by John Pellegrini
We were far under the building in some of the subbasement tunnels that were used for storage and transportation. We had been tracking Erik for hours, trying to get to his lair without him seeing or hearing our approach. The darkness was nearly total, and we had to feel our way along the walls, all the while keeping one hand at the level of our eyes to prevent Erik from strangling us with the deadly Punjab lasso.
Suddenly, from behind us, came a hissing noise, and a vision far down the passage. It was an apparition of a head engulfed in flames seemingly floating in the air and coming toward us at a great speed. We began to run in spite of the darkness, and I expected any second to run into a wall, but we had no choice. The flaming head coming closer and closer and with it the terrifying sound of thousands of screeching and biting creatures....
And that is where I'm going to leave you. The preceding two paragraphs were approximate paraphrases of a scene from the original novel, The Phantom of The Opera, by Gaston Leroux. I had to paraphrase because I was transcribing from memory out of the book which I haven't read in about three or four years, and I don't have a copy available as I'm doing this. If you want to find out how it ends, read the book. (And I mean the original version, not that piece of lightweight crap Andrew Lloyd Webber tried to pass off as the original.) Or...you could end it yourself.
How many of us have done any creative writing lately? I mean, really creative writing that tells a story and sets a mood, as well as an image? Think about the flaming head. What could it have been? Was it supernatural? Was it an hallucination? Was it something that could be explained? What about the screeching and biting sounds? What was that? Where were the characters? How would YOU explain all that happened in those two paragraphs?
If you haven't guessed by now, I'm addressing the subject of creativity once again because it's something that I think we need to continually refresh our brains with. And there is one avenue that we, as radio creative writers, need to take more interest and examination to, which is the printed word. The only medium that radio really has anything in common with is the printed story, the novel, the written word. The art of the Story Teller is the art of Radio.
Let's delve back into the history of story telling to understand what it is we do. A couple hundred millennia or so ago, the story teller was one of the most honored among the people. After the tribe had finished the meal and as the flames of the communal fire began to burn down, the great one would clear his or her throat and begin to speak, telling the stories of the history of their people and how they came to be where they are and what the future would hold for them. The stories always had great dramas, conflicts, comical moments and true lessons to be remembered.
Finally, someone got the idea that having a written code that could be used as communication would help preserve the stories and histories so that generations of the future would know these stories, too. So alphabets and written languages were invented and evolved, and the art of Story Telling became the task of the scribe who was considered one of the most important people of the kingdom. Merlin (the real one...yes, Virginia, there was a real Merlin) was a scribe, as well as many other great philosophers of the dark ages. But never forget that it was the spoken word that was still the most important, because few in the kingdom could read. In fact, even kings and queens did not learn to read until the 18th and 19th centuries (except in England and France) because reading was considered undignified and commonplace. The spoken word mattered more than the written word.
That's why even though America had literally thousands of newspapers being published across the country at the turn of this century, nothing was more exciting for the entire population than the invention of radio. Radio was the spoken word now connected from coast to coast, or as the BBC called it, "Nation speaking peace unto nation."
And what did radio bring to the public during its beginnings? Stories. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Welles is probably the most famous incident of story telling on the new medium. Motion pictures couldn't match radio for imagination. When they finally did do a movie version of The War of the Worlds thirty years after the radio event, it came across as amateurish at best compared to the radio version. The same holds true for virtually every radio program that's been translated into film, including the most recent example, The Shadow.
So, now to the present, and our ever consistent cry, "Where can I get more and better creative ideas?" My answer: read a book! Don't bother with movies or TV; they're for the intellectually brain dead. Go back to the beginning of this article. Imagine the situation. Put yourself in there. Could anyone pull off a scene like that in a movie or TV? Absolutely not! You can't get total darkness on screen and expect anyone to see what's going on. As you well know, with movie and TV audiences, if you can't see it, you're not going to watch or pay attention.
That's why in all the film and theatrical adaptations of The Phantom of The Opera, that scene has never been done. In fact, very little of the pursuit of Erik in the caverns of the opera house has ever been filmed. So much of it is nearly impossible to stage, even though it is probably the most intense and terrifying part of the story.
But you can do that scene on the radio, very easily, I might add. Why? Because it is a narrative. Merely speak the words with the right amount of emotion, add some appropriate sound effects, and your audience is transported there.
Let's face it, every time we see a TV or movie adaptation of a book we've read, we're almost always disappointed. Why? Because there's so much more to the book that you cannot put into movies or television. There is an intimacy between you and the story teller. There are the author's thoughts, the character's thoughts and mood descriptions that cannot be shown through pictures, no matter what the dialogue. But radio can do it. Radio is the only medium that has that same intimacy with its audience.
I've been listening to some story telling programs on radio. PRI and NPR both offer story telling programs, and many of the new "Kids Radio Networks" like "Radio AAHS" for example, have story telling programs as well. The intimacy of the book is there, and if the actor is a good one, you can become completely absorbed in the story the same way you are with a book.
So after all this time, what's my point? Should you start writing novels for radio? Yes. Why not? At least why not try writing some short stories. Whether they get recorded or published or not is not the goal here. This exercise is to get you to think more creatively. What would you do if you were no longer limited by time? No more sixty-second spots or minute and a half segments. Just write out your ideas as long as you wish.
What will this achieve? Several things come to mind. First, it will allow you to open up your ideas to greater expansion and see just how far you can go. Also, if my own experiments with this are any indicator, it will help you to take ideas into new directions that can ultimately give you completely different approaches to the same subject, which is one of the things we constantly are asked to do anyhow. Once you have an idea sorted out into numerous story plots and possibilities, it's easy to edit them down into workable sixty-second bits for a commercial or promo.
The fact is, I've found that sometimes when I write a short story, I end up with ten or twenty new ideas that can be used in commercials. I just save the stories on a separate diskette and review them once in a while.
If writing full stories for yourself seems like too much work, or if it's not really what you're interested in doing but you'd still like to take advantage of the concept, then here's another exercise you can try: Rewrite someone else's story. Find an author you like, maybe Stephen King, maybe Ernest Hemingway, maybe Dean Koontz, whoever it is, and rewrite one of their novels. Okay, not the whole novel, but how about a different ending? What if Carrie's powers began to fade before she could complete her night of revenge? What if the Old Man's boat sank in the harbor and he never did get to that fish? What if Hamlet's father hadn't been murdered?
One of the funniest books I've read in quite a while is called The Stinky Cheese Man. The authors took some popular children's nursery rhymes and fairy tales and rewrote them to be even more absurd than the originals. The Stinky Cheese Man was a take off on The Ginger Bread Man. As I read the book, I was struck by the novelty of the concept, and I instantly knew I could do stuff for radio with stories like that.
The best jokes are stolen, or are at least remakes of old ones. The best ideas are simple improvements on existing ideas. The best commercials are no different. We get our ideas from any source that we can find. But I have noticed that by staying away from TV and movies as my idea sources, I have far more interesting concepts. I'm able to sell something without sounding like every single other copywriter in the universe because movies and TV are where ninety-five percent of all the radio advertising ideas come from these days. Anyone who listens to as many spots as we do can instantly place the idea.
Besides, as I've said before, comedy always sounds better if it's the first time anyone's heard it. Nothing is more annoying than a parody of a parody that's already been done. So, please, let's all stop doing Wayne's World or any other Saturday Night Live/David Letterman bits! Make 1997 the year we never again hear the following words and phrases: Not!, Shyah, Ex-squeeze Me?, Dude, The Top Ten whatever, Stupid Pet and Human Tricks, or anything to do with Bevis and Butthead.
Remember, the true job of advertising and promotion is to set the fashions and make the trends, not imitate them for years after the fact.