Writing in Stereo

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Lesson 2A Notes

April 1st, 2010

Notes (II.A)

The original Writing in Stereo was published online back in the late 1980’s.  Its purpose was to apply creative radio dramatics to all aspects of the teaching of high school English.  Each lesson included a lesson plan and notes.  I’m sharing these with you here.

II. A. 1. Dramatize exposition.

Here's a rather elaborate example of exposition dramatized. I've created two characters for a radio dramatization of Edgar Allen Poe' The Masque of The Red Death.

Frederick: Ah! It is my old friend, Alexander.

Alexander: Frederick! How long have you been here?

Frederick: Two weeks, my friend. We arrived just before the guards bolted the doors shut.

Alexander: What's going on outside, Frederick. Prince Prospero does not allow us news of the epidemic.

Frederick: Thousands die every day, Alexander. I kept the family indoors. We saw no one. We feared the Prince had forgotten us.

Alexander: And now you, Frederick, and your family survive. Here in the great abbey the Red Death cannot touch you. We shall all live forever.

Frederick: (Changing the subject) Alexander, have you been invited to the masque?

Alexander: Please, Frederick! I have heard of nothing else since the messenger delivered the invitation. My lady cannot decide how we shall be costumed.

Frederick: Alexander, something bothers me. The Prince promises a party like no other we have attended. We are to celebrate our victory over the Red Death ... yet.

Alexander: Yet? Yet what? Frederick, what's wrong?

Frederick: Alexander, why am I filled with such ... dread?

Notice the frequent use of tagging, the naming of one character by the other. This seems almost excessive, but when an uninitiated listener is trying to keep Fred and Alex straight, tagging is a great help.

Dramatizing exposition is the only way to avoid long passages of material marked, "Narrator:". It's also the best way to make a story a drama and keep the action moving. Once kids get the idea they have to create new characters, they enjoy the challenge.

II. A. 2. Add narration to preserve author's style.

If a dramatization can benefit from the feel of the author's presence, the narrator ought to sound, as you imagine, like the author. Maurice Walsh wrote The Quiet Man in a definite Irish dialect. And Rudyard Kipling, we may presume, had an British dialect. But the opening sentence of Kipling's The Ship That Found Herself was not written to be spoken aloud; it was written to be read silently:

"It was her first voyage, and though she was but a cargo steamer of twelve hundred tons, she was the very best of her kind, the outcome of forty years of experiments and improvements in framework and machinery; and her designers and owner thought as much of her as though she had been the Lucania."1

In adapting this for narration, our first thought might be to convert the clauses to shorter sentences. But we also must look at what we have to communicate to the listener and decide how best to do that. We must convey the author's presence without obligation to script his or her every word. Here's a stab at the passage from Kipling:

NARRATOR: It was her first voyage. She was only a cargo steamer ... just twelve hundred tons. But she was the outcome of forty years of experiments and improvements in framework and machinery. On the morning of her first trans-Atlantic crossing, her designers and owner thought she was the greatest ship afloat.

Although Kipling had much more in the way of descriptive language about the Dimbula before introducing his human characters, I have taken the liberty of bringing his narrative to a close with his reference to the designers and owner. Perhaps we could add the characters of designers and owner in a scene where they describe the ship, conveying the descriptive information Kipling goes on to disclose.

II. A. 3. Use the aside (solitary character monologue).

Any time an author writes a narrative about a solitary character in crisis, we, the dramatic adaptors have a problem. How can we convey that character's thoughts without writing in a character confidant (not a bad idea, really) or awkward paragraphs of narration? The solution, as I've illustrated with Goldilocks in a previous lesson, is the aside, soliloquy or solitary character monologue.

Here's an example from Jack Finney's Contents of A Dead Man's Pockets, the classic yuppie parable.2 Tom Beneke, an ambitious wholesale grocery employee, has spent months collecting information about some obscure aspect of marketing. All of his collected notes are digested onto a single sheet of paper. This evening he declined to attend a movie with his wife to type up his notes. His wife goes alone.

His notes blow out the window of their apartment and lodge on the ledge several stories above the street. In a life-threatening lesson in values clarification, he walks out on the ledge after his notes, realizes what he's done, struggles back to the safety of his apartment, leaves to catch his wife and in a moment of final irony, laughs, as his notes, carried on the breeze of the open apartment door, blow out the window once again.

After Clare, the wife, departs alone there is no one for Tom to talk to. Finney's narration carries the full burden of exposition. To adapt this to radio, we must allow Tom to talk. He can talk to himself. He can talk to the piece of paper. But he must talk. He must tell the listener what he's thinking, what he's doing and what he's going to do. Let's try it:

TOM: No! I've got you. Nuts! It got away. It's going down the ledge. That's it. That's it. Just blow off the ledge. I can follow you down and get you off the street. What?! The notes are stuck in the corner. That must be fifteen feet away. I can't reach it with anything. You're the culmination of months of work and my one chance for a big promotion. I'm not letting you get away. I'm coming after you. I'll just open the window a little wider. There. Just one leg at a time, Buddy. You can do it. Here we go.

II. A. 4. Improve the literary dialogue for speaking.

Great writers expect people to read their works silently. The dialogue they write is not intended to be spoken aloud. As a consequence, quoted material does not often make good radio dialogue.

To improve the dramatic quality of short story or novel dialogue, shorten the sentences and simplify the language. Make the sentences active voice.

You may discover there's very little to change. Some short story writers write fine radio dialogue. Your greatest changes may be the adding of plants and tags to describe action.

1 The Ship That Found Herself from Day's Work by Rudyard Kipling.

2 Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets by Jack Finney, copyright 1956 by the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company.