I’ve been meditating on the idea of ‘narrator’ recently. There are so many ways to tell a story and the use of narrator is really interesting in terms of the different functions it can fulfil - in how it can contribute to the construction of meaning and how the audience is made to feel about a story, its characters and its themes. The use of narrators through history, across different art forms and how technology has impacted the role of the narrator - there’s much to explore. And considering the use of narrators in audio storytelling is a whole chapter in itself.
I was nearing the end of writing Season One of Low Light when I pitched the show, or a version of it, for future support. I wanted to ask for funding and mentorship to create a show that employed a full cast to voice the characters and a sound designer to create a rich soundscape but retained the narrator as a dramatic and textual device. Earlier in the year when I was considering applying for a different scheme I had asked that funding organisation if this would be acceptable. They gave me the impression that using a narrator is considered artistically inferior to other forms - where a writer ‘shows’ (rather than tells) a story. Despite this, I made the decision to keep my narrator’s voice, it was too important to me to lose it but mindful of the feedback I’d received I ended up defending my decision in the pitch document - never a good idea and - you guessed it, I didn’t get short-listed. The exercise in writing that pitch and thinking about different possibilities for telling my story made me think more deeply about ‘the narrator’ as a device and about my own approach to creating the show.
There are now some beautifully crafted and immersive audio productions that use soundscape, music, special effects, particular story structures, all sorts of techniques and devices to ‘show’ a story, drawing a listener in and holding them in a willing suspension of disbelief. Not a narrator in earshot. You can see why fiction podcasts sometimes describe themselves as ‘mini movies for your ears’. And, I suppose if you have a budget to pay a full cast and a sound designer then why wouldn’t you ‘show’ not ‘tell’? Why wouldn’t you aim to make a cinematic audio-experience? Mmm…why was I determined to use a narrator? Was I just being lazy? I narrate every day, so maybe. I mean, I was creating Low Light as a narrator - the project would never have been conceived if I didn’t work as a voice actor. My skill, my craft is that of a narrator and everything about creating Low Light lives almost entirely within that skillset.
There were practical considerations too - when I first created the show, I was influenced by budget. I could probably have cobbled something together with other actors and tried to build a sound design to replace the narrator for £0… not an entire series though. And the idea of the ‘soap-opera’ was too strong in my mind (demanding a long-run of episodes). Short sighted, you might think, in that case - knowing my decision to keep my narrator might leave my audio-drama wallowing in the gutter of what is artistically unacceptable; that it might jeopardise my winning tangible support and therefore solving my budget problem? Well I went ahead anyway, ever the reckless one.
But that’s not all. There’s a bit of pride I think. As an audio-book narrator my job is to hold the attention of a listener with my voice. Just that. Its rare that a book I narrate contains any kind of soundtrack or other audio treatment - usually its a simple mono track. Of course one of the main reasons for this is that books are written to be read not (only) listened to. Lots of people listen to audiobooks though. Its not like people shun the lone voice of the narrator saying ‘No! You must show me not tell me!’. Audiobooks that rely on the lone narrator are the bread and butter of Audible and what is now a very big industry. OK, I’m mixing things up a bit here - we’re talking about having a narrator talk directly to the listener, not the fact that one voice narrates character voices. But my point is, if audiobooks are such big business then there’s a big audience who’ll be happy to listen to stories told by one voice. And these stories contain ‘narrators’ of varying kinds.
There are, of course audiobooks that are produced with music, special effects and the rest - as immersive stories but not that many as a proportion of the whole market.
And there are audio-dramas that rely on only one voice…aren’t there?
I’m glad you asked - yes there are. Very good ones - examples are: ‘Old Gods of Appalachia’, ‘Woe.Begone’, ‘Earth Break’, ‘The Chronicles of Wild Hollow’ and there are lots more. And there are loads more that use a narrator and a full cast - in different ways. Ok, so its not that unusual. Or at least it isn’t in Podcast Land. So there’s audiobooks and podcasts where an enlightened narrator-friendly audience lives. Maybe its more of a Radio Drama hang up then…
All of these examples succeed in being dramatic or comedic or both, some of them are very cinematic - just because there’s only one voice and even if that one voice acts as a conscious narrator it doesn’t mean the show can’t be immersive or awesome. I haven’t really tried to make Low Light cinematic - my aims were more of a small screen domestic setting - the sound of the suburbs, if you will. I digress - so, does Low Light succeed as a ‘drama’ even though it is (mainly) constructed from one lone voice? Does it succeed as a ‘soap opera’? For my audience it seems to, yes - its well reviewed at least - although its not a huge audience so maybe that is a factor. But I know that a contingent of listeners love the show and are sticking with it all the way to the end of Season One.
When I began writing Low Light I did always intended to record it, I wrote it to be listened to, not read from the page. So I suppose my decision to write the narrator into it might have been quite instinctive. As I recorded the early episodes, I did decide to add in a little atmosphere to help build the world in the mind of the listener and to show time passing but I was never really tempted to reduce the role of the narrator; I wanted Low Light to be something more than an audiobook but as I progressed through the story, developing characters and building layers on my imaginary world I never once thought of ditching her. I wrote some scenes where the narrator receded into the background but she always resurfaced to give an update on other characters or to move the story forward - I found I needed this because I had also decided to use the present tense - indeed, this decision was part of how I conceived my narrator! I created a kind of story circle, which I’m quite comfortable with actually.
Thinking of it as an instinctive decision - I started to ruminate on other stories I’ve told because Low Light was by no means the first. I created theatrical performances as part of my degree - they were the the first stories I told that had any level of sophistication. And I didn’t realise until I started writing this article, that every one of those performances utilised a narrator that showed the audience around the action. I used to call that person the ‘leader’. In one show the leader was on roller skates. In another it was a blind man with a metal puppet-dog on a stiff wire ‘leash’. Their job was to lead the audience (I always used a promenade set up) into an ‘image’ while another image or something else - maybe a piece of music - was constructed around or behind them. Then the leader would let that image / music or whatever happen and the audience experienced a kind of live ‘editing’ in the room as the performance progressed. The leader was a facilitator, a friend to the audience - someone that existed somewhere between the story being constructed as time passed and an audience member themselves - they were a translator, a witness, a joker, master of ceremonies. They laughed when there was humour, sighed when things got sad, joined in when there was dancing, helped raise flags and bits of set when a new scene was being built.
Maybe this is why I like listening to audiobooks - because I’m instinctively at home with the role the narrator plays. I don’t know when that started with me… I listen to audiobooks because I enjoy it but also to develop my craft. I learn from those narrators I admire. And when its good its glorious. I know how good really good narration can be at gripping a listener and holding them within a story - just one voice doing all that. Listen to ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ by Phillip Pullman, read by Anton Lesser (now sadly no longer available). The action in that audiobook is compelling because of Lesser’s talent in convincing a listener that he is a 6 year old girl, then a 90 year old woman, then a murderous male thug and he gives the listener drama, comedy, action and information - beautifully.
So there’s my instinctive fascination with the idea of a narrator or ‘audience leader’ and there’s my unshakeable understanding that just one voice is enough to do that job. And I’m an actor too (not all narrators are actors). I have the confidence to know I can differentiate between characters and embody the character of a separate narrator.
In Low Light, it was an image that kickstarted my desire to tell a story. A cold night, the light of the moon, a street of old houses. I think, because I looked up into the sky at that image of the moon and started looking at the trees trying to see if an owl was there, my narrator looked up too but her being an idea rather than a 52 year old woman with bad knees, she settled on my back and never let go as she took us both up into the canopy and higher towards the cloudless sky. Her telling me about a world, existing in the cracks of the place where I live - her words built that world for me and so were vitally important. The characters that emerged from this imagining were just as important however, when characters think or say something I don’t need the narrator. Shirley leaves the carrier bag on Gavin’s doorstep and sends him a message - that’s easy, I can convey their whole relationship in a few words. But walking up that street, seeing Kat for the first time in weeks, the murder they both witness - it could all have been done with dialogue, a bit of acting and some SFX but I wanted the listener to know exactly how Padma fell from the front step of her own house and later, I wanted them to be with Charity in that room at the top of her building and know exactly how she leant on the wall as she realised what she’d done. If I had given all this to the show’s characters to tell each other it would have become too complicated (for me it would); if I’d relied on my own skills as a sound designer and actor, I’d never have been able to be so accurate.
My story has lots of non-human characters too - animals for example - Reg the dog is a very specific dog - he’s a character. How would I tell people who he is without making him talk or having my human characters talk about him - which would start to get exposition into the dialogue. I write dialogue quickly, it comes flying onto the screen and I think that helps keep it naturalistic. Character development is really important too when you don’t rely on a strict story structure (more on that later) so extraneous conversations between characters - about a dog or anything - just to convey information to the audience - that’s clunky and is so often the marker of badly written fiction. Talking of non-human characters what about Eric’s house? It too is a character that can’t speak. I’d love to hear a sound designer bring it to life but would they be able to convince the listener that the front door is tired and a little depressed, worried as it is that every slam will be its last? The house is part of Eric, it tells the listener so much about who he is, who he was. Even the weather has its own personality and its own intentions in Low Light.
So, my narrator climbed onto my back and launched herself skywards and from then on I imagined her flying about, with the listener on her back, pointing out the action, glancing over her shoulder to give an eye roll or a wry shake of the head in response to some daft thing Gavin had said.
I didn’t map out my whole storyline when I started. I looked at the moon and the trees and, I’m sure there was an owl hiding. I put down the carrier bag on the step, glanced about at the dark front gardens, imagining the activities within the houses. These were my prompts for my first episode. I used my first episode to prompt the next. The characters I thought of made decisions that demanded a response. My narrator helped me with this, she helped me write the story - flying above the streets I spotted things I wouldn’t have found otherwise. That bag of money for a start. Ruby Hussain and her boar. My challenge to myself was: could I draw a realistic place and adequately convey events happening there? Conjure up magical storytellers and set a stage for gossiping neighbours that would genuinely capture the attention of my listeners? I felt I might succeed in showing them what I could see through my narrator’s mind’s eye with her prose and her attitude - given all her experience across the ages when as I said, I’m only 52.
The additional soundtrack I included as I settled into the project - a general atmosphere for outside and inside, some SFX to show the weather, sound motifs like the crow call to separate scenes and occasional sounds of other beings or activities (none of it was consistent by the way!) - this was all a bit of an experiment and sometimes I really bogged myself down with it - my sound design knowledge and skills are limited and my digital audio workstation isn’t really set up for making full blown universes of layered audio, effects, music etc although I love it when it works - there are bits I’ve enjoyed doing. The timpani at the back of the theatre in the last episode was fun but it takes a lot of time and I didn’t want to do it badly so that it ruined the story. It would never have been enough without my narrator though.
My narrator was built from inspiration I got from the BBC production of Emile Zola’s ‘Blood, Sex and Money’ and Glenda Jackson’s narrator in that production - an all-seeing eye looking down on the action, knowing what she knows about all the characters because she’s one of them. A glorious production and one of Glenda Jackson’s many brilliant performances - rest in peace - a significant role in her later career after she had returned from politics.
It wasn’t the only touchstone - another BBC adaptation - ‘The Barchester Cronicles’ by Anthony Trollope uses a narrator in a similar way - well, Trollope cast’s himself as narrator in his books but the radio adaptation changes the narrator character to one of the books characters so that the narrator is less ‘intrusive’ while still being able to comment on the action and walk into a scene, bringing the listener along with her.
There were other influences on Low Light. The writing of Jeanette Winterson, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the kind of story and community in shows like Fargo excite my mind in different ways. They each evoke a distinctive narrative voice, sometimes in the foreground sometimes not so much.
By the end of the production of Season One, the show still relies on one voice, talking to a listener. And now that I’ve finished writing, recording, producing over twelve hours of audio-soap-drama-story doo-dah, I find myself thinking about narrative, about what it is and what it does, about different kinds of narrator and how stories can be told and how meaning is constructed in the ear and mind. If I put the work in and think back to my degree studies, I can vaguely remember studying modernism and looking at modernist approaches to making art and telling stories. I can remember something of literary criticism and modes of discourse but most of that was concerned with visual art - time based or not, soundtracked or not, live performance or not. We studied how sound works to add meaning in a primary and secondary way - but then audiobooks were only available on tape and radio drama was only available on the radio at the scheduled time.
Thinking about it all now in a 21st century context, when my brain is fogged with menopausal suburban disappointment and I seem to have lost many of my neural pathways…more old dark tracks…it seems a big ask. But I think I want to get to the bottom of it so I’ve ordered some books on narrative theory and am determined to investigate the potential of the audio narrator as more than facilitator of words on a page for a listener. Maybe I’ll even end up challenging the keepers of good taste who demand that we show not tell - perhaps I’ll band together with other narrators and we’ll stage a listen-in to prove that narrators are not worn out cliches that get in the way of good stories but that they have the ability to spot things in the undergrowth that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
And, even if I don’t produce any articles that will blow academia apart or make the funders of new writing for audio rethink their game - I still have my reward. I’ve created a whole new set of friends! Gavin, Shirley and Ruby are my new besties! I revel in the things they get up to, good and bad. I speak the words I write with relish and it brings tears to my eyes when people I love and respect tell me that they like and admire my work. The knowledge that it entertains people and makes people think or lose themselves in an imaginary, slightly magical place is something you can’t buy. So I’ll continue with another series of Low Light soon, alongside my meditation on narration and narrators and with a circular, slightly iterative way of thinking, gradually things will develop and stories will emerge.
I hope you’ll join me on the journey.