It’s Indie Author Appreciation Day! (Yes, I just made that up.) Today, I’m appreciating Mark Capell, author of Cafe Insomniac and much, much more, including this guest post:
Will Audiobooks Change Writing Styles?
by Mark Capell
Recently, Audible.com brokered a deal with the author David Hewson to publish his latest book, Flood, well ahead of its print run. As audiobooks rise in popularity, will the way they’re written change?
As David pointed out, audio “is the original form of storytelling. It’s what Homer did. Homer was not a writer, he was a storyteller”. I’ve always had a fondness for aural storytelling. I once met one of the few traditional storytellers still working the pubs in the UK, in the old folk tradition. He was such a vibrant performer, living the story he was telling, sometimes veering off into the melodramatic, but always finding a way to convey his enthusiasm. I asked him if he’d ever considered writing a book. He looked at me astonished. “Why would I want to do that?”
I listen to as many audiobooks as I read print or ebooks. Sometimes it’s just more practical; while out for a walk, on a crowded train, or in a car.
But over the years, I’ve noticed something. Some writing styles are more suited to audio than others.
When I wrote the first story of Fogland, a series being released as a set of podcasts, I was writing specifically for audio.
I thought long and hard about it. At college, my first love was the theatre. I was obsessed by the rhythms of dialogue. I would read the plays of Harold Pinter obsessively, along with David Mamet and Tom Stoppard.
The “Pinteresque pause” has become a theatrical cliché. But these pauses are not empty silences, they are surrounded by dialogue that, even when the actor has finished speaking it, resounds like an echo within those pauses. In other words, the pauses are infused with meaning.
All writing should pay attention to the sound of words as well as their meaning, that’s a given. In fact, one musical element — rhythm — can add meaning and atmosphere on its own. Short sentences, for instance, can imbue a sense of urgency. Thriller writers are well aware of this technique.
But in audio it’s even more important. Some of the rhythm is down to the narrator. I was listening to one audiobook recently, one by a famous author. But the actor reading it, also suitably famous, sounded like he had a train to catch. The delivery was hurried, the sentences not differentiated one from another. This famous actor could have done with a few lessons from my storyteller in the pub.
In many ways, the audio presentation starts with the manuscript, begins with the source material. The author might be having more of an effect on the audio production than he realises.
The more audiobooks I listen to the more I become convinced that writing good audio stories is a different skill from writing good print ones. Even breaking important rules of grammar can become a necessity, not a stylistic choice.
At the moment, stories are written for print then recorded for audiobook, almost as an afterthought. I think this attitude might go back to their roots, originally being recorded mainly as a concession to the visually impaired. But there’s no reason that a story written for one medium is suitable for another without adaptation.
Sometimes I’ve found myself drifting when listening to an audiobook, something I rarely do when reading. And it’s not connected to what I’m doing while listening to it.
I think it is a matter of writing style. A sparse writing style seems to work better. Too much happening in a sentence can clog up the ears.
But that doesn’t mean a writer is compelled to make the storytelling simplistic. To make up for the limitations of a sparse style, you have to make each word work twice as hard.
In writing for audio, it’s not only what is being said but what is being left unsaid. The way to do this, as any dramatist will tell you, is with subtext. Like a good dramatist, you should make full use of subtext. Where you might be explicit about a situation in print, leaving room for a listener’s imagination is important in audio.
I think this advice from Ernest Hemingway is particularly pertinent when it comes to writing for audio.
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”