scripts and microphones

hints on writing radio drama

We also have a more detailed page called Principles of writing radio drama.

Tim doing a workshop at LBC

If you're new to writing for radio, there's a great book called THE WAY TO WRITE RADIO DRAMA by Bill Ash (published by Elm Tree Books). However, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

First of all, the way you choose to present your script is really important if you want the reader to enjoy your play and to concentrate fully on it. Here are a few things which can make reading difficult:

  • Plays presented on brightly coloured paper
  • Plays printed with expiring cartridges so that the type is so faint you have to squint at it
  • Plays printed on continuous listing paper with the content of each page dropping down on to the next one (one of our readers likened this to reading a toilet roll)
  • Plays typed in unusual fonts which are really difficult to read, or typed in very large or very small fonts
  • Plays typed in such a way that there's no differentiation between character names, sound effects and dialogue
  • Plays hand written in pencil

A common mistake is to abbreviate characters' names down to a single initial so the reader has to keep stopping to think who's speaking. The best way to present a script is not so that it will stand out from the competition, but just the opposite - if it's neatly typed, double-spaced, with the characters' names in capitals down the left margin and sound effects or music described in italics, it'll be so easy to read, the reader will find it effortless. Then they can really concentrate on the content of the play.

As for the content of the play - radio drama is very different from theatre and television. We often get scripts which say 'written for the stage but I thought it might do for radio' on the front cover. It usually doesn't. Stage directions like 'puts glasses on' or 'bends over and picks up a piece of paper' aren't going to be easy to get across to a radio audience. It has to be in the dialogue or sound effects, otherwise it will be lost. Stage plays can be adapted for radio, but not without a great deal of attention to detail.

There are no limits on the imaginative potential of the dramatist and there are no limits on how the radio dramatist can express that potential. The sound medium is free of all the physical and practical limitations of the stage and film set. A radio play can move through any dimension of time. It can move to any location. It can voice metaphysical, surrealist and subconscious feelings and images.

The radio dramatist needs a creative interaction with the listener, and the ability of the radio dramatist to create a unique world in the listener's imagination is a special quality generally denied to TV viewers or theatregoers. Theatre, film and TV plays paint the colours for the audience, whereas the pictures in the mind of the radio listener are individual to that person alone. This gives radio a special intimacy.

Radio is very good at dramatising what people are thinking. The contrast between what people say and what they think can be shown very effectively on radio. 'Interior thought' is a convention which is special to the radio medium. In radio the listener can be instantly transported inside the head of a character and can hear those secret, private thoughts that are often better left unsaid. Radio drama has been described as 'The Theatre of the Mind'. The potential conflict between exterior dialogue and speech and interior thought creates a special ground of conflict which is a fertile area for the creative radio playwright.

The key to writing successful plays for radio is to realise that the listener can only understand what is going on by what he or she hears. The physical environment and the appearance of the characters depends on what they say and the images created in the listener's imagination by words and sounds and/or music.

Radio drama has only one chance to be successful. A dissatisfied listener only has to twiddle the radio dial, or turn the switch off altogether and the playwright has lost the audience. It's important to bear in mind that a radio playwright can't afford to bore or confuse the listener.

All good writing requires a strong element of honesty and integrity from the writer. The great dramatists strive to express a truth about human experience or human nature. This means that superficiality, pretentiousness and ostentation are quickly recognised by the listener and will normally lead to failure when the listener switches off.

Good luck with your writing!


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