We often don’t think about it, but most stories that we listen to have been written beforehand. While some stories are easy to read aloud, the typical story undergoes some key changes when it’s adapted for the ear. I thought it could be an interesting Marshall McLuhan-esque exercise (‘the medium is the message’) to compare two stories by the same author, one written and another spoken, and to examine how each is composed to better suit its medium.
I recommend reading "The Lost Father" in the New York Times first, then listening to "Vietnam's Postwar Legacy" on All Things Considered. In both, Karen Spears Zacarais tells us about what it was like to grow up without her father, who was killed as a soldier in Vietnam. In the written story, she compares her own childhood experience to children who have lost parents in today’s wars, while in the spoken story, she recalls her personal journey to the place where her father died in Vietnam. Both are beautiful, both touching, but they are also quite different, not just in form, but in content. While the most obvious differences are seen at the surface level, some are more radical, perhaps because different media are better suited for telling different kinds of stories.
Zacarais does, of course, make the changes we might expect, namely at the level of language. In the written story, her words can be a mouthful and her sentences long. In the spoken story, she simplifies her vocabulary and shortens her sentences. The result is that the spoken language packs more of a punch. Compare, for example, the opening of each story:
WRITTEN: As the daughter of a soldier killed in action, I'm worried sick about this generation of war-torn families.
SPOKEN: As a young girl I grew up envisioning my father’s death.
Sentences shortened, diction narrowed, the more profound changes come at the level of genre, focus, and structure. The New York Times story is an op-ed. While it draws on her personal experience, it continually parallels our contemporary collective experience. This type of call for political action works well in print, but wisely, Zacarais decides to tell a different story when she writes for the radio.
In the All Things Considered story, the sole focus remains her personal experience, namely her journey to Vietnam. This shift in genre (from op-ed to memoir) is well suited to audio for two reasons. First, the story remains grounded in space and time, making it easier for the listener to follow. Second, she uses physical descriptions and details to communicate her ideas and emotions. In contrast to the written piece, much more is insinuated, and no call for political action is necessary, as we are profoundly affected by her experience, then left to draw our own conclusions.
Finally, the narrative structure of the two stories is quite different. Very little is resolved in the written story. Zaracais finishes with a question, leaving us suspended in mid-air. In the radio story, the narrative arc has more of a flex, and we breathe a sigh of relief as Zacarais comes to the end of her journey in Vietnam. Compare:
WRITTEN: I'm troubled by the nightmares that surely await this generation of battle-scarred children. I know they will grow up longing for just one more embrace. And like me, they are doomed to spend their lifetimes asking, wasn't there any better way?
SPOKEN: But never again will I envision Vietnam as a god-forsaken place. I won’t dwell on its blood-soaked soil or Daddy’s cries as he lay dying. Instead… I’ll remember that my father died in a beautiful land, fighting for the freedoms of a loving people.
These two stories illustrate a few good tricks for adapting a written story for audio. Use simple words. Shorten sentences. Remain grounded in space and time. Rely on physical descriptions and details to communicate subtle ideas and emotions. And, perhaps most difficult, create a strong narrative arc by cultivating a sense of tension and release.
Karen Spears Zacarais, "The Lost Father" April 21, 2004 in the New York Times [634 words]
Karen Spears Zacarais, "Vietnam's Postwar Legacy" " October 21, 2003 on All Things Considered [3:32]
Image from Wikimedia Commons, ‘A Marine at Vietnam Memorial on 4th July 2002,’ Indradi Soemardjan