If you’ve ever wondered how episodes of Spirit Box Radio are written, here’s a little overview of that process!! If you like this, I can also write up a similar breakdown of the sound design process!
Most, but not all, episodes are born in the ‘Episodes’ section of the Show Bible. The Show Bible is a document of epic proportions – 50k in length and growing every day – which contains all the essential information about the show, from the continuously evolving methods I use to edit different character voices as I learn more and more about audio editing and production, right to ‘sketches’ of the episodes for all three series of the show. There is also a large section called ‘Ideas and Notes’, where I’ll write freeform dialogue between characters and keep track of themes and ideas to try and keep them consistent. These are all numbered, and referenced in a seperate spreadsheet I have of all the characters with significant and/or speaking roles in the show.
The grandaddy of the the plans in the Show Outline, where I go over all of the main ideas I want to be talking about in the show and roughly mark out the outline of the shape of each season. The first draft of the Show Outline was very messy and rough, but subsequent versions are broken down into Season-by-Season chunks, all talking from a multi-series perspective so as to place the ideas of the show along a three-series-long arc.
Season Outlines take those ideas for the shapes of the series from the Show Outline and refine them further from a beginning-to-end-perspective. I’m a goal-oriented writer, which means my story ideas tend to come from a very ‘the end’ kind of place, and the stories that lead up to that ending are all about serving that ending. Quite often the ending itself changes a lot over the planning and writing process for me, but that’s the great thing about a plan! Once you have it, you can change it if you need to. What a plan does, however, is provide you with a framework for understanding what bits of a story you have, and what bits you still need to make.
The three seasons of Spirit Box Radio are quite deliberately split into two halves. There are lots of reasons why and one of them is that it gives you a very specific kind of shape to be working from. A season with a mid-season break has a part one which has it’s own escalation of tension and climax, which comes at the mid-point of the season-long escalation, where the story might otherwise sag a little.
Beyond splitting the plan into Parts 1 & 2, I typically also break episodes into ‘Blocks’. This is partly practical; I can refer in conversations with my guest writers to where it falls in a specific block of episodes, and where that block fits in the story as a whole, and it also makes splitting up the episodes for sending out scripts to my actors a lot more straight forward. Part 1 of Season 1, for example, was broken into three blocks; episodes 1.1-1.7; 1.8-1.13; 1.14-1.20. I won’t go into detail about how this effects the structure of the episodes themselves, but it’s usually about building characters up to making a certain decision, or following a certain subplot more closely before pulling away.
A ‘sketch’ is a very brief summary of what needs to happen in that specific episode. This can be concrete, like ‘find [x] item’, or vague, like ‘establish that Character A has Trait Y’. Sometimes I’ll make a note to include a specific sound or character beat, or I’ll reference a noted scene from the ‘Ideas and Notes’ i think would fit in there. It’s usually at the sketch summary stage that I figure out whether or not there will be other characters in a specific episode. The sketches for almost all of the episodes in Season One were written between August and October 2020.
This stage takes those necessary elements from the sketch and fleshes them out into a coherent story. The key thing about podcast episodes is that they have to be able to be entertaining on their own, minute by minute, as well as serving the whole series (I talked a lot more about this in the last episode of Hanging with the Sloths on Patreon which is only £2/equivalent pcm to access if you’re interested!!)
Whilst I’m making my episode plan, I’ll look back at the sketches for the episode I’m working on and those before and after it, and refer to the series outline where I can, to make sure I’m keeping a handle not just on the individual pacing of the episode, but the pacing of the show overall.
I like to have Episode Plans done by about a month before I need to have a script finished.
The Script Itself
Spirit Box Radio scripts are either agonising or happen in the blink of an eye. I do not have a set approach to how I write an episode. Sometimes the plans come with sections of dialogue written months before and I’ll drape the rest of the episode around those moments and see where I end up. If there is a character other than Sam in an episode, I’ll typically attempt to write that section of the script before the rest, so that I’ll definitely have it locked by the time I need to send it to the actors.
Any script that is for other actors (i.e. not me) has to have notes, direction, and additional information included to help the actors give their best performance. That’s difficult sometimes because I guard my show secrets closely, so it’s often a game of working out how much I can tell an actor without including spoilers for later important plot points unless absolutely necessary, and how to supplement gaps in their information. I’ll usually compare a character to a character from something else as a shorthand for performance.
This means there are two versions of every script which needs to be seen by people who aren’t me. My scripts, which I call the master scripts, have all my audio cues, breaks for drinking water in recording sessions, character notes that are Top Secret, sound scaping ideas, specific sounds I’ll need to use at different moments, and specific audio cues. As I get better at sound design, my version of the script only gets messier and messier to look at. Sometimes, when I’m writing scripts, I’ll actually even start with sound design notes now!!
This is the point at which a script can no longer be changed. Scripts with other characters in them have to be locked before scripts for just Sam, because they need to go out to actors and I need to ensure that I have time to go back and ask them to redo things if necessary, and also to make sure they have proper time to rehearse and organise read-throughs as they’d like to. That means sometimes sections of an episode are locked way before other sections are even written. This can be challenging as a writer because sometimes I’ll come back to a section which I know still needs work, and find I’m extremely limited in what I can do because I’ve already sent an actor a script to record from – sometimes for later episodes, I’ll have the lines from otheres already recorded and ready to go before I finalise some of Sam’s lines for a specific episode.
Sam is recorded a minimum of three weeks before an episode is due to air, and I’ll record in 3-episode stints, usually. I like to have the scripts locked a week before I record so I have time to read them through at my own pace, but sometimes I won’t manage to have them locked until three days out. On one hateful occasion, I threw out an entire script after I’d recorded an episode and re-recorded the whole thing the day before airing. I do not recommend doing this and whilst I am much happier with the result it was an agonising experience because once I’d rewritten and re-recorded that episode I then had to edit it before it was due for release, a process which takes about six hours minimum. I was making tweaks until 20 minutes before the episode went live. Do not recommend.
Speaking of editing, the final stage of writing an episode actually happens in the cutting room. Sometimes episodes are simply Too Long. Sometimes stuff that worked on paper just don’t work in audio. Sometimes I can’t say a word correctly for the life of me and have to cut a whole sentence to cover it over. More rarely, but still often enough an occurence it bears mentioning, I’ll realise in the editing process that a conversation is better in a different order than the one given in the script, and pull and move around the dialogue to adjust the flow. Sometimes I’ll move sections about a bit to accomodate similar problems with narrative flow.
Annnnd that’s it! That’s what the process looks like!