Writing Sci-Fi for the Stage—and the Ears

The author of The Message (and The Honeycomb Trilogy) presents his four rules for serialized drama.

The Message logo, left, David Mac Rogers, center, and still from Honeycomb Trilogy.
The Message logo, left, Mac Rogers, center, and a still from The Honeycomb Trilogy.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Deborah Alexander.

Oh man. Could you turn down “Serial with aliens”?

That’s how one person described the fictional sci-fi podcast the Panoply podcast network wanted me to write in partnership with GE Podcast Theater. It was June, and my summer was already booked. My theater company was about to remount all three parts of my science-fiction epic The Honeycomb Trilogy in October, so my director needed rewrites by August. There wasn’t a spare minute for anything else. So of course that’s when I got The Message.

The Message was conceived as an eight-part science-fiction serial that would play out like the podcast version of a found-footage thriller, or Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast, never breaking from the podcast format. And no, as it turned out, I couldn’t turn down the idea of Serial with aliens. But that meant I’d have to work on both scripts at the same time, revising Honeycomb in time for September rehearsals while furiously writing and rewriting The Message scripts so the production team could hit their target of dropping the first episode at the top of October (which—spoiler alert—they did). 

If it’s strange to find oneself racing back and forth between a theater script and a podcast script, it’s even odder to be writing science fiction for either of these media at all. Despite sci-fi’s omnipresence in literature, film, and television, it’s still quite unusual on stage. And podcast fiction in any genre, despite its resemblance to the long tradition of radio drama, is still a nascent art form. And strangest of all, because of the coincidence of timing, was the fact that the projects I was juggling were both multipart serials.

Was I successful? I’m very happy with both stories. The Message has attracted a truly surprising number of active, excited listeners, and The Honeycomb Trilogy has gotten the kind of reviews that make me worry some misfortune is headed my way. (It behooves me to tell you that tickets are still available.) Throughout this compressed time period—and largely because I had no choice—I learned four important lessons about writing serialized fiction that apply whether you’re writing for an 8 p.m. curtain or for noise-canceling headphones:

Spend your patience points early: Most people approach new entertainment with (perhaps wary) optimism. They’re ready to like what you made, as long as you don’t screw it up. That optimism manifests in what I call the patience line of credit. This line of credit allows you to take a certain amount time moving the pieces into place. In serialized entertainment, that means your early episodes where you get to spend a little time getting to know your characters in a state of relative tranquility before stuff gets real and all their choices become life-and-death ones. Because once stuff does get real, you can’t make the dominos unfall. You can’t insert a late-breaking character-hangout scene unencumbered by rising stakes.

Which is why, on The Message, the deadly alien sound doesn’t fell any of our code-breaking heroes until the end of Episode 3: because there’s no going back from that. From the moment Tamara collapses at her workstation, every other principal character goes straight to crisis mode and stays there. So that, in turn, means that listeners go into crisis mode too, at least in terms of their engagement with the story. And just like that, the patience line of credit I used to get to know Nicky, Robin, Ty, and the rest is exhausted, and Episodes 4 through 8 need to be all about a race for survival.

Based on this same line-of-credit theory, I took a big bet on Advance Man (Part 1 of The Honeycomb Trilogy) that the audience would stick with us through a number of seemingly low-key character scenes without any overt alien stuff happening. A scene where a dad gives his daughter an odd talking-to for getting into fights at school and another involving a late-night BSing session between a teen sister and brother both quietly introduce ideas that pay off significantly later in the trilogy. But if those scenes happened in Part 2 or 3? It would play as total wheel-spinning and the audience would start shifting unhappily in their chairs. You’ve got to spend your patience points while the line of credit is still active.

Write for the medium you’re writing for: We’re so used to science fiction on film and TV that we reflexively ape those media when writing for the genre in any format. But you’re already losing when you don’t write to the strengths of your medium.

With The Message, I quickly realized that the alien menace had to be a sound. Badly written radio drama is absolutely rife with people shrieking “Dear God, it’s 10 feet tall and ringed with tentacles!” because listeners can’t see the ring of tentacles. But I recalled the marvelous Doctor Who audio play Scherzo, in which the doctor and his companion are stalked on a zero-visibility planet by a creature made of sound. This stroke of genius by author Robert Shearman ensured that the doctor and the listeners would have the exact same experiences of the monster. In an early meeting for The Message, I learned that our sponsor, GE, was one of several companies doing pioneering work in sound-based medical treatments. My mind immediately jumped to: If a sound can cure a person, maybe it can also make them sick? And just like that I knew I had my monster.

Theater has centuries of accrued storytelling techniques. With The Honeycomb Trilogy, even though it was the kind of story associated with other media, we’ve depicted it entirely through the traditions of the stage. Advance Man is an American living-room play, with a family crumbling around the sofa. Blast Radius is an extremely dark Shakespearean pastoral, with nobles, commoners, disguises, and a whole bunch of weddings in the last scene. Sovereign is a Greek tragedy about the fall of a great ruler, depicted in real time. Way better dramatists than me came up with these structures. All I did was use them to tell science-fiction stories.

Learn from your collaborators: It’s wonderful when script and design can be devised in concert with one another. Designers come up with terrific new ideas when they’re realizing elements from your script, so don’t be afraid to feed those discoveries straight into your rewrites. Writing the first draft of The Message, I had to have the characters describe what the alien transmission sounds like, even though I hadn’t yet heard the actual sound we’d be using in the podcast. So I guessed, having Jeanette and Tamara describe it as a choral, contrapuntal melody sung by multiple extraterrestrial voices. Brendan Baker, a sound designer on The Message, had a better idea. The sound he created worked on more of a call-and-response model, and he sent me some detailed thoughts explaining why. I loved it, turned his ideas into new dialogue, and instantly Episode 3 became cleverer than it ever could have been if mine was the only brain behind it.

Once upon a time I would’ve reacted defensively to something like this, but I’ve learned from many years of collaboration with smart designers to take a minute and listen. When I was rewriting Sovereign (Part 3 of the trilogy), our set designer Sandy Yaklin was designing the set based on my first draft. We were working in the same room—we’re married—when she brought me the idea, nonexistent in the first draft, of covering one whole wall of the set with a rough-hewn memorial to the characters who had died in previous installments of the trilogy. This was a flat-out brilliant idea, and I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years. Now in Sovereign, every time a character makes reference to a lost friend or lover, he or she can touch that character’s name on the wall. The end result is a remarkable image: All the terrible losses our heroes have accrued towering over them as they struggle to make one final, difficult decision.

Use the right kind of cliffhanger: As far as I can tell, there are basically two kinds of cliffhangers.

“How are they gonna get out of that?”: Basically the literal kind of cliffhanger. A character you like is in immediate danger with no clear means of escape, so you come back next time to see how (or if) she survives.

“Whoa, everything’s different now!”: A revelation of new information that changes the parameters of the narrative, letting the heroes know they’re in a larger and more challenging world than they previously thought.

When you’re writing a serialized story, you need to know which of the two kinds to use for which situations. And that choice depends on the realities of broadcast frequency: Since The Message comes out every Sunday, I know no one will have to wait more than seven days to find out what happens. And the shortness of the episodes (most come in under 15 minutes) made me think about silent film–era serials, and I thought I’d honor that tradition by using a lot of “How are they gonna get out of that?”–style cliffhangers, many involving principal characters falling to the extraterrestrial sound-sickness. But I knew that couldn’t be my only trick—so that’s why Episode 4 ends with a major “Whoa, everything’s different now!” paradigm shift that pushes the story in a whole new direction.

The Honeycomb Trilogy is a different ballgame. When my company first produced it in 2012, we staged each play months apart from the others. That’s a long time to wait for the resolution of a peril-based cliffhanger. (The Empire Strikes Back pulled this off, but that doesn’t mean you should try it.) So the first two plays needed endings that would make audiences want to come back—but that wouldn’t make them angry about waiting. So I needed two huge “Whoa, everything’s different now!” cliffhangers, and I think we got them. The great part, though, is that two-act plays like these have intermissions, so that’s where I could have my “How are they gonna get out of that?”–style cliffhanger fun. The intermission of Sovereign probably has the best cliffhanger I’ll write if I live to be 100 years old.

Serial storytelling is enormously challenging for a lot of reasons, but those are the same reasons it’s enormously fun. The exhilaration I felt in crafting the right kind of slow build, using the medium to best advantage, bouncing ideas off collaborators, and nailing the cliffhangers felt like writing at its most recreational. Which in the end is what you’re shooting for. If it’s recreational for you, nine times out of 10 it’ll be recreational for the people who come to see it. Or hear it, every Sunday night.