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The Sonic Storytelling Behind Fantasy Podcast Archive 81

Archive 81's Marc Sollinger reveals how he uses sound to tell an unforgettable fantasy story. 

There’s a different sort of magic that comes from audio storytelling, which sets it apart from a fantasy novel, TV show, or movie. Fantasy audio has a unique power all its own.

Archive 81 is a fantasy podcast with elements of cosmic horror and a found-footage conceit. The first thing you hear when you listen to Season 3 of Archive 81 also happens to be the first thing I wrote for Season 3 of the series. It’s an older man’s voice describing a magical ritual. The audio crackles, as if it were being played on a cassette. The ritual is as follows: 

Cut down a large tree on land that you own. Carve the words: delirium, vestigial, uncertain, and colony into the stump of the tree. On your son’s first birthday, place him upon the stump and anoint his forehead with rabbit’s blood. While the blood is still wet, you must describe his conception in detail. After that’s done, join your son on the stump and anoint your own forehead with the blood of a bull. Drop your son on the ground. You may cushion his fall, if you wish. If the ritual has been performed correctly, you will remain relatively healthy for the next five years. This is not, as some have claimed, an immortality ritual.

The man talking within the ritual is a father—the audience doesn’t know he’s a father yet, but he most certainly is—describing a ceremony in which, to gain worldly power, you have to cause harm to your own family. This creepy little rite encapsulates all the major themes of Archive 81 Season 3. 

Archive 81 is fantasy storytelling. But since it's an audio drama, it requires a different authorial approach than fantasy books, movies, or television—different ritual requirements, if you will. 

(By the way, if you don’t know what an audio drama is, that’s super exciting! It means you have a whole new form of media to experience. Think of it as television without visuals, instead using dialogue, sound effects, and music to tell a story. If you want to listen to some great sci-fi or fantasy podcasts, Ars Paradoxica, The Bright Sessions, and The Bridge are good ones to start with.) 

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The worldbuilding in particular calls for another angle than more traditional forms of fantasy media. Fantasy novels can lavish pages upon pages of comprehensive descriptions on the culture and customs of a particular place. Think of the way N.K. Jemisin details the culture in The Broken Earth series, or the way George R.R. Martin describes the long feasts in A Song of Ice and Fire. Film and television can use visuals to signify setting, from the costumes characters wear to the small tchotchkes they keep in their home. 

Archive 81 fantasy podcast
  • Photo Credit: Archive 81

But sonic storytelling presents a unique challenge for worldbuilding. Nobody wants to hear 10 minutes of chewing noises, and constantly describing what everything looks like quickly becomes obnoxious.

Thankfully, there are solutions. The dialogue can definitely go a long way to creating a distinctive environment. For example, if a character offhandedly mentions forgotten spells, ancient keys, and elder gods, the audience will probably get a sense of the type of place the character lives. Music is another powerful tools for worlbuilding. The Dwarven songs in The Hobbit and The Lords of the Rings become much more dynamic if your audience can actually hear them. And listening to a lullaby from an alien culture can make you empathize with them far more than reading another pages-long description of the honey mead they served at their feast.

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But you can also use sound itself as a world-building tool. The sonic texture of a deserted alleyway, the way the shimmerglass bell rings out over the crystal-spired city, the distinct sound of a less-than-human marketplace, all create a powerful sense of place. Audio can be just as evocative as an image, it’s simply a matter of conjuring the perfect noises for the story you’re telling.

And it’s also a matter of trusting the listener’s imagination: give them enough description to go on, but not too much that it becomes exhaustive. It’s a delicate balance, but also an opportunity. A listener can summon images that are infinitely more fantastical than anything a VFX studio could come up with. For example, the dragon they imagine after hearing a guttural roar and a rush of fire is going to be a lot less fake-looking than the one in Dragonheart. Sound is an extraordinarily visual medium, if you let it be. 

But most of all, writing a fantasy podcast means thinking from an audio-first perspective. Novels can prioritize linguistic richness, or a character’s interior journey. Movies can prioritize visual splendor. But audio dramas should prioritize sound. 

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For example, in Dr. Strange and The Magicians, magic is literally created by the protagonists waving their hands around. Which is totally fine for a film or TV show. Floating sparks are cool! But that would make an awful podcast. Instead, for Archive 81’s third season, magic is complex and ritual based, with lots of opportunities for interesting sounds and dynamic conversation. An explosion of lights and color works great in a movie, but an explosion of sound and music works much better in an audio drama. 

archive 81
  • Photo Credit: Archive 81

Thinking from an audio-first perspective also requires considering plot and character in a new way. For the most part in Archive 81, we keep the number of characters in each scene small and manageable, so that the audience can tell them apart by voice alone. With a few exceptions, more than four or five characters per scene becomes confusing. 

Certain aspects of characters should also be emphasized or minimized. A roguish wizard with a wicked scar is cool, but a roguish wizard with a scratched-up voice is even cooler—for podcasts, at least. In pretty much every audio drama I make, I include robots or mechanical voices, because those distinctive vocal quirks translate so well to the medium. 

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When my creative partner (the lovely and talented Daniel Powell) and I were brainstorming for the new season of Archive 81, we kept returning to the idea of magic. We were fascinated by what people will sacrifice to attain what they think they want, and by the themes of family and its consequences. These themes could be examined in any medium. But telling that story through sound, particularly through a fantasy podcast, gives creators a connection with listeners that’s completely unique — a magic all its own.

All photos via Archive 81 

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