How Making Audio Erotica Helped Me Write Better Dialogue
Selene Ross on Harnessing the Power of Sound to Write Fiction
For nearly four years, I worked behind the scenes making audio fiction—audio erotica, to be exact. I directed voice actors moaning into microphones and I cut that audio and shaped it into a story. Sound-design was the last step. Along with two other producers, I had to ensure every sound effect—every swish of bedsheets shifting, every dress falling softly to the floor—landed the way we wanted. Surprisingly, a large part of this entailed making sure doors sounded like doors.
In the three-dimensional world you and I occupy, doors all sound unique. Some squeal on a rusty hinge, others thud shut. Sometimes they don’t sound like doors at all—at my last house in Oakland, the screech of my bedroom door perfectly mimicked a frustrated seagull. But in the world of sound and only sound, doors need to sound more like just—doors.
We’d go back and forth in comments with the sound-designers, requesting doors be made to sound heavier, lighter, less flimsy, quieter, and so on. The sound-designers would in turn dial up varying tones, making the sounds bassier or tinnier, or layering different clips to achieve the right effect—perhaps a heavy plank and a rusty chain for a thick barn door opening, or the whoosh of sandpaper for a glass patio door closing. But very, very, rarely, was the sound of a door actually made by a physical door.
Foley, the art of recording sound effects for media, relies on both expectation and artifice. A sound should be instantly recognizable, but not so exaggerated that it feels unreal. In “The Weird, Analog Delights of Foley Sound Effects,” New Yorker writer Anna Wiener describes the absurd venture of capturing the right sound: “Paper clips or nails, taped to the tips of a glove, are useful for the clicking footsteps of a house pet. Wet pieces of chamois leather, the sort that is used for cleaning cars, are highly versatile.” These leather pieces can sound just like mud and, according to foley artist Joan Rowe, they also make for an excellent stab wound.Our task in fiction is not to reproduce human speech word for word, but rather to present the idea of it.
In the world of audio erotica, less interested in stab wounds, we constantly struggled with how to achieve the perfect sound of a spank. Too high and tinny and it sounded as though the recipient lacked a certain heft, too low and it would lose that satisfying smack. Venture too far into the most iconic version of a sound and you may well wander into the cartoonish. Nothing quite kills the mood in a sensual audio story like the caricatured whiplash of a poorly rendered spank. The aim is a delicate balance: present a sound similar enough to be recognizable, but subtle enough to feel realistic.
Before a piece could be sound-designed, the original audio from recording sessions had to be formed into the story’s scaffolding. I spent hours splicing together audio from sessions, recorded by actors in separate studios and often in entirely different cities. I’d select the best version of a line—sometimes from more than ten takes—and organize these clips into the correct order.
Every time, no matter how many similar scenes of attraction, flirtation, or seduction I’d heard, the moment when one character speaks and another answers was nothing short of magic. With the right casting, chemistry emerged between characters, an undeniable spark of attraction that made it hard to believe these people had never been in the same room. As Jewell Parker Rhodes aptly writes in Naming the World, a book of writing exercises: “Characters don’t truly come alive until they speak.”
My colleagues and I made characters speak through actors and scripted dialogue, judiciously adding line direction for how coy, how brazen, or how whispered a line should be delivered. Before a script was sent to an actor, the audio team would meet with the writers to discuss their intentions and edit lines of dialogue to sound more colloquial. By giving direction, the producers coaxed confidence from first-time actors and gave instructions for tone and inflection depending on character, fine-tuning the read through multiple takes.
Through years of participating in this process and many hours coaching in the recording studio, I know how to make a line of dialogue sound believable when I can personally direct the actor reading each word. While this background has been useful in my capacity as a fiction writer, my attempts to translate my characters’ voices to the page made me realize I was taking the wrong approach. I was trying to write dialogue the way I would direct an actor to read, to stumble and falter to achieve more naturalism; to trail off or interrupt themselves. But writing dialogue isn’t like directing it—it’s much more like adding foley.
I came to radio because I love sound, and I came to fiction because I love story. Years of directing voice actors and editing audio have taught me a sound-forward approach. In audio, without images to beguile or distract us, bad acting is more obvious—it’s easier to tell when people are lying. Fiction is likewise a minimalist form, relying only on description and the reader’s imagination to create a fleshed-out world. In such sparse territory, dialogue becomes doubly important. When characters speak they can reveal motivation and complexity, but we lose readers when dialogue feels out of place and contrived. Conversely, we bore them when it is cumbersome or unnecessary.
In Naming the World, various authors share their views on writing effective dialogue. Two ideas come up often. The first is neatly summarized by William Sloane, quoted from The Craft of Writing: “Dialogue must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction.” Characters cannot speak merely for the sake of discussing the weather; there must be subtext, an underlying tension, a reason why they are turning their heads upwards and debating whether or not it will rain.
The second idea is more abstract, but perhaps best described by Richard Bausch: “You are not putting life on the page, because life is confusing and random and constructed of a mess of unknowable and conflicting forces, and fiction is organized and shapely, and arises out of a passion to make sense out of experience.” Much like the layering of wood planks and chain screeches to create a door, our task in fiction is not to reproduce human speech word for word, but rather to present the idea of it.Fiction, much like foley, is a bit of a magic art.
When I first started writing dialogue, I attempted to replicate the character’s speech as I heard it in my head, which was close to how people speak in real life. People stutter, they interrupt themselves, trail off or use “um” or “uh” or “like” far too often. But on the page, these replications of speech were bulky and awkward. I could feel myself tripping over these affectations even as I refused to abandon them. “But that’s how people talk!” I thought.
True, people engage in banalities at the grocery check-out, mumble to themselves as they pass neighbors in the street, or ramble nervously before getting to their real point. In conversations with professors and fellow writers in my MFA program, I realized that “truth” in fiction is unlike the truth of our own world. Now, I think of the door, and the sound of the door. Kate Myers Hanson puts it neatly: “…as fiction writers our goal is not to record or reproduce actual speech, with all of its clumsiness, dissonance, and rhythmic missteps. Dialogue has its own reality, but it is not ‘real’ speech.” By adhering too strictly to the sound of my character’s dialogue, I was neglecting the true purpose of dialogue in fiction—to move plot along, reveal character, and create conflict.
Real conversation is messy, lacks order, and is often quite boring. And while these may be unavoidable qualities of being alive, on the page they do nothing. Through the use of certain techniques, however, they may be circumvented. Robert Rosenberg makes an important distinction between dialogue summary, indirect dialogue, and direct dialogue. Through dialogue summary, we might skip past the regular exchanges we’d expect in real life; through indirect dialogue we may compress a conversation while creating an impression that our characters are still engaged, and thus we can reserve direct dialogue for what simply can’t be said any other way.
In a recent story of mine, a young woman named Anna goes over to her elderly neighbor’s house to rehearse before they sing at a local senior center. Unbeknownst to her, her neighbor is eager for her admiration—he has no family and few friends and, as he slowly slips into senility, his misogynistic ego drives away the people he most wants to befriend. Anna, on the other hand, is not looking to be impressed—she just thinks she’s doing her old neighbor a charitable favor. I’ve used this scene to complete an exercise suggested by Rosenberg: write out a page of dialogue, including all the trivial small talk that two people might exchange upon greeting. After reaching the end of the full conversation, go back and make use of dialogue summary and indirect dialogue to condense it to what we actually need to hear.
Here’s the passage before applying the exercise:
“Did you have a nice day?” he says to the wall, choosing a guitar.
“I had work, so, well, it was fine.” She laughs at the end of this sentence, as though she has said something funny.
“And you told me the other day—you’re a designer—manager?”
“No, well yeah, kinda. Basically I help customers who need help, or who are, like, having problems with the app.” When he turns around she is perched stiffly on the stool, still wearing her coat.
Then here it is again after applying dialogue summary and indirect dialogue to eventually transition into direct dialogue:
He asks how her day was, facing the wall as he chooses a guitar. She says it was fine, work, nothing special. She’s some sort of manager—designer? When he asks her exactly what it is she does, she clears her throat and starts to explain something about an app, customers, some nonsense. He turns around to find her perched stiffly on the stool, still wearing her coat.
Through this technique, we harness the magic of fiction. We can give the impression that our characters are carrying on a conversation without wasting time and punctuation marks on unnecessary banter. Without compromising the awkward dynamic between our two characters, we have effectively reduced the amount of dull back-and-forth. They are still doing it, don’t worry, but we don’t need to bear witness to every syllable.
Fiction, much like foley, is a bit of a magic art. Through sleight of hand, words, and sound, we propose a representation of life, with character and voice constructed carefully and purposefully. The struggle is in rendering the real without betraying that it is, after all, a story.
In foley we do this by walking a fine line—making certain important sound effects louder than they would be in real life, but not so loud that they feel artificial. Writing dialogue is similar. I will always want to hear my characters conversing in my head, the rise and fall of their accusations and confessions. But instead of thinking of an actor in the studio—how I might add an ellipsis to hint at a hesitation, direct in an “um” or “uh”—I remember the doors. How a real door never sounds like a door.