Script Room latest: radio drama

Tuesday 14 May 2013, 11:28

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton

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So the readers made a move from comedy to radio drama. ( there’s only so much hilarity you can take in one big chunk.) And we were lucky again (twice in a week, spooky) to have a hugely experienced and knowledgeable BBC colleague – radio drama producer David Hunter - drop by and talk to the readers about how they look at radio scripts and writers for radio. We discussed some very useful headline thoughts:
• Radio scripts should feel easy to read – they should flow, have rhythm, not be too dense or text-heavy – if you’re struggling to read a script then an audience will almost certainly struggle to listen to it
• Producers enjoy seeing a true diversity of worlds, language (as in idiom), tone, style and stories that are representing the whole of the UK as we know it rather than just a little bit
• Stories need to have a contemporaneity about them – even if they are not a contemporary setting, what is it that’s contemporary about the reason for telling the story now, for an audience now? (It’s also very very hard to make ‘period’ pieces come to true engaging, convincing life…)
• Stories need a fresh perspective and you want them to feel in some way ‘adventurous’ – to have a story to tell, to be willing to challenge form (without trying to be clever and ‘innovative’ just for the sake of it)
• Scripts should try to avoid having too many characters – because radio is not the best medium for a multiplicity of voices – and they certainly wouldn’t say no to more strong female protagonists
• Scripts often start with lots of talking, but stories should grab the reader/listener straight away and surprise us straight away – it’s all too easy to turn off/turn over/tune out – so think about how to use sound to hook the attention
• It’s important for the audience/reader to see in the opening minutes/pages why you are passionate about telling this story
• Just because it’s drama, doesn’t mean it can’t be funny, or told with a lightness of touch – the Radio 4 Afternoon Play is a great place for single comedy-dramas, and/or stories that seek to make the audience laugh as well as move them
• Beware overwriting – less is usually more, don’t make the words do all the work, remember that sound/acoustic are your tools/palette
• And: beware farming/agricultural in the Afternoon Play (as it follows The Archers); be careful with what feel like reverent biographies (they can be very dull); be wary of fast-upcoming plays marking memorial/anniversary dates (they will almost certainly already have commissioned an established writer to cover it – so, for example, they already have some huge World War I commissions in the pipeline )

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And what did the readers notice when they ploughed into the scripts?
• A large number of plays in which characters sit around chatting a lot (usually over cups of tea) but where nothing really seems to be happening
• Plays (like the above) that get off to a slow start and don’t grab or hook straight away with the story/drama
• Plays with very heavy narration, or with static monologues which relate what has happened rather than exist in a dramatic moment/present
• Plays with little enough in the way of story, narrative and plot
• Plays which didn’t have a strong enough sense of clarity - or clarity of story purpose
• Plays with visual (rather than audio) cues that simply could not work for a radio audience
• Historical stories that don’t seem to have a contemporary imperative/perspective

So, in fact, more or less the converse of what a producer is probably looking for. And as such, a complex set of problems.

And what about the much smaller proportion of ones that are in fact progressing past the first sift? Unanimously, it was where the readers didn’t quite know what was going to happen, but where there was a strong sense of them going somewhere, and where they really wanted to read on to find out where that was. So in a way, there’s something very simple about the urge to say ‘yes’ to a script at this stage.

It’s a tricky thing, this writing business.

Read Paul's blog on the latest script room comedy submissions here.

Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    Thanks for this - exactly the kind of detail an aspiring scriptwriter needs.

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    Comment number 2.

    I agree. I think I will have to print this out and keep it handy on my desk and refer to it often.

    I am nearly in tears, though. I recognize that I have made a lot of mistakes.

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    Comment number 3.

    Hang in there Jane. No writer can ever produce a perfect piece of work however much we may aim for it. The fact that you recognise there are things you can improve for next time shows you are willing and able to consider your work critically and that has to be a key feature in what makes a good writer. Now you have embraced this information your work will always benefit from it.

    I know this is easier said than done but I'm convinced that writers who are open to learning are the ones that will produce the best work in the long run. So, while it may not feel like it now, it is a strength to feel as you do.

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    Comment number 4.

    @jane @sophie - I entirely agree, it's always about the next script and the one after that and the one after that - writers don't suddenly become great and stay that way - it's earned and developed and worked at and sweated over and fretted over and despaired at and grappled with and faced up to again and again and again. I've never met a great writer who believes their work to be good enough. Without a sense of honest reflection and doubt (paradoxically coupled with self-belief and ambition), there is really nowhere left to go.

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    Comment number 5.

    My writing partner and I were considering for the next submission window either a play about the Angel of Mons, or a World War II drama involving a prisoner of war camp in England. Given the upcoming smorgasbord of war plays, I guess we really ought to reconsider.

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    Comment number 6.

    @ anthony atkin - if the primary purpose of the submission is to act as a calling card script then it needn't reallly matter what the subject matter is, what matters is how well you execute it - but just be aware that eg a WWI story will be even less likely to ultimately get commissioned. But the truth is that spec scripts are rarely commissioned as such - they intrduce/recommend you but ideas that are commissioned most likely come out of the subsequent conversation that writers have with producers. Whatever you write, write is as well as you can - and never expect a commission to come easily, no matter how strong your writing might be. There's no 'easy' part in the process.

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    Comment number 7.

    i have written a first time script about drugs,debt,loan sharks,gangsters and its funny !
    when are you taking submissions ?

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    Comment number 8.

    @ richard - Script Room doesn't open again until the autumn

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    Comment number 9.

    "Producers enjoy seeing a true diversity of worlds, language (as in idiom), tone, style and stories that are representing the whole of the UK as we know it rather than just a little bit."

    Sigh....Well, there it is again, in the age of international digital radio, the prescription that drama for the BBC has to be about the UK. The rest of us get that ghetto known as the International Playwriting Contest once every two years.

    Dinah Lee Küng
    "Love and the Art of War"
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Art-War-ebook/dp/B006SFGNN4/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325921989&sr=1-2

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    Comment number 10.

    Sophie - Thank you for your obviously heartfelt encouragement. It means a lot. I will keep going.

    Paul, you acknowledge the double-edged sword of writing - self-doubt coupled with self-belief .....Passion, such as one starts with for one's chosen subject, is essential. Passion is often blind, though.

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    Comment number 11.

    Inkstain - the BBC is primarily funded by the licence fee paid by UK residents so some form of UK element/perspective has to be our primary remit. Also - no advertising/linking to products on this blog, please - it breaks house rules

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    Comment number 12.

    My problem here is in more closely identifying areas to work on - from the list given I can't think of anything obviously missing (which doesn't mean there isn't anything obviously missing of course, but that I can't identify it). In my last submission I did generally worry about two things, and they perhaps (with comedy) give me most difficulty. My two self worries are intensity and a need to a degree to make the thing common, because people's existence is commonplace. You don't want to be boring, but at the same time you don't want to be so extreme that nobody can relate to it. I have to say I have got that British disease of loving the old classic sitcoms, including some ITV sitcoms (though they seem a bit unsophisticated these days to me). there seems to be a difference in attitude in the characters though and that's what troubles me. I'm not keen on people who have no self-doubt, and in our society now everybody seems to love those people who are smarter than everybody else....

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    Comment number 13.

    @thelostdot - we like watching characters who appear to be smarter than everyone else - but partly in the hope of seeing them make an idiot of themselves as a consequence. (Nobody likes a smart-arse.) Surely a character having no self-doubt and thinking they are smarter than everyone else but that not necessarily being the case is a staple of comedy character from Basil Fawlty through to David Brent and beyond? There's plenty of neurosis and self-doubt out there too, I'd say ... Peep Show and Miranda anyone?

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    Comment number 14.

    My main reason for being a coward and not sending a comedy script is that I'm not sure that visual humour is obviously funny when written down in a script?
    I've used this example before but in the scripts for The Office, I'd bet that they don't contain a single gag. You'd have to be told it was a comedy you were reading because all the laughs come from David Brent being toe curling or the Hobbit winding up Gareth by putting his stapler in jelly.

    I'm just not sure that sending something as subjective as a comedy script is the best use of the WR submission windows.

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    Comment number 15.

    I just want to add a thank you for putting this up here.

    This has been my first submission to the WR, in fact my first ever completed script and after reading your blog I can see I have committed some of these sins. Especially the over writing one. I was just scared people just didn’t get it. I’ve read books that cover this subject (I’m sure you will know a good one too) but when it came to the rewrites of my script I just didn’t to have the bottle to slash and hack, especially when it came to the parts where I was trying to create subtext.

    Next time I’m going to try to stick to a rule, no character speaks more than five words unless it’s absolutely necessary.

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    Comment number 16.

    "Producers enjoy seeing a true diversity of worlds, language (as in idiom), tone, style and stories that are representing the whole of the UK as we know it rather than just a little bit".

    Part 1. All too often in recent productions it seems that anything set in a community with colourful accents gets a free pass on plot and a number of the points you raise. A 'true diversity of worlds' encompasses a middle class milieu too, don't forget. The choice of backgrounds now seems so desperately disparate that when I hear an actor tortuously mimicking an accent of a particular social group or background I know I can kiss goodbye to a decent story.

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    Comment number 17.

    Part 2: I’m absolutely all for exploring the diversity of cultures that make up the UK, as long as that doesn’t mean dialling down the richness and inventiveness of the drama for worthy box-ticking. At the risk of sounding like a right-wing newspaper, please don’t forget that the single largest socio-ethnic group in the UK (and the majority of your listeners) does not constitute ‘just a little bit’.’ Of course I’m not suggesting you make plays exclusively for or by this majority; but where they do represent a ‘true diversity’, they still have to be good plays. And very often, they’re not.

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    Comment number 18.

    "...the single largest socio-ethnic group in the UK..." Have nothing to complain about, regarding the output of the BBC.

    Especially as, "..this majority..", of which you speak, has cultural diversity within its visual equality. Not that they would like to admit it.

    White people who consider themselves middle class are well served.

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    Comment number 19.

    @ anyone listening - white middle class home counties R4 listeners don't necessarily want to hear themselves echoed back in the large majority of plays - they consider themselves to be intelligent and like to be challenged - which is why true diversity (ie breadth not narrowness) is precisely what that demographic often craves. Beware stereotyping or boxing in the 'majority'

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    Comment number 20.

    @ Paul Ashton. I agree with you about R4 audiences but I think you've missed AnyoneListening's point. The problem is that plays that deal with issues in minority groups seem to have a much lower quality bar than regular plays. I.e., if the same scenario were translated into a mainstream situation the play would never get commissioned. Pitching your action in a social or ethnic 'minority' seems to take you a long way to getting your work actually produced.

    A play should be commissioned on its own merits: too often now we're hearing 'worthy' plays that probably satisfy some BB diversity requirement, but just aren't any good.

    On another point, is it true that after few acceptances BBC R4 commission plays from writers on their pitch/synopsis alone ? IE "known" playwrights don't have to show a finished work, nor compete to be produced ? This is the only way I can imagine that plays like the recent "Fewer Not Less" got the green light !

 

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