Tech, storytelling and fictionalised podcasts

Both long-time readers of this blog will be aware that when I’m not musing about the intricacies and indignities of free speech, I enjoy thinking about storytelling forms and structures. In particular, how new technology can inspire new narrative forms. This question was at the heart of the Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden project I worked on all the way back in 2003. Its also relevant to other shows I worked on with 59 Productions, and the also the ‘grammar’ of modern film and TV editing.

Many of us enjoy stories where the structures and conventions of one form of communication are deployed in a fictional context. Epistolary novels like Les Liaisons dangereuses are an old example of this – the conceit being that you are reading letters from different people, when in fact it’s all one author (the modern variant is the e-Epistolary novel, like Matt Beaumont’s E).

Other examples: Orson Wells’ version of War of the Worlds, done as a radio news bulletin; Jorge Luis Borges ficciones disguised as academic essays; fictional newspaper reviews; ‘mockumentaries’ like This Is Spinal Tap and The Office; and ostensibly ‘found’ footage like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.

All of this is just preamble before I link to a couple of podcasts I enjoyed recently, that take the conventions of a new technology or media, and wrap a fiction around it.

The first is 36 Questions: The Podcast Musical. The plot is the story of a broken marriage and how the two ex-lovers come to terms with its end. It’s delivered to the audiences ears through the suggestion that we are hearing a bunch of voice memos left on (lead character) Natalie’s iPhone. It deploys all the ‘tropes’ that anyone who has actually used a ‘Voice Memo’ app will be familiar with: accidental, muffled recordings in your pocket; recordings cut short due to battery failure; and recordings going long because the person forgets to turn it off. It works as a concept, and also as a piece of audio theatre. The actual story surprisingly avoids cliche, and both the characters and their relationship are wonderfully complex.

The second recommendation is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story broadcast on the BBC and now available on their new Sounds app.

The story, both in its original publication and this modern adaptation, begins as a ‘locked room’ mystery that descends into the occult. But this new version is told like it’s a true crime podcast, similar to Serial. The ‘detectives’ in the mystery are audio producers, with each chapter presented as an episode of their podcast series, ‘The Mystery Machine.’ It even has a fake crowd-funding appeal embedded into one of the episodes! I found the story incredibly addictive, precisely because it deploys the same aural manoeuvres that real documentary podcasts perform for us. In particular, narrator précis that keep the narrative ticking, and of course unashamed teasers and cliff-hangers for episodes to come.

For both podcasts, I was fascinated by how the very particular conceit only worked because of the new yet ubiquitous technology we use every day. 36 Questions would not be nearly so believable if the protagonists were using bulky dictaphones. And The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would be very different if it was pretending to be a radio documentary rather than a podcast. It’s fascinating to me how each piece of tech, and each communication method we use, has its own particular quirks that we barely perceive until some clever person mimics them in a work of fiction.

What would a WhatsApp love story look like, I wonder? What about Instagram Horror? A Vlogger soap opera? These have all probably been tried by someone somewhere.

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