The following post started back in 2007, from the now long defunct Radio Drama Listserv (Today the closest thing to it is the Google Plus Community. Anyways, back then, a noob, I posed the question (and look to the comments below for some answers. In 2014 I went back and answered my own question
…I’d like to bring up something I’ve been pondering for some time — what is the role of narrator in audio theater? …And it is staid to use the narrator in modern stories? The question arises on the basis of comments of the narrator’s obsolescence as well as an observation that neither of the plays produced for this year’s NATF used a narrator.
Now, I’d be the first to agree that the objective, birds-eye, “It was a dark and stormy night” narrator is a little heavy-handed, but I wonder if we’re being a little hard on a perfectly good literary device. Having more a literary than a broadcast background, I personally use narration in the same way that an author uses summary prose in lieu of scenes. Sometimes, you just need to speed the narrative along, give the audience some key information, and keep moving without making everything happen moment-by-moment.
For example, “Raymond Chandler’s ‘Goldfish,'” is an absolutely splendid audio drama piece as well as an excellent example of how a narrator can be used to good effect (another good one is a surprisingly great rendition of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” I heard recently). The imminent, first-person narrator guides us through the story and heaps so much of Marlowe’s character upon us that we might not get through just dialogue alone (at least, not with so much nuance). Likewise, the Hunter Thompson dialogue is about the only thread of sense through a completely crazed narrative. Both are enhancements rather than distractions from some pretty compelling stories.
Obviously if you’re looking for “audio art” rather than “audio theater,” you might prefer stuff that strays further from established traditions, in the same ways that some prefer the avant-garde and experimental fiction. However, I think that since this form already limits us to so few tools, we shouldn’t shuck this one out unless there are some rather solid reasons to do so.
Fred’s comments circa 2014
About a year after I posed this question, I took a big departure in my scripts and removed a first-person narrator from the story. That story was Waiting for a Window, which originally leaned very heavily on Norman’s voice leading you into scenes and generally setting everything up (if anyone cares to see the original script, email me and I’ll send you a copy). My dear friend Chris Newcomb and I read the script aloud together, and it just didn’t work! It had these great dramatic moments, but then a lot of clutzy awkward lame narrator stuff getting in the way.
I didn’t know what would happen, but I took a risk and removed the narrator entirely. This was most challenging in the first scene, where Norman is on a boat by himself and there is no one for him to talk to. The “have Norman to talk himself like the crazy delirious sailor he probably is” route occurred to me, but then on reflecting I thought I could pull off the whole thing with sound design – remove the narrator entirely.
Did it work? Well, go listen to “Waiting for a Window” yourself. I will say, it was my first award-winning work, and I feel a momentous step forward in terms of FinalRune’s quality of sound and control of story. It was our second field recorded show, but we had learned a lot since working on “Dark Passenger” that previous fall.
In the years since, I’ve lightened up on the narrator a little bit. A first-person, ‘in the moment’ narrator (who bounces from character to character) appeared in The Cleansed as a dramatic device, as a way to try and slow the story down and show a little bit of the humanness of each of the characters in the midst of the full-throttle apocalyptic thriller. Again, does it work? It is certainly easier to just pass all the informational heavy-lifting onto an omniscient, godlike narrator. But I think that’s often a cop-out for the writer and doesn’t result in the best overall drama.
As a trained literary writer turned audio writer, I will say that ditching the narrator was a critical exercise for me in the development of my craft. On my early stories (Day of the Dead, Drizzle, Fall of the Hero come to mind) I leaned on the narrating device as training wheels to keep me from really making the audio scenes come alive. When I had better gathered the power of sound design (sound affects not just effects) then I was able to lock the narrator in a trunk, dump him in a watery grave and go on to write some better stuff.