Part II of a III-Part Series – “Expanded Ideas and ‘Waste’-lines”
By: Paul Sating
Hello again, future audio dramatist! Thank you for returning for the second part of my FateCrafters Audio Drama 101 series, cleverly titled “Expanded Ideas and ‘Waste’-lines”. I’m really, super proud of that, in case you cannot tell. If you haven’t tripped across the first part, You ARE a Genius then, 1) you’re admitting you don’t follow FateCrafters content closely enough, and 2) you sort of missed out on what you can expect in this article. So click here to go back and give that first part a read. I’ll be here, waiting patiently for you to return.
There, now that you know what I’m talking about let’s see if I know what I’m talking about.
I left you last time thinking about those great ideas in your head, those wonderful story constructs that excite you but which also fan the flames of your inner critic. You know your idea, you could preach it while standing on your head, at the bus stop, while getting dental work done … but you’re so sure it can’t possibly measure up to what is already out there. Sure, Mom and her friends at the book club are excited about it, but what about those hundreds of thousands of fans of audio drama? What are they going to say and, oh my gosh, then there are the opinions of the people who crawl out of the dark web and slink over to iTunes to slay your art with a scathing review! Every time you think you’ve finished worrying about why you can’t start writing you discover there are so, so many more things to worry about.
Here, my friend, you find yourself at a crossroads. If you’re going to allow the critics of your work to stop you from creating your work then take that road to your left; you know, the easy road. However, if you decide to take up the challenge, to create, to put your soul out there, then bravely step forward because, oh boy, do I have some good news for you! You’re about to embark on a journey that will take that sliver of an idea and you’re going to build an ark from it! That’s right, with the right time and attention even the most basic ideas can be flushed out into masterful pieces of art.
In the first part of this series I mentioned how many of today’s great ideas started as yesterday’s scribbled notes in the oddest of places. They weren’t then what you’re listening to now, trust me. And us creatives have the strangest ways of proving that. For me and idea will strike me at any time because I’m almost always thinking. Even when I’m working out and listening to the greatest band in the world, Five Finger Death Punch for the uninitiated, I’ll think. About life. The world. People. There are story ideas everywhere we turn if we simply look. This perpetual motion inside my head has caused me to have to be creative in order to capture them before they become wedged in the back corner of my exhausted brain, damned to wander through the folds of mush for eternity.
I’ve jotted notes down on restaurant napkins, usually a place with buffalo wings, the note-taker app of my phone, I’ve left myself voice messages … from … myself, I’ve put my daughter in a headlock, stole her iPhone and texted ideas to me, from her. I’m not alone either; plenty of audio dramatists do similar silliness to capture the dragon before it’s gone forever.
MJ Cogburn of Darker Projects once wrote an idea in code on her classroom chalkboard. Steve Bateman of Blastville (Upcoming show from FateCrafters Studios) scribbled his on a stagehand, literal, after an improv routine. Travis Vengroff of Liberty has used napkins and receipts. Rick Coste of Behemoth, Waterguns and Rainbows, Scotch, and many others once had an incredible idea while on a treadmill. Since he had nothing to write on he just repeated it over and over (hopefully in his head) until he could get to writing materials. Brandon Seifert of Astrophobia was simply posting on Facebook one day about how he wanted to create an audio drama, so he wrote it out in that post, posted it and …. no, he didn’t copy to a Word document or anything … well, not until three days later when a friend reminded him about the post.
The point is, none of these ideas were as fleshed out as what you know them as. Subject: Found wasn’t some initial idea that swarmed over me, a bank vault full of storylines to pursue that could very well give me material for the next two decades (3 if you factor in how ‘quickly’–relative term–I produce those seasons. Diary of a Madman was only ever going to be quick-hitting podcast filled with fictional diary entries. Atheist Apocalypse was, seriously, an excuse for me to try my hand at creating a fictional podcast that made people laugh, all written, produced and acted by people who do not believe in a god. That was it. Nothing, literally, you hear in any of that show’s seasons was part of the initial idea. In fact, the name was the only thing I had for days — and boy, what a marketing fail that was.
The initial spark is a beautiful creature. Protect it. Make sure it’s safe, then feed and water it. Don’t criticize it, don’t judge it or toss it out because it’s ‘stupid’ and ‘not nearly as cool as XYZ podcast.’ This is your baby and would you ever let anyone talk about your baby like that (or, for those of you without children, your PS4, your shiny car, your boyfriend’s hair)? NO! Of course you wouldn’t so don’t do it to yourself. A new idea is a fragile creature, like a sparrow that’s just hatched. Treat it as such.
When the idea has survived those treacherous early times it will need nourishment; it will need to grow. That is YOUR job! Do it! I have a large flipboard I keep in my office, just feet from where I work. I use it liberally. For example, with Subject: Found seasons, I will determine my topic and jot it down as the header on that large piece of flipboard paper. I won’t do anything else with that page until I’ve read and researched the topic. By the time the research is done I’m so flippin’ excited that I cannot not jot down notes. Again, this is a brainstorming stage. YOU SHALL NOT JUDGE! Tuck that adorable, little inner critic back into the hole it lives in. It ain’t feeding time for you, little buddy. Now is the time to capture that excitement of ideas; big or small; silly or serious; loose or concrete. None of that matters. If it’s in your head, it gets jotted down.
In season 2 of Subject: Found (Oh, are we about to get an exclusive? Why yes, for reading a FateCrafters blog you betcha bottom dollar you’re getting a peak no one else is getting.) I started throwing up all sorts of bullet points; one-line sentences for 3-20 words (mostly the shorter end of that spectrum). I knew what the monster in that season was going to be, I knew some horrendous things I wanted it to do, and that was it. I didn’t even know where the damn thing was going to take place … until I did. The location came through from the prior research I did about the monster but I knew I would struggle to get actors to pull off that setting in an audio drama, so I did what all good Americans do, I Googled cities and towns in the good ole’ US of A to see if there were any on our continent. And wouldn’t you know it, there were two (only one was viable for the story). Boom! Setting determined!
But the setting made the original idea difficult to pull off. I knew immediately that after settling on the location because I’m always thinking about my ideas, even when I’m listening to Five Finger Death Punch while lifting weights, remember? So something had to give. Either I figured out the logistics of telling the story in the original setting (I would have quit audio drama before that happened) or I figured out how to make it happen in the new setting.
And the entire season did a complete 180 on me. It became something entirely different than what it was originally. And it became better. Much better. That one thing, that one tiny change, altered everything that came after: the characters, the main arc along with the character arcs, and even required me to kill off a character I really wanted to write (sorry, Rebecca! Please forgive me!).
So now I had the monster (central element of the show), the location, and the characters. Now it was time to develop both arcs. I deliberately make Subject: Found a ten-episode season. That’s all it will ever be (though it may shrink in the future). All of those loose bullet points about the monster or a specific spot in the city that were really interesting, or some twisted idea I had for a character—and even mundane ones that make characters rich, were placed into each of the ten boxes that I drew on a new fresh piece of large flipboard paper. Those boxes filled up with loosely tied bullet points. Most worked, some did not; but they could if they were moved to a different episode.
Before I knew it there was a rich collection of events (beats) within each box, all of which fell under the neat overarching arc for the story. From those ten boxes of ideas I wrote out the outline, did a little editing where things didn’t match up, and viola! 45,000 words of fiction that was recently acted out by some amazing actors and is currently (as of the time of writing) in production.
Ideas can come from anywhere but it’s your job to feed and protect them so that they may grow. I would argue that you have a cultural responsibility to tell the story that is germinating in those folds and layers of gray matter, but there’s a way to do it where you’ll create a well-thought out and interesting story, and then there’s the way to sit down at the keyboard as soon as it comes to you … only to watch it die a pathetic death a few hundred words later. Don’t be that person. Be methodical, use my process, only parts (or none) of it, or develop your own process, but give those glorious ideas a chance to sprout from the earth and reach towards the sun.
Paul Sating is the creator and writer of Subject: Found, creator of Diary of a Madman, creator and lead writer of Atheist Apocalypse, writer of Family Portrait, and the creator and writer of Who Killed Julie?. He is also editing his manuscript which will hopefully become his first published novel, called “The Scales.” You can sign up for his newsletter on his website to stay abreast of all the projects he has going on. Supporters of Paul Sating on Patreon get no less than two new stories each month.