by using the promotional code REACH.
Until about a year ago, I had never thought about writing for audio. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I got into it thanks to a lucky coincidence: I was approached by Nick White, a radio producer in Los Angeles, who had gone to high school with my younger brother. Nick was developing an audio science fiction series, purely as a labor of love, and since he knew that I’d published some stories in Analog, he wanted to know if I’d consider adapting one for the show. I was more than willing, but after taking a hard look at “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids,” I decided that neither one was particularly suited for the format. There were too many characters, for one thing, and it would be hard to make either story work with a smaller cast: the former is a murder mystery with multiple suspects, the latter a monster story that depends on the victims being picked off one by one, and each has about the right number of players. I also couldn’t think of a plausible way to tell them using auditory tools alone. Since I didn’t have an obvious candidate for adaptation, which in itself would probably require at least a week of work, I began to think that it would make more sense for me to write something up from scratch. Nick, fortunately, agreed. And when I started to figure out what kind of plot to put together, one of my first criteria was that it be a story that could be conveyed entirely through dialogue and sound.
I was probably overthinking it. When I went back recently to listen to old science fiction radio shows like Dimension X and X Minus One, I discovered that they weren’t shy about leaning heavily on narration. Radio playwrights didn’t worry much about honoring to the purity of the medium: they were seasoned professionals who had to get an episode out on time, and by using a narrator, they could tell a wider range of stories with less trouble. (Most of these scripts were adaptations of stories from magazines like Astounding and Galaxy, and many wouldn’t have worked at all without some degree of narration to fill in the gaps between scenes.) Which isn’t to say that they didn’t rely on a few basic principles when it came to dramatizing the situation. For instance, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. Even on the printed page, it can be difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and when you don’t have any visual cues, it’s best to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to keep track of three similar male voices. As I concluded in my earlier post on the subject: “If I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.”
This is the same structure that I ended up using for “Retention,” and I stumbled across it intuitively, as a kind of safety net to make up for my lack of experience. Most of what I know about audio storytelling arises from the fact that I’m married to a professional podcaster, and the first thing you learn about radio journalism is that clarity is key. When you listen to a show like Serial or Invisibilia, for example, you soon become aware of how obsessively organized it all is, even while it maintains what feels like a chatty, informal tone. Whenever the hosts introduce a new character or story, they tell us to sit tight, reassuring us that we’ll circle back soon to the central thread of the episode, and they’ll often inform us of exactly how many minutes an apparent digression will last. This sort of handholding is crucial, because you can’t easily rewind to listen to a section that seems unclear. If you stop to figure out what you’ve just been told, you’ll miss what comes next. That’s why radio shows are constantly telling us what to think about what we’re hearing. As Ira Glass put it in Radio: An Illustrated Guide:
This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.
I didn’t necessarily want to do this for my script, but for the sake of narrative clarity, I decided to follow an analogous set of rules. When I write fiction, I always try to structure the plot as a series of clear objectives, mostly to keep the reader grounded, and it seemed even more critical here. It soon struck me that the best way to orient the listener from the beginning was to start with a readily identifiable kind of “found” audio, and then see what kind of story it suggested. In my earliest emails to Nick, I pitched structuring an episode around an emergency hotline call—which is an idea that I still might use one day—or a series of diary entries from a spacecraft, like ones that the hero records for his daughter in Interstellar. I also began to think about what kinds of audio tend to go viral, which only happens when the situations they present are immediately obvious. And the example that seemed the most promising was the notorious recording of the journalist Ryan Block trying to get a representative from Comcast to cancel his account. What I liked about it was how quickly it establishes the premise. In the final script of “Retention,” the first spoken dialogue is: “Thank you for holding. This call may be recorded or monitored for quality assurance. My name is Lisa. To whom am I speaking?” A few lines later, Perry, the customer, says: “I want to disconnect my security system and close my account, please.” At that point, after less than thirty seconds, we know what the story is about. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how the structure of a customer service call freed me to follow the story into strange places, and how I was inspired by a famous anecdote from the history of artificial intelligence.