Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Writing Short Stories for Podcast by KM Rockwood

Short stories have long been some of my favorites, both reading and writing them, and I’ve added listening to them to the menu.

I’ve also been trying my hand at writing for podcast distribution.

Podcasts have much in common with audio versions of books, and owe much to that earlier invitation to “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear” on pre-TV radio.

But I’m learning that the stories written for podcast do present some unique challenges.

Perhaps the most obvious one is in presenting dialogue. Most of my short stories contain quite bit of dialogue, which often serves to define character and move the story along.

What presents as a witty repartee on the page can quickly devolve into a confused mess on a podcast. Without the visual clues we depend upon to follow the who’s saying what, it can be almost impossible to know who really is saying what.

We know that quotation marks indicate the beginning and end of a spoken statement. And that each new speaker will have a new paragraph. Using those clues, characters on the page can hold a lively back-and-forth conversation.

Without those clues, however, dialogue is much harder to follow. It won’t be as obvious to the ear as it is to the eye who is speaking. To keep things understandable, each bit of dialogue must be attributed to whichever character is saying it.

The last thing we need is a listener who puzzled over “who was saying that?” For one thing, the podcast proceeds relentlessly. No chance to re-read to sort out a bit of confusion. While someone could theoretically stop the narration, reverse, and replay a passage, that’s a major interruption in the flow. It’s just as likely to have the listener check out as continue.

Ubiquitous use of “he said...” “she said…” when seen on the page allows the eye to skim over the words, letting them fade into the background and become virtually unnoticeable. In the podcast, this will become a monotonous repetition that grates on the ear.

While a character certainly need not present multi-paragraph lectures, blocks of dialogue can be longer than in written works, and might not need as much prompting from other characters. I do struggle with violating my usual “no more than three sentences before a change in character or a break” rule. I have always recognized exceptions, but for the podcast, exceptions may become the rule.

Interspersing actions with dialogue, always a good way to keep the story moving, is especially important on a podcast.

Another area where the lack of visual clues can cause problems is with character names. We all know to be careful about using similar-appearing names for characters, especially ones that begin and end with the same letters. Elizabeta and Elspathia may be distinct names, but for many readers, the beginning E and the ending A can be confusing, especially for the casual reader who does not want to have to concentrate deeply on what is undoubtedly leisure reading.

For the podcast, this extends to sound. We should not have Cindy the heroine and Sandie the villain in the same piece. And definitely not secondary characters named Andy or Manda.

Likewise, words that sound too similar need to be avoided, or at least separated by time and distance.

Our committed character may contend with a conflict and be called upon come to some conscientious conclusion, but the concept under consideration should not be categorized as contentious. Not if we want the listener to be able to make sense of the story.

On the plus side, this is a perfect venue for onomatopoeia—words that sound like what they mean. When they’re read aloud, tinkling chimes, clanging cell doors and water whooshing over a spillway acquire a presence that cannot be achieved when merely written on a page.

Likewise, judicious repetition of words or sounds can draw attention to important aspects of the story and emphasize them. Perhaps, when on duty, a character is always alert, always prepared, and always ready to swing into action.

My present work-in-progress is intended for submission to Tina and Jack Wolff’s Mysteries to Die For. These stories are traditional who-dun-its, where clues (and, of course, red herrings) are laid out, and toward the end of the podcast, listeners are invited to take a stab at the solution.

I’m enjoying the challenge of working for this format, and hope listeners will enjoy the presentations.

Link to The Bus Stops Here, my latest story in a podcast presented by Mysteries to Die For.




  1. KM -- I ran into these same considerations when I converted my novels to audiobooks.

  2. This sounds fascinating. I’m going to check out Mysteries to Die For – as a listener. I have Word read my finished products to me, so I understand some of the nuances you mention, but wow. My hat is off to you for writing in this format!

  3. I love listening to podcast stories while doing chores around the house or before bed. It's such a fun way to consume new content!

  4. Thanks Kathleen, I've noticed some of these issues. The last short story I wrote had fewer characters and a cleaner, simpler plot, which will enhance it for audible publication.

  5. I'm enjoying writing for this format! It has more "rules" than I'm used to following, but I want the stories to be presented in the best possible way.

    Although I am firmly in the "rules are made to be broken" camp, I also know that one has to be thoroughly familiar with the "whys" of what the rules are intended to accomplish before one can start making reasonable exceptions.

  6. This is so cool, Kathleen! Congratulations on wrestling with the "rules" and winning!

  7. Good for you that you are challenging yourself to something new. I look forward to hearing your story.

  8. I am definitely going to check this out! What a fun endeavor!

  9. This has been a fun endeavor. I hope you enjoy it.

  10. Thanks for these wise suggestions. So helpful!

  11. I used to listen to radio mysteries late at night in the 1970s, so stories on a podcast are a gift. Thanks also for the careful analysis of the differences between the written story and the "read" one. Very helpful.