ADAPTING FOR THE EAR

by Kitty Felde

As a playwright, I’ve had a bit of experience adapting everything from court transcripts to Russian short stories into an evening of theatre. And after decades in public radio, I’ve written non-fiction radio scripts till my fingers fall off.

So you’d think it would be a breeze to adapt a novel to an episodic podcast. Not so.

That’s what I’ve been doing the past month or so, turning my first mystery “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” into a 6 or 8 episode dramatic podcast for kids. It’s been exciting, frustrating, and a real learning experience. Let me share some of the results from my school of hard knocks.

You might not even be aware that there’s a growing catalogue of episodic fiction podcasts for kids. They range from “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel” and “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian” are some of the early shows. A new one “Timestorm” is also set in outer space. Mine is not. It’s a family story about recovering from loss woven around a mystery set on Capitol Hill. My job: minus robots or aliens, how do you keep your audience from falling asleep?


PLOT, PLOT, PLOT

All those wonderful, heartwarming scenes of family life, all those wry comments on how Congress works, all those classroom scenes: gone. There’s so little time for texture and backstory in this genre. Like Charles Dickens, you’ve got to hook the audience so that they’ll want to come back for the next episode.

WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?

I’ve got a lot of dog walking scenes in the book version. They don’t translate particularly well to the audio version: there’s just so many times you can jingle a collar and dog tags before a listener wants to tear her hair out.

Sometimes, the obvious helps, as in: “Hey, who’s walking who here?” Sometimes, an obvious sound effect such as answering a telephone or a teacher calling on a class can help the audience figure out where the scene takes place. The challenge is to remind yourself that the only cues the audience will get about your story comes from their ears.

DIALOGUE, CONFLICT, YOU GET THE IDEA

The easiest thing to adapt is dialogue from the book. Duh. If you’re a playwright, you’re already pretty good at writing dialogue. I discovered that you also need to write additional dialogue to bring the listener quickly into the scene.

And what kind of dialogue pops? Dialogue with conflict (the older sister letting her father know just how much he ignores his kids) or emotion (the sisters remember a trip to the cemetery to visit their mom’s grave for Dia de los Muertos) or excitement (when the Demon Cat pounces.)

Again, as a playwright, this should be obvious to all of us. Drama is drama whether on the stage or in your ear.

FIRST PERSON VS THIRD PERSON

Most audio podcasts rely on narration – at least in part. Now I know why. All those internal monologues I put in the book would be great if the podcast was in first person. But I want the audience to experience the action WITH my main character Fina. It’s a puzzlement.

Luckily, my main character talks to everyone and every thing – including the scary statue of Caesar Rodney in the U.S. Capitol and the all-knowing cat down the street. And in some cases, they talk back. We’ll see how it works.

KILLING YOUR DARLINGS

Even with six or eight episodes, there is SO MUCH you have to leave on the cutting room floor. This is not an audio book, I keep reminding myself, this is theatre for the ear. If the audience wants to know about the advice from the professional dog walker, they’ll just have to read the book.

The plan is to have a production-ready script by the end of the month, tape with actors over the summer, and edit and release the show in the fall, just in time for Halloween.

Got any suggestions of your own on adapting for audio? Please send them my way!

Kitty Felde’s first middle grade novel is “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” (Black Rose Writing, 2019)

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