Writing radio drama
Rules are there to be broken. The best writing is when people surprise us with something distinctive, individual and special. However there are a few key points to bear in mind:
Don't be afraid of the blank page - do a wild draft and see where it takes you. If your script takes a turn away from your original pitch, let it. Once you've got it down on paper you should be able to see if you need to focus in on something. You will instinctively know if you're trying to do too much.
Tony Grounds (award winning TV, film and theatre writer) says that this is a window on your world. Your perspective, quirks and peculiarities will inhabit your piece.
As Ashley Pharoah (writer of the hit BBC TV series which takes characters back to the 1970s, Life on Mars) says, be emotionally bold!
Don't put down the history, the set-up, why the characters are there - hit the ground running. It may be a fantastic bit of prose or a wonderful image, but if it's not relevant to the story and the characters, it shouldn't be there.
Who are we meeting? Who do we identify with, where do we start the journey, how do we get into the piece? Cut the preamble and emotionally tie people down so they can't reach for that "off" switch. Simple often works.
The opening can act as a trailer for the whole play. You can set up the idea of the piece and convey something of what's to come.
No drama works without emotionally engaging characters. The audience must want to spend time with them. They don't have to like them, but they must want to know what happens to them. Radio has the fastest turn-off of all drama - in theatre you generally can't leave until the interval; in the cinema you've paid for your ticket - so you have to make the audience want to stay.
Each character must earn his keep. Could someone else say those lines? If so kill them off!
If you're thinking of an accent or a particular voice for a character, write it in - allow the distinctiveness of each personality to come through.
Don't over-populate your play - bad scripts often have too many characters jostling for space. Think about who the audience can emotionally engage with. Be careful with peer groups - Kate Rowland (Creative Director of BBC New Writing) directed LAST BUS HOME by Gill Adams that featured a group of seven lasses from the Northern English town of Hull - a nightmare to tell apart!
Kroetz wrote about people who were inarticulate, who couldn't speak - it can be more authentic to write characters who don't finish sentences, forget what they're saying halfway through, who don't round everything up - it's how we all speak. Let the inarticulacy through.
Make sure that your writing isn't prose masquerading as dialogue - read it aloud to make sure. Avoid being descriptive or prescriptive - don't tell the audience how to think and feel, and don't tell them what's happening. Don't over-explain - keep it lean and mean. Script should be sparse, as in screenplays - in fact describing radio as ‘the theatre of the airwaves' can be misleading as it's more similar to film.
Paul Abbott (writer of the hit series Shameless and State of Play - currently being made into a Hollywood film) says "writing is re-writing" - boil it down to the minimum, the essential.
Radio can cover both the epic and the intimate. Think about the camera doing a close-up of someone's eyes - radio can voice that. The internal monologue can be a great device but can be over-used - writers sometimes ‘over colour-in', using it for exposition or to tell the audience how the character is feeling. Always think about what you're using it for - is it a convention to use throughout the piece? Is it a direct address to the audience? Is it the character thinking?
If you're writing your play as a monologue you'll need a strong voice - for example Spoonface Steinberg (from Lee Hall's award-winning dramatic monologue about a girl suffering from cancer) had her own language.
Narrators are most often used with adaptations (of novels). Give them an attitude; don't let them be bland onlookers. They must have a reason to be there, a perspective on the story (as with House of Cards, the British TV series about a corrupt politician). Two examples from Scorsese show good and bad use: in the film Taxi Driver the narration is a direct line into the brain and heart of the character; in Casino, it's pure exposition.
You, as the writer, create the world - no matter how fantastical, it must still be real. Even if you're setting the drama on Mars, it must still be authentic.
Don't be afraid of the surreal - you make the reality, so if it's real to you that will translate to the audience. It must however correspond with itself, even if it doesn't correspond with anything else in the known universe.
The listener's imagination is an important part of radio drama - allow them space to think and feel. Space on radio is very important - that's where the pictures are. Radio is a visual medium.
As well as the close-up, radio can do a ‘long-shot' - something can happen ‘off' or aside. A character who never speaks or even appears in a drama can still be a very strong presence. Also think about how a TV play cuts between scenes.
Simplicity can be your strongest tool. A single voice can work as well as a multi-layered piece filled with effects.
Be careful of including too much back-story in your script - you have to do the thinking, but it doesn't necessarily have to reach the page.
The artist Georges Braque says it isn't the objects but the space in between the objects that counts. With radio drama, it's the silence, the pauses, what happens between the words that's important - particularly in building suspense.
An enormous amount happens in a script apart from the words - it is the writer's job to include this in their script. For example in Spoonface Steinberg, writer Lee Hall knew that he wanted musical arias - music can play such a huge emotional role.
Underscoring can get the audience into a scene really quickly, or can provide a counter point. It can undercut the action or deliver home a key moment. Also consider ambient sound, the weather, a dripping tap, etc.
If you're writing to a particular genre, be aware of their own specific rules. For example with horror, there is an expectation of being scared, so provide the tension. Horror is mostly in the mind of the audience (i.e. Jaws) so be aware of what the audience will bring to it.
As well as swearwords, audiences can be sensitive to religious oaths. Religious phrases can be more offensive than direct expletives. Language is more potent on the radio - less is definitely more. It's best to avoid in the first page - let the audience get settled in. Also be aware of suicide (showing people how to do it), sex and violence.
If anything is gratuitous, it won't work, but if something is contentious and used in context it's easier to argue the case for it. Write what you want to in the first draft - if there's anything problematic it can be dealt with then.
Don't worry about a studio-ready script (speech-numbering etc) at this stage. You can roughly estimate 45 seconds per page (in the standard format) but, of course, the pace and style of your piece will affect that - a page of reflective monologue will translate to a longer piece than a page of snappy banter. Don't use small font to disguise an over-long script - it's will make your script seem difficult to read.