Audio Drama and the Invisible Wall

It’s podcasting! It’s radio! It’s audio drama! And audio comedy too! Whatever you call it, radio style fictional series are having a very big year on the interwebs. Big enough, in fact, so that our very own PEOPLE’S PILOT 2018 Writing Competition has a category (and special prizes and discount entry fees) for the writers working their butts off in this glorious revival.

Which brings us to this post sent to us by good friend Bob Tinsley about how to write your audio comedy, audio drama, radio, or podcast better than you’re probably writing it or them now:


by Gabrielle Watts

The idea of the fourth wall in theatre is a result, in part, of the writing of 18th century French critic and philosopher Denis Diderot – and the contribution his writing made to the rise of theatrical realism. Diderot advocated for a more natural style of acting – as if real events were happening in front of an audience that could be observed through a transparent fourth wall of the room in which they’re taking place. This notion led to the more ‘traditional’ set up of Western theatre we’re used to now – in which the fancifully termed proscenium arch is the frame through which a play is often observed, and there’s a clearly defined stage area emphasized by things like curtains and lighting.

Over time, the fourth wall has come to represent, metaphorically speaking, the line between fiction and non-fiction. The fourth wall is the barrier between our world and the world of wizards, zombies and time machines. When we forget about it, by our own choice or otherwise, these worlds can feel as close as the other side of a wardrobe. When we remember it, they’re as distant as a galaxy far, far away. The fourth wall simultaneously allows us to go wherever our minds can carry us, and reminds us that what we’re imagining isn’t real.

This is the difference between more and less realistic theatre in almost any format. Some podcasts thrive on reminding their audience that they are in no way meant to be believed (see for example, Wait, Wait, Don’t Kill Me), some relish a format which mimics realism as closely as possible whilst continuing to be definitively surreal (see Limetown). Ultimately, these are variations on a theme which can be used to create any number of results.

One of the many brilliant things about audio drama is that you do not need a Hollywood blockbuster’s budget in order to take your listeners thousands of years into the future, into a different dimension, or into a world of magic. It is perhaps for this reason that science fiction and radio have enjoyed such a long and successful partnership, from The War of the Worlds and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Wolf 359 to Ars Paradoxica.

In podcasting, and radio in general, perhaps more so than in any other medium, it’s easy to ignore the fourth wall – or specifically, the need to constantly convince your listeners to suspend their disbelief.

First and foremost, this is because often the fourth wall as a physical framing device: whether it’s the edge of a stage or a television screen, simply isn’t there. If someone is listening to a radio, they do not need to keep physically interacting with the device through which they’re experiencing the fourth wall….

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