Stepping Through the Narrative Door: An Essay on Contemporary Audio Fiction

Please Note: This article contains major spoilers for The Deca Tapes, Ars Paradoxica, and Among the Stars and Bones

Introduction

“My name is Lia Haddock, and I’m an investigative reporter with APR. I was seventeen years old as the events of the Limetown unfolded, and I become somewhat of a Limetown news junkie [...] the following report is the first of a seven - that’s right, seven - part series on Limetown, starting with everything we know up to this point, then quickly moving to the people most affected and what it means to them today.” - Limetown: Series 1, Episode 1

Found sound is one of the most popular framing devices in the contemporary fiction podcast landscape. Limetown is one the most famous and memorable illustrations of the found sound technique in modern audio drama: packaged as a real documentary series released by the fictional American Public Radio. Found sound does not have to be pseudo-journalistic, however; stories can be told through personal voice recorders (Earth Break, Girl in Space); cassette tapes (Archive 81, The Magnus Archives) and even AM Radio Stations (King Falls AM, Welcome to Night Vale). 

It’s not a new phenomenon in the history of audio drama: most famously, The War of the Worlds purported to be a real news broadcast when it was aired on CBS Radio in 1938, causing mass panic. More recently, in addition to Limetown, The Black Tapes was a well known example of serialised fiction imitating a popular American investigative style of reporting, causing a slew of worried tweets, and a surge in the popularity of contemporary audio fiction.

Not all found sound has the same effect on its listeners. Indeed, I would argue that there are at least two major strata of found sound and similar framing devices which have very different effects on their audience. First is the sense of framing device with which we are familiar: essentially wrapping one story inside of another. As in, I am telling you a story about ghosts inside of a story about journalists who investigate ghosts. 

Framing devices are not necessarily inextricable from their narrative: in The Penumbra Podcast, for example, the show’s announcer in The Penumbra Hotel exists in an entirely different dimension to those in which its two major storylines take place, and none of the characters in these stories are aware of the existence of the hotel. In The Blood Crow Stories, the unhappy victims of the tales of horror fed to the Blood Crow’s even more unhappy subjects are not aware of the Blood Crows themselves, who open and close each episode by addressing the listener in a separate time and place to the story of each season. These are framing devices which wrap their narratives, and do not necessarily touch them. 

As above, a common and popular framing device in fiction podcasting is one which incorporates found sound. In a show like Within the Wires, the narrative frame is inextricable from the story itself. The fact that season one is a series of relaxation tapes is a fundamental pillar of its fiction. In shows like Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope or Junction Series, broadcasting a message to the survivors of the apocalypse is a primary motivation for the shows’ protagonists and for the story’s existence at all.

I would argue that there is a distinct subset of framing device and found sound which has achieved increasing popularity in modern audio fiction. This practice capitalizes on its medium and its audience, enhancing their experience of unreality. I’ll be referring to it as the use of narrative doors. To explain further: if a drama has a framing device or conceit which is inextricable from its narrative, and which is executed in such a way as to convince the audience even momentarily that there is a real tangible connection between themselves and the fiction, then that drama has opened a narrative door. The relationship between the audience and the story becomes active, not passive, and in audio especially the resulting effect is intoxicating. The following are examples of narrative doors done well. 

Photo by    Samuel Zeller    on    Unsplash

An Assortment of Narrative Doors: Beginnings, Middles

Some podcasts establish their narrative doors from the outset. Mabel is an excellent example of this: a horror fiction series from 2016, the set up of Mabel is that it’s a series of answerphone messages left by a carer, Anna Limon, for her patient’s granddaughter, Mabel Martin. For me the magic and the horror of the podcast really kicks in in episode two: Anna starts the episode by addressing the fact that Mabel’s voicemail inbox has been emptied. She says:

You’re there, and I’m here, and maybe you’re only skimming these messages to get to the end, so you can erase them and keep your inbox empty again, but you hear me. You hear me, so I’m real. At least a tiny bit.” - Mabel, Episode 1

You hear me, so I’m real. We hear Anna, so she’s real: and Mabel is alive and somewhere in the world with us, hidden, listening to her answerphone messages.

One of my favourite pseudo-journalistic podcasts that establishes its narrative doors very early on is Point Mystic. Point Mystic is set up as a journalistic investigation, a podcast version of a radio show that had been broadcasting for twenty years looking into magic, mystery and the unexplained. Episode 0 is an episode of the show from an alternate dimension, with no explanation given in the audio, only this summary in the show notes:

We’re not sure where this episode came from, an episode dated just days ago that depicts the end of the world. I did not record this, and our world is not on fire. We are broadcasting this for you now, uncensored, in its entirety.” - Point Mystic, Episode 0

A narrative door has been opened: the show notes are an extension of the show’s fiction, justifying its existence at all, and informing the audience that they are now part of the world. It seems crazy, right? We couldn’t believe it either. But it’s here, and you can see it too, so it must be real.

Not every show opens the door immediately. A great recent example of this is Among the Stars and Bones. Following a xeno-archaeological dig through the recordings of its various staff, the series is a science-fiction horror which uses interference and distortion of its own audio to indicate the presence of what remains of the alien civilisation that the team are investigating. One of my favourite moments in recent audio fiction history was seeing a series of tweets sent to the team asking them whether they knew that their audio had been heavily distorted at key moments. Like when the expedition’s chief technician was discussing or in close proximity to the relics of a long dead supercomputer. We heard the ghost in the machine: we physically experienced its reality in a way the show’s characters had not yet registered. Suddenly, we were part of the story. It was a beautiful piece of sound design, and it served its function perfectly. 

A similar effect is used in The Adventure Zone: Balance. The players learn of a group of things or people about which they are somehow barred from hearing: whenever anyone tells them the words turn to static. Listeners share the players’ their characters’ experience, we too hear only static. When we learn later on that this static effect has been implemented across dimensions and realities, it’s a claim that rings with an eerie and enticing kind of truth. We live in a different reality. We can’t hear these words either.

In both cases, the listener experiences a real physical connection to the fictional world. I know I’m not on an alien planet or in another dimension. But I also know I’m hearing something from that world, something that exists separately to myself. Something I cannot control. 

Another example of delayed gratification when it comes to narrative doors and the opening thereof is The Magnus Archives. The sheer volume of episodes that this show has produced can be daunting: especially when on first glance it looks like a horror anthology show. The main character, Johnathan Sims, works for an institute which collects statements about the paranormal. He reads what is essentially a scary story, provides a few framing comments, and the episode ends. That’s the show for the first twenty-two episodes. The only thing that’s a little unusual is that Johnathan, for all his curmudgeonly demeanour and scepticism, really performs those statements. Again, a thing that I love to see is people starting the series and making Tumblr posts and tweets about how clearly the man missed a career in amateur theatre. It isn’t until listeners hit season two that they realize there’s an in fiction explanation for the performances: that the act of reading, and, crucially, the act of listening, is an act of power in the world of The Magnus Archives. It’s dangerous. And now we’ve done it too.

Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

An Assortment of Narrative Doors: Endings

Some shows don’t reveal their narrative doors until the very end: offering a neat, cyclical chaser to their stories that enhance the wonder through their completion. Ars Paradoxica is one of my favourite examples of this: the entire story exists in a separate timeline to our own, a fact we only learn in the show’s final episode. The fact that Sally’s story happens in another timeline is confirmed by our knowledge that in this world, the American government cannot control time travel. It’s not real, therefore it’s real. The show proves its fiction by proving it’s fiction - or at least not real here and now, even if it could’ve been in another when. 

The Deca Tapes – whilst arguably a series that establishes its doors much earlier – really sticks the landing with one final unexpected mystery. We know it’s a series of leaked tapes from a shady corporation, which we slowly learn is responsible for the management and offworld export of death row criminals. But it isn’t until the very end of the series that we learn that the story we’re listening to is what allowed these tapes to be leaked: like the tapes’ in-universe audience, we learn that the real mystery is not the murder at the heart of the first two thirds of the series, it’s why the recordings exist at all. We learn that the characters we’re listening to did everything they could to ensure the release of their story, to find an audience for their message. And now they’ve found it. It’s us.

Forest 404 similarly sets up the possibility of a door in the first episode, addressing you in its conclusion as someone who already knows what’s going to happen. Pan consistently uses the past tense, and refers to the listener as if we were victims of some great crime she did to us - alluding to details of which we are not aware. So we know that we haven’t suffered something terrible thanks to this woman, who is a fictional character in a podcast. This is not the narrative door.

However, right now in the real world we are watching ourselves drive the natural world to extinction. When Pan listens to the Sumatran rainforest and has no idea what birds or trees are, we do. We’re part of Pan’s history, and we live in her world. Like Theia, we’re alternately exasperated, horrified and sympathetic to Pan’s ignorance of nature. We cannot help but feel these things because we live in the world too.

Photo by  Kevin Erdvig  on  Unsplash

Conclusion

The fact that audio is an intimate medium is said often enough to be a truism, and I wrote last year for IPM about the relationship between audio fiction and the fourth wall. It makes sense that devices and conceits like found sound, which allow the listener to believe the fiction is real, are especially intoxicating in this medium. It’s not an easy effect to achieve: you need good writers, good performances, good sound design, and most of all a good reason. These stories aren’t stories which use their conceits as a way to excuse themselves. Their narrative frames, their narrative doors, are part of their reason for being. 

Why are you telling this story? Limetown questions our relationship with investigative journalism and the people who make it. Point Mystic recalls our sense of wonder: it takes an ordinary frame and puts extraordinary things into it. Mabel confronts our feelings about identity: who is Anna really talking to? How well do we know ourselves? Among the Stars and Bones addresses our fear of technology: is all technological advancement always good? What happens if we can’t control it? The Magnus Archives explores our relationships with personhood and fear itself. Ars Paradoxica asks what if? Forest 404 asks what now? 

These stories want us to think they’re real, because if we do then we listen to them. If we listen, the emotional impact of the challenges they present to us hit far closer to home. We listen, closely, because we’re trying to hear the seam where fiction meets reality. And we can’t. The narrative door is open, and with it are our hearts and minds: caught in the fear of belief and the infinite expanse of the imagination. This is what takes our breath away. For just one moment the story is real. Anything can happen.


ELLA WATTS (SHE/HER), THE ORPHANS

Follow Ella on Twitter: @GejWatts
Follow The Orphans on Twitter: @OrphansAudio
Find The Orphans at: https://www.orphanspod.com

Image credit to Zachary Fortais-Gomm:   https://www.zackfg.com/

Image credit to Zachary Fortais-Gomm: https://www.zackfg.com/