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Write On! Features: Episodic Writing by Emily Inkpen

by Emily Inkpen

Episodic writing has changed dramatically since the late noughties.

The reason for this is simple: writers can now, more or less, guarantee that viewers and listeners will consume their show from start to finish and in order, at their own pace, without missing anything. With streaming services and the rise of podcast drama, the need to provide incident – intrigue – resolution in every single episode has died. Instead, series-wide plot and character development has become the core of most large-scale productions.

I’m referring to both visual and audio drama here as a similar entity, and as far as viewer/listener expectations go, it is. Gone are the days when terrestrial and satellite TV stations decided which series dramas saw the light of day. Similarly, the BBC and other radio stations no longer own audio drama. Now, podcasts have arrived and the world of audio entertainment is diversifying, innovating and booming.

In the interest of expanding my own creative horizons, I have taken full advantage of this democratisation of the audio medium. My science fiction audio drama, The Dex Legacy, produced by Alternative Stories, is performed by a full cast with high production values and an original soundtrack. Globally, it ranks in the top three per cent of audio drama, with over 150,000 downloads, which for an original indie show is highly successful.

Freedom To Create

In order to talk about episodic writing in audio, I must first state that every show is different. In this space, it’s possible for indie projects created and produced by one or two people to gain international popularity. Many of these popular titles follow diverse formats. Single episodes can range in running-time from ten minutes to over an hour. Some will launch the listener straight into the action, others will require two or three episodes of set-up before the narrative finds its rhythm. Some will focus on one or two characters, others will employ a large cast. The choice is ultimately determined by the creator and, inevitably, by their budget.

Know Your Audience

With all this choice in mind, it’s wise to start with your audience. Think about the kind of person you want listening. Commuters may have half an hour. Lunch-break listening can be limited to 20 minutes. And for those who listen while working, length isn’t an issue at all. Some deliberately seek out dramas they can listen to while falling asleep, which is the opposite effect that most writers hope for, but it’s worth knowing! The important thing is to be mindful. If the content of your show will appeal to busy working women with kids, episodes of an hour and a half simply won’t work.

Episodic And Continuous

Some dramas still adopt a traditional format, with an event arising, unfolding and resolving in each episode. Others focus on the slow burn, building throughout the series to a final conclusion. Whatever your approach, you’ll need to end with the impetus to keep listening. Tease the next episode at the close of the current one. Build the intrigue. If your story is about slowly searching the rooms of an old house and every episode focuses on the story of one room, make sure someone opens the next door and gives a glimpse of what’s beyond at the end. Or maybe they can’t open the door of the room they’re in from the inside… are they stuck?! No, wait, there’s a trapdoor! I may have to write this audio drama…

For all formats, core ongoing threads should be twisted and pulled and developed during the course of the episode, character journeys should be enriched, essential details should come to light and it’s effective to end on the cusp of the next big reveal.

Endings And Cliffhangers

Cliffhangers are fun and an almost necessary part of episodic storytelling, especially now we’re into the binge era of media consumption. Ideally, if you have your overall plot mapped-out, you should be able to see the stress-points and place these strategically throughout. That way, the cliffhangers will be foreshadowed and well connected, making each one meaningful.

If you’re writing an eight-episode drama, eight meaningful cliffhangers can be a tough ask. When the cliffhanger isn’t possible, ending on a poignant and mysterious line can provide a sense of gravitas that will become the launchpad of your next instalment. This line is best placed as a tease, loaded with the promise of later significance.

I often use this device in The Dex Legacy, especially after an action-packed episode. I know listeners will be reeling from what’s just happened and ending with a boom and an echo of what’s to come can be all the flourish you need.

Character Focus

Some audio dramas will tell individual stories featuring new characters each time, but most will tell a continuous story with recurring stars. When creating a series audio drama, it’s essential to work out your core characters. In this medium, the number of characters is key; not only because your budget may not stretch beyond two or three, but because it’s advisable not to overwhelm your listeners.

In The Dex Legacy there are seven core characters; too many for a single scene, especially at the start. A listener in a new world can be easily overwhelmed. Generally speaking, four is a good maximum. Fortunately, my characters divide into two very obvious sets and for the first two episodes I kept them separate. This gave listeners the opportunity to understand them before I mixed it up. Now we’re into season two, the number of characters has more than doubled, but the grouping strategy remains in place, and it works.

Furthering the plot for the core seven characters is an essential part of every Dex Legacy episode. Furthering the plot for the supporting groups is a bonus. There is only so much I can do in 25 minutes. The trick is building enough appreciation for the supporting groups, so that, when my core characters need them, the audience knows who they are.

Changing Pace

One episodic narrative device is the ‘star character’. In this format, every episode focuses on a different point of view (POV). This gives the audience the opportunity to understand the world through each character’s lens, while keeping things fresh and furthering the story. But each POV can be incredibly different. In season two of The Afterparty, not only did every episode explore a new perspective, it also changed genres. One character viewed the world as a romance, while another painted themselves as a ‘noir detective’.

If the ‘star character’ isn’t your angle, it can be effective to interrupt your series with an episode from a completely different POV. Perhaps the house you’re exploring has a groundskeeper. Bring your audience out of the core drama and provide an outside perspective. It’s fun and fresh and can build richer context than you could feasibly manage while stuck in the room with the door that won’t open.

Flashback episodes can also work well. This was used to great effect in Mythic Quest. In the middle of season one, we’re presented with a seemingly unrelated story about two brand-new characters. Their journey does tie into the present narrative, but we only find out how in the final shot, packing a note of pathos into an otherwise light-hearted show.

Having Fun

At the end of the day, creating audio drama is a lot of fun. From writing, to casting, to directing, producing and adding sound effects, every step is an adventure. The format is yours to own. Set off with a blank slate, or listen to a selection of shows before you start. Inspiration is everywhere and, at the moment, there are very few rules.

The Dex Legacy has changed my life. Not only have I grown as a writer, but I’ve developed an array of transferable skills I never would have gained while sitting alone at my desk, writing my novels. The world of audio production has won me over to such a degree that I’m now Creative Director at Alternative Stories, the studio that produces The Dex Legacy and the Write On! Audio podcast for Pen to Print. At Alternative Stories, I work with a range of writers to bring their words and worlds to life. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? If you’re interested in creating audio drama, get in touch and watch out for our workshops, where we’ll tell you exactly how it’s done!

You can find out about our schedule of upcoming workshops here:


Issue 19 of Write On! is out now and you can read it online here. Find it in libraries and other outlets. You can find previous editions of our magazines here.

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Podcasts have arrived and the world of audio entertainment is diversifying, innovating and booming!