Creative writing: Writing for Listeners


14 August 2017
Mark-Billingham-61846.jpg Mark Billingham
Star crime writer Mark Billingham on the differences between writing for audio and print


Writing for Listeners by Mark Billingham

Audio books and audio drama give listeners a very different experience from that of the reader with a physical book. Of course, the pictures are always better, but it goes beyond that, I think. A good story told well, peopled with engaging characters that draw the listener in, that resonate with them, can provide a truly unique experience. After all, which of us does not enjoy being told a great story?

But should a book and its audio version always tell exactly the same story?

My experience as both a novelist and narrator of audiobooks has led me to believe that the audio version of a book can rarely be slavish to the source material. Of course, this may not always be the case with certain types of novel, but I am firmly convinced that when it comes to crime novels and thrillers, the audio version often needs to be different. These differences are rarely huge, but they are crucial if you want those listening to the story to have the best possible experience.

This became clear to me when I began to narrate my own books for audio. I had written the novel, delivered and edited it, and then, many months later, found myself in a studio to record the audio version. Only a few chapters in, I was horrified to realise that certain elements of the story simply would not work if I were to narrate the book word-for-word.

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Important elements

Those crucial moments of misdirection that a crime writer often uses, which would make no sense at all once characters had been given voices.

Let’s take that popular trope of crime fiction, the killer in plain sight. It’s something I use a lot, because I believe that to do otherwise is not playing fair with your reader. It’s cheating, basically. How much enjoyment can a reader get if a killer appears from nowhere ten pages before the end?

Part of the pleasure for those who enjoy crime fiction is trying to work out who the killer is, knowing full well that it is a character they have already met. Perhaps it is that harmless-looking chap who was walking his dog. Or maybe that woman who was so suspiciously helpful when the policeman came knocking. Or it could even be the policeman! On the page, you can introduce those characters and let them speak, and then later you can go inside the killer’s head, allowing the reader a tantalising glimpse of their dark thoughts and imaginings.

This simply doesn’t work in audio

If you have given your suspect a ‘voice’, what ‘voice’ do you then give your killer without giving away their identity? You can’t change it because that would be ridiculous. Why would their speaking voice be any different to the voice inside their head? Quite rightly, the listener might wonder why that dog-walker was Welsh when he first appeared and then morphed into someone from the west country when we were privy to his murderous thoughts.Besides which, there are only so many accents I can do!

I realised early on that the only way to deal with these conundrums was, essentially, to re-write the book for audio. Heretical in terms of common practice, but I could not see any alternative. If something did not work, I made sure that it was changed before I recorded the audio version. I adapted the book for audio in the same way you might adapt a book for film or TV, and continue to do so. The changes are rarely enormous, but they are crucial if those moments of misdirection, those reveals and twists, are to have the necessary impact; if the listener is to get as much pleasure from their audiobook as the reader gets from its physical counterpart.

Like I said, we all enjoy being told a great story. Sometimes though, that story will only be great if we remember how we are telling it and who it is we are telling it to.
We don’t listen in the same way we read. They are distinct and different experiences and I think, when it comes to certain types of book, it’s hugely important that the stories themselves reflect this.

Listen to Mark reading from his latest novel Love Like Blood here.

Mark Billingham is a judge for Audible's New Writing Grant: The Crime Edition. To enter visit

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