Why Do We Care? And 5 storytelling questions you need an answer to before starting w/ Danielle Trussoni
On this episode, you will discover why audio drama podcast are the most exciting innovation in storytelling right now, plus why and how you should jump in. New York Times bestselling author Danielle Trussoni shares writing tips and the five key questions you must absolutely answer before starting any narrative product. Join the conversation with Hadrien and Danielle about these topics and more, plus how they collaborated on the creative process of making Crypto-Z.
Follow Danielle on Twitter @danitrussoni
Follow Crypto-Z on Twitter @cryptozpodcast
If you have questions or comments, text them to +1 (646) 229-3423.
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01:50: How Crypto-Z came to life as an audio drama
05:30: Danielle on the difference between writing novels and audio dramas
13:00: Developing the story structure of Crypto-Z
18:25: Why Danielle thinks audio drama is so appealing to listeners
21:15: The production challenges of Crypto-Z
Hi, guys. This is part two of our ongoing creators talk series where each week, I ask the men and women that make Crypto-Z possible to share their knowledge about their craft and their creative process to inspire the storyteller inside you, whether you are an aspiring writer, actor, or director or even an established creator who is interested in this medium.
We live in a society saturated in information and not enough time. I strongly believe that creators have a responsibility to merge entertainment and long term value, whether it is educational, emotional, or cultural. So, thank you for your patience and your loyalty as we’re building the founding blocks of Euphonie.
Today, I’m especially proud of bringing you Danielle Trussoni, the co-creator of Crypto-Z. Just to give you a little bit of background, Danielle is the bestselling author of the historical fantasy thrillers Angelology and Angelopolis. Her latest novel came out in April. It’s called The Ancestor and as you’ll learn, it’s related to Crypto-Z.
But she’s also an expert in literary horror, as she has her own column in the New York Times and she’s been twice on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. All this to say that she is temple of knowledge and we’re having a great conversation about storytelling across medium. If you know someone that might be interested in this topic, please feel free to share this episode via text message and if there is a question you wanted to ask Danielle or me, feel free to text 646-229-3423 and we’ll make sure we answer it. Thank you so much for listening and I hope you enjoy this episode.
So, I guess my first question is how did Crypto-Z come to life as an audio drama?
Right, so The Ancestor is the novel that I wrote and the Icemen who are featured in Crypto-Z were created when I wrote that book.
Also remember a historical character cryptozoologist in the book.
Right, there was a cryptozoologist in The Ancestor. He had a very tiny little role in the middle of the book and when I finished writing that book, I realized that I still had a lot that I wanted to say about this character. The character’s name is Dr. Feist and also, the Icemen who show up at the end of the book.
Right. What was interesting to you in the science or pseudoscience of cryptozoology?
In The Ancestor the novel, we learn slowly that this woman… I’m giving some spoilers here for people who haven’t read it. This woman has a DNA match with human beings that emerged before homo sapiens. That in itself, the history of human evolution and what it means to be human was very, very interesting to me. I think cryptozoology is, for those of you who don’t know what that actually means, it’s the study and sometimes people think it’s the false study of animals that may or may not exist. They haven’t been verified by science.
I think that in general in all of my books, I’ve been interested in the idea of coming up against something that’s so different and other than what we are as humans, that it requires lots of exploration narratively. So, the idea of cryptozoology would be fascinating to me. In the book, The Ancestor, it’s an integral part of the character’s journey of discovering who she is is to realize that she is something other than what she thought she was.
It also reminds me a little bit of the construction of Angelology and how the fantastical world sort of merges into the reality with sort of dystopian quality to it.
Yeah, I guess so. I mean that’s definitely one element of what I like to do. Something that I think is fascinating in general is creating a narrative world whether it’s in a novel or in an audio drama that feels so real that when something unreal or surprising happens, we sort of have to reassess everything that we’re experiencing.
For example, when I wrote the novel Angelology, which is about the human angel hybrids called Nephilim and basically a young woman discovers that she is connected to those creatures. I had people writing to me after the book came out saying, “Is this real?” and, “Could this scene actually have happened?” and it’s because I integrated the real world with the fantasy world or with this sort of speculative world in such a way that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not real.
Crypto-Z is very much like that. I wanted it to feel like science, feel like we’re with scientists, feel like we’re in the real world and then when sort of strange or unexpected things happen or strange, unexpected creatures show up, then we’re taken into that and we believe it.
You’ve wrote screenplays before, we even collaborated on some, but this is definitely your first audio play. Could you speak a little bit about the specificity of the medium and collaboration with the director maybe?
You asked a couple of things there. Working with a director on this was really different in that the point of connection that we’re looking for was about sound. It wasn’t about finding the right look for an actor, it wasn’t about finding the right location. It was all about what sounds great and what can we make sound great. So, that was really fun and interesting for me as a writer and it was a challenge as a writer to stop thinking so much visually, which is how I think when I write actually and it’s also how I think when I write a regular screenplay, and to start thinking about how I hear things.
According to a survey that we’re running that inspired me to start all these interviews is that a lot of our listeners are actually interested in maybe doing their own podcast or their own audio drama and I imagine that they’re writers. Maybe they’re screenwriters, maybe they’re novelists. Do you have any tips for them to make the transition to audio drama only or audio only?
So, the one thing that was the big lesson for me in writing audio drama was how fun it was and I think that’s because it’s a new form and there aren’t a lot of calcified rules about how the scripts look and how the scenes are broken down. So much of television writing, for example, is based on this kind of older system of commercial breaks, so there’s these acts and you have to have a sort of cliffhanger or a climax at the end of those acts.
Being a novelist first and coming from the freedom that writing novels allowed me, I always sort of chafed at those limitations. For the very first time, when I started writing Crypto-Z, I felt really free. I didn’t think of it as having to have any kind of form whatsoever except for the form that I wanted it to take, other than we’re gonna stop at 25 or 30 minutes. That was the limit.
The narrative unfolded in my mind and on the page simultaneously. I didn’t have to make an outline and then say, “Okay, we’re gonna have this scene here and this scene here and we’re gonna do exposition this way.” I didn’t do any of that. I just really let it go as it came in my mind.
That’s very different obviously than writing a novel or writing a script or writing anything really. Especially with narrative and the kind of novels I write, which are very much plotted, suspense thriller type novels, you have to really lay it all out and have it logically unfold and roll out in a certain way, otherwise the story doesn’t make sense.
Also, I think the really fun part about writing for audio drama is that I went hunting when I was writing this for situations and scenes that would make noise, right? In my mind, I wouldn’t write a scene unless I could envision that there would be some unusual sounds attached to it. For a large part of it, the two main characters… Not a large part of it, but a section, they’re in a cave. Right?
The reason I wanted them to be in a cave is I thought the acoustics would be amazing. It’s this enclosed place where they’re gonna be sitting by a fire that’s crackling and they’re going to be talking and they’re going to be drinking a beer at one point and you’re gonna hear all of this interesting sound magnified. That was my reasoning for choosing that location and the same with a lot of other locations that ended up being in the audio drama. I wanted to just discover what it would be like to just hear it.
Right. It’s super interesting because actually we were doing this interview with Fiona last week and she was explaining how voiceover and audio drama was extremely freeing for actors because they’re not cast for characters that look like them basically and it gives them the opportunity to really expand and have fun in completely different genres and different type of characters, even creatures, even aliens and I’m wondering if for a writer, do you have the same feeling of being free from writing structures and things like that?
For me, it was also very freeing because of the structure but also, as I said, because it’s a new form and anything is possible. All of the sort of expectations that people have when they’re reading a novel or watching a film, all of that went out the window with this because there aren’t many audio dramas out there. People are just learning about them as I am as a writer and as actors are as actors, so it really feels like this very fresh and exciting moment.
In relationship to screenwriting, would you recommend audio drama as a way to train or work the craft of drama and live action and the spoken words and the dialogs? All the things that you would need in TV or film.
Well, yeah. I mean, it’s the difference between writing a novel and writing something like a play or writing a script. I think that for anyone out there, a new screenwriter, a new writer of any kind, audio drama offers the possibility to create something yourself, right? You don’t need a whole lot of money and people, unless you’re doing something like we did. Crypto-Z actually was a big production for an audio drama. We had many actors, we had a composer as people know, a sound designer, director.
We had a big bunch of people that were working together to make this as sumptuous, is my favorite way to describe it today, as possible. But you can make an audio drama that’s very scaled down. It can be you, your script, and a microphone and you can make something and put it out there and that’s that.
It’s really exciting because on the one hand, writers feel frustrated because people are downloading stuff for free on the internet and not buying books or not paying to go see films in the way that they used to. But on the other hand, it totally opens up the landscape for you in a way that you couldn’t have… It wasn’t like this 10 years ago. You couldn’t have done this 10 years ago.
I’m seeing and other people are doing this and getting their foot in the door as you said, Hadrien. It’s a way to showcase your talent in a non sort of threatening and non-expensive way.
Let’s talk a little bit about the structure of Crypto-Z, because I got some questions or comments or notes, however you wanna call it. The story’s frame in the recording that is a flash forward and then we track events, we circle back in time, we track events somewhat linearly and then we also fall back into flashbacks for each character. Can you tell us a little bit about how this kind of structure came to you in terms of narration and then all those layers of times? I know it’s a little bit your specialty and it’s kind of what you’ve been doing since your first novel, Falling Through the Earth.
The primary thing whenever I start a piece of storytelling is the first thing I want people to understand is who are we with, where are we, why are we there, and why do I care? Those are the questions that I always ask myself when I start a piece of writing. In an audio format, it seemed to me that the very best way to do that would be to create a super tense situation with someone speaking into a recording device because it’s a trope, it’s a method that people can relate to because everyone’s listening on a device and that’s a device and it’s almost whispering into your ear because it’s a mechanical connection.
But also, I knew that we needed for Jane Silver, who is the one speaking and she’s sort of the star of the show, to make a connection to the listener in a way that would hold the listener throughout a ten part audio series. We want to make a connection right away. You don’t wanna wait for episode two to make a connection with the lead.
She has a very emotional opening, she tells you why she’s there, she tells you what she wants, she makes you wanna come with her on that journey and I think that she really captures people right away. That’s why I made a frame where we kind of go into the future and then go back.
For me, back story and all of those things are so important but I also think that without the character and without the strength of a character, taking your hand metaphorically and leading you into the narrative, it’s going to fail.
Right. I think you went further than that and maybe this is also some choices we made when we recorded and imposed but we have narration, we have present time recording voices, we have internal dialog and trains of thought, and of course we have present time live action dialog, traditional dialog.There’s so many layers and techniques involved and because this is sometimes very hard to do in film for example because the camera kind of locks you always in present time.
We discussed this early on in the process and both of us agreed that some of the most detrimental narrative pitfalls, I guess, in audio drama is that because there’s no visuals, it’s sometimes hard to know where you are and who’s speaking and what’s going on, right? For Jane Silver to take that almost omniscient narrative point of view and to guide the listener through, whenever we sort of change scenes or something becomes potentially confusing, Jane Silver will sort of say, “This is what’s happening,” and clarify and almost set up the scene for you.
I thought that that was really important because who wants to be lost? I really feel very strongly that in audio drama, you have to have a guiding principal or a kind of reset button and that in this is Jane Silver.
Just to make it more concrete to listeners, let’s take an example. For an example, the tapes that Jane Silver is listening of herself when she was in therapy and she-
The tapes, they were found by Jane Silver and we’re listening to them as if we’re listening to them with her in her head, right? That ability, like a novel… The primary strength of a novel is to display a character’s consciousness and that’s something that a film really can’t do very well in my opinion, is get inside someone’s head. Everything has to be exterior and acted and expressed.
But a novel and poetry and other forms of written narrative can do that. They express consciousness. What’s amazing about audio drama is that it does that, right? It expresses a character’s consciousness through sound and through expressions of feeling an action in a way that a film does. It just perfectly connects these mediums together and become something different.
Audio drama feels like a new medium. At the same time, it’s also a very old medium, old time radio plays. Is that something that you see… Why do you think it’s so hot right now? How do you see it in the future being part of the literary experience or the narration storytelling experience for people?
It’s interesting because I’m young enough that I’ve never heard the old time radio plays and when I talk about audio drama or fiction podcasts, however you call them, there have been a number of people that I know that are like, “Oh, I loved listening to those. I would go seek them out on BBC,” or, “I would go out and find them and listen to these old radio dramas.”
I honestly had never heard them, so I was coming at this as if it were a totally new, 21st century form of storytelling. In some ways, with the iPhone and smart phones and portable media coming with us wherever we’re going, it is a 21st century form of storytelling. It’s one of the few things, audiobooks included, anything audio that you can just pop in your earbuds and you have an entire universe in your head.
So, in that regard, I do think it’s very modern and the future in some ways. Also, just from the point of view of a creator, I’m someone who just loves to tell stories and I’m happy to do it in book form, I’m happy to do it as an audio drama, I’m happy to do it as a television creator. As long as I can shape those stories and give them to a listener, reader or a viewer in a high quality way, I’m thrilled. For me to be able to have access to this as a medium, it just opens up the horizon for me in an enormous way. It’s not just that I can create a book now. I can also create an audio drama and we’re also trying to do this with television.
This is kind of another different way of looking at this. What technically did you need to make this? People say, “Oh, it’s so easy. You can just record things.” People don’t say that, but I think people might have the idea that people are speaking into a microphone and then it’s recorded and that’s that. But clearly, with an audio drama like Crypto-Z which has so much production…
It’s not so much technical, it’s more to have a team that could carry that. The main challenge with audio drama is that if there is one thing that doesn’t feel authentic or doesn’t feel real or performance is just slightly off or something that just gives you cues that this is actors in a room reading, for example, the show completely falls apart.
I think the main challenge was like, how do we make it so real that people cannot tune out? It took me almost six months to a year to find the right actors, for example. This vast range of accents in the show is so particular and so important because we wanted to make it big with actions and things like that.
Then it was to build this entire world in my head first and so, I had to completely imagine all the subtleties of the situation the characters were in, whether it’s a thunderstorm or an avalanche or heavy snow or light snow or rocks or a beach or sand. All of this kind of affects the breath and all of it affects the way the voice should be performed.
So, I had to basically completely have the movie in my head before I could go and record it. Then the freedom of audio and the beauty of audio is that once you’re in the recording room, you can improvise on that and build on top of it to kind of go even deeper in some subtleties of things the actors could… Ways they could interact with the environment or props that obviously they don’t have and I have to invent on the spot.
One thing that I thought was interesting is that your actors were not anywhere near you, so you were directing from a big distance. One actor was in London, one was in LA. When you’re talking about that sort of interactiveness with props or whatever and you being a part of that, how did that work?
Technically Hollis and I were not even in the same studio. We connected four different studios around the world, so we were in live sessions together. Fiona was in London, Jamieson was in Los Angeles, Hollis is in New York City, and I was in another part of New York City and we sort of all got together in… It’s not a Zoom conference or something like that, but it’s basically the same idea.
The actors were able to hear each other and I was able to hear them and they were able to hear me in the studios, so that we could work together. To be honest, just because it’s audio, I would actually prefer not see them. If I get emotions or information by watching them, I can’t tell if it’s coming from their voice or if it’s coming from their face. I think it was better for me to actually be blind and just to focus on the voice completely. If it didn’t come through the voice, I had to find a way to make it come through.
What do you see? What is your challenge… This is taking a little bit of a jump, but if you could imagine a sort of new angle directorially that you’re gonna go for season two, what would you do different and what would you like to experiment with in season two?
Well, it’s gonna sound like a contradiction with what I just said, but I feel like if all the actors and I were sort of all together in the same space that we could actually move physically would give me even more definition and more precision because I could play with the distance of the mic, I could have them turn their head. To some degree, even if Crypto-Z doesn’t feel that way, the fact that everything has been recorded in the studio, the voices are pretty clean.
I mean, I did some experiment and we did some of that, like wearing some masks and changing the way they were speaking with hands and scarves and props that I had them come in the studio with so that it affects the voice, but I think there is a lot of possibility there that could be explored more fully if we were together in the same room.
Yeah, that would be fun. I would love to hear that.
This is all the time we have, so thank you so much for doing this.
Thank you. Thanks everyone for listening.
Thank you so much for listening and see you next time.
- Apple Podcasts
- Hadrien Royo
- Danielle Trussoni
- Fiona Sheehan as Jane Silver
- Jamieson Price as Felix Bright