“Welcome to Night Vale” it says on the cover. Inside, there are stories about the town of “Night Vale”, somewhere in a desert in America, where strange things happen. Everything is normal. But at the same time, everything is surreal and weird. Every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of is being played out there. In every chapter, “Cecil Gershwin Palmer”, the town’s community radio announcer, broadcasts the happenings in the town – what inexplicable thing has appeared or never actually happened (since it was a mass hallucination); places that do or don’t exist; aliens that run for mayor; a mayor who is an alien; a scientist, new in town, called “Carlos”, with beautiful hair and “teeth like tombstones in a military cemetery” who comes to investigate the place; angels; glowing clouds that rain down dead animals, and so on. You know, just a typical day in small-town USA.
There is a reason Night Vale is a phenomenon
Now that I have your attention; this is what the entire book is about. And that’s why it is a publishing phenomenon. It is the script, verbatim, of a podcast series created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, that has been running since June 15, 2012, and is still going. (Check out YouTube.) They have a large and passionate fan base, which has allowed them to produce books based on the podcast scripts, run road shows, sell merchandise and have meet-ups with fans.
In the podcasts, “Cecil”, the host, main character, and narrator, is played by real voice actor Cecil Baldwin in a deep, eminently clear and soothing voice. He sounds posh, his diction is precise, he is never short of breath, never hesitates and never flubs his lines. A good thing too, since some of the lines are quite long and full of clauses, which would be easier to read silently than out loud. My goodness, with a voice like that he could conquer the world by mesmerizing people.
One of many books about “Night Vale”
Mostly Void, Partially Stars is the first podcast-to-print book by Fink and Cranor based on the podcast scripts – and I thought it a good place to start. If you are wondering how it reads when it was written to be listened to, the answer is, not bad at all. It’s like reading a freaky bedtime story to yourself. I put myself to sleep reading one chapter, or episode, per night. Each one ends with the announcer saying, “Good night, Night Vale. Good night.” And with that, I’d put the book down and fall asleep. I wonder if in some way those guys were messing with my head…? Fink and Cranor followed this book with a second collection of podcast scripts, The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe, which was released Sept. 2016. Also, they have written two novels about “Night Vale”, Welcome to Night Vale (2015) and It Devours! (2017).
Does a radio script work in print?
Reading this made me think about the differences between a radio script and a printed novel. A radio script has specific features that fit the medium, same as a screenplay, a drama, a poem, or a novel have theirs. It is almost diametrically the opposite of a screenplay, or a printed book. It is written for the ear, to be heard, not seen. (Fans comment on the podcasts on YouTube that the “visuals” are missing. They’re not missing. They are only available as audio files.)
“Listeners have to get it [the statement] the first time around – they can’t go back and hear it again (unlike re-reading a sentence in a magazine). And while a reader may get up and come back to an article, a radio listener who gets up may not come back. [Though a podcast listener can.] So you want to grab their attention and hold onto it for as long as possible.” (Dave Gilson, Writing a radio script, bsideradio.org, rtrvd. 2018-04-21)
Cuts, construction, plot, characters
Basically, a radio script consists of cuts, also called soundbites or actualities. In the case of Mostly Void, Partially Stars it is the newsreader’s intro, the happenings, interviews, the traffic, the weather, and the closing words. In the book, each chapter is prefaced with a backstory about how it was created. Each chapter closes with a proverb, which is not in the podcast. Vice versa, in the podcasts, each session includes a weather report which is not in the book, since the weather report is not about the weather but an actual music track by a real band. (The podcast format is similar to that of The Vinyl Cafe that was broadcast on CBC, in which host Stuart McLean, who died in 2017, would relate short stories on an ongoing theme, and intersperse them with music performances.)
Cuts should be short because people’s attention spans when they listen are shorter than when they read. (Which is why it is difficult to hold the attention of students when you teach a class by just talking.) So, sentences and paragraphs should also be short. Word counts really matter.
Just like with any story (not like news broadcasts), it has to have a beginning, middle and end, and, ideally, it has to have a sort of story arc. The story arc has countless permutations, depending on what kind of story you are writing, and the development of the plot coincides more or less with the development (thoughts, feelings, actions) of the main characters.
Features of an audio script
While writing for radio is writing meant to be listened to, writers cannot just imitate normal speech, not a formal writing style. Normal speech is full of hesitations, repetitions, incomplete words and phrases, exclamations, etc. The style should be as informal as possible, or at least neutral, while still maintaining flow and imagery. At the same time, it must:
- Describe both actions and settings,
- Avoid very long words,
- Use active, not passive voice,
- Write out numbers, so that they can be read out like words,
- Not use acronyms or abbreviations – write out the full words, for reading out loud,
- Avoid switching between tenses – use present tense mostly, particularly when you write for a news program,
- Avoid relative clauses, in other words, sticking a clause into the middle of a sentence. It makes them longer and hard to follow, especially with regard to who the subject is. Relative clauses start with the relative pronouns who, that, which, whose, where, when. They are most often used to define or identify the noun that precedes them.
How to check that a script works? Read it out loud. If you run out of breath or get your tongue twisted, it’s written wrong. With regard to length, a rough rule of thumb is that one page of single-spaced script usually corresponds to a minute and a half to two minutes of produced recordings.
So how does Mostly Void, Partially Stars stack up?
- Cuts ✔
- Short overall ✘ – The total podcast times are up to 60 minutes. Some cuts are long, others short, others entirely missing, with only noises, described in the book, heard in the podcast.
- Constructed with beginning-middle-end❓ – But it’s not a novel. It is episodic so it would compare better to a short story collection, in which case, the construction is fine.
- Standard story arc ✘
- Relative clauses ✔ – No problems.
- Character development❓- We do get to know Cecil and some of the other characters, slowly, a little bit at a time, over the course of the chapters or episodes. Apparently, readers like it that many of the characters in the story are gay. Some don’t fit in any way into any definition of LGBTQI. They are shadows, vacuums in space, or big dragons with five heads.
- Simple style/enhanced spoken style ✘ – Sometimes the descriptions are completely surrealistic, rambling, disrupted, broken, syncopated or just plain wordy. But that fits with the theme of alien elements living side by side with humans in the town.
- Descriptions to take the place of images ✔ – The podcasts have music overlaying the text, both the spooky intro and exit music. The music, I must say, adds a doom-and-gloom atmosphere to the podcast that is missing from the novel.
Remarkable how moving it is
Talented Sci-Fi writer Cory Doctorow, co-author of Rapture of the Nerds, explains in the foreword what it is that sets this book – and the concept of “Night Vale” – apart:
“Stories become great by hacking your brain. Nothing that happens in fiction matters. The people in fiction are fictional so their triumphs and tragedies have literally no consequence. […] Stories trick your naive, empathetic mind into resonating in sympathy (literally) with the plights of their imaginary people. Usually they do this by scrupulously avoiding any reminder that these are imaginary people. That ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is a bargain between the creator and the audience. […] This makes weird stories and great stories nearly incompatible. […] The remarkable thing about Night Vale isn’t how delightfully weird it is. The remarkable thing is how moving it is. Cranor and Fink and cowriters and actors weave a world with haphazard internal consistency.” (pp.XIII, XIV)
Boringly producing madly exciting stuff
The interesting thing about all these years and years of Welcome to Night Vale episodes, is that Fink and Cranor and their team produced them while, they say, they were stone cold sober, sitting at their desks. (Except for one episode, as Fink admits in his introduction to episode 21, A Memory of Europe.)
“Comments like this [that Cranor and Fink must be constantly stoned to write Night Vale] both ignore the power of the human imagination and also misunderstand the quiet, boring concentration that is needed to get anything written and edited, even the weird stuff. […] Which is all to say that even the strangest moments of Night Vale were written while we were sober, in our respective offices, during a planned work time, and with the primary motivator of word counts and episode deadlines to get us moving. The creation of any kind of art is rarely glamorous, but there’s a reason why short stories and novels, especially, rarely have behind-the-scene footage. No matter how exciting the end product, the process is rarely fascinating to watch.” (p.206, Episode 21, A Memory of Europe)
See? I TOLD you so!!
Good to read, though?
Is Mostly Void, Partially Stars any good? Yes, in a very odd, hypnotic way. Is it comparable to other Sci-Fi works? Well, the form makes it difficult to compare – so let’s not. Lastly, it is original, does it move you? Let me put it like this: check out any B-movie about small desert towns and aliens and chances are it will have featured in Night Vale. No surprises therefore.
But, note, it’s the combination of all of these elements into a functioning, integrated world with convincing characters (who seem to want to be just ordinary) that makes it enjoyable. Beneath all the movie-type aliens, monsters and conspiracies, and classic Sci-Fi novel elements, is just a hint that some of the problems in “Night Vale” are pretty close to reality and inspired by actual events – to the extent that some people think of it as satire. Heck, even I had to do a double take when poor Cecil almost got eaten up by the studio (yes, by the studio) when it filled up with blood and body parts, with Cecil shouting “Oh Cecil, you fool! The vortex!” (p. 190) Take it for what it is, and enjoy. Other people have been so crazy about it that they have made short films and animations of it, non-commercial of course. Chances are that you will become a fan too. And on that note, to quote Cecil, “Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.”
About these by now famous authors and actor (courtesy of Night Vale Wikia)
- Jeffrey Cranor is co-writer of Welcome to Night Vale, as well as being the voice of Carlos The Scientist up to December 2013, when Dylan Marron took over the role. Cranor often writes and directs for stage, collaborating with choreographer (and wife) Jillian Sweeney. He is involved in several theatres in NYC, including Vulture-Wally at Incubator Arts Project, This Could Be It at The Chocolate Factory, and the on-going show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind by the New York Neo-Futurists. He has a Twitter feed and a Tumblr profile.
- Joseph Fink co-founded the publishing company Commonplace Books, and created Welcome to Night Vale. He is a writer and an editor, putting together several publications such as What It Means To Be A Grown-Up and The Untold Stories Of H.P. Lovecraft, and has also contributed articles to Something Awful. Fink used to live in California and now lives in Brooklyn, and has a Twitter feed. He also does the announcements at the beginning of the episodes. Additionally, as a running gag, whenever other people do the announcements, they pretend to be him, insisting that they are “the ‘real’ Joseph Fink”.
- Cecil Baldwin, voice of “Cecil Gershwin Palmer”, is a stage actor, performer and director, currently living in New York City. (His twitter feed is here.) Baldwin has acted in several commercials, including one for Taco Bell, and has done a great deal of stage acting. He has performed in Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind with The New York Neo Futurists. He also narrated the audio book for The Fall of the Hotel Dumort of the popular young adult series The Bane Chronicles, by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson.