Writing Radio Drama

Scriptwriting tips

Radio drama is the most intimate relationship a scriptwriter can have with their audience, and yet it can also cheaply create anything that you can imagine. 

The pictures are better on radio. There's nothing you can't do, nowhere you can't go, and nothing that looks 'cheap'. Nobody will say that they can't afford to build that set, or the lighting's not quite right, or that the bad weather is going to delay production for days. The true 'budget' is that spent between you and the listener - the cost of two imaginations combined.

Radio is not about sound - it's about significant, meaningful sound. So don't be afraid of silence, or varying the distance between the speaker and the mike. The intimacy of a speaker with the listener can be immensely powerful. In real life, lots of sounds happen all at once. Think of Sunday morning: grass cutters, distant church bells, bubbling pans, kids playing in the street. Use background sound to create an atmosphere that will help the listeners imagination create an entire world. Choose a setting with a distinct aural environment and use those sounds to underscore the story. Use sound to cut between places and times.

Radio has the fastest turn-off rate of all drama so make the audience want to stay. Try to hit the ground running – you have to do the thinking but it doesn’t necessarily have to reach the page. Everything must earn its keep – it may be a fantastic bit of prose or a wonderful image but if it’s not relevant to the story and the characters, lose it. Cut the preamble and emotionally tie the audience down. Simple often works best.

No drama works without emotionally engaging characters. The audience must want to spend time with them and want to know what will happen to them. Don’t over-populate your play with too many characters jostling for space. Each must be there for a reason. (But remember, a character who never speaks/appears can still be a strong absent-presence in radio.) If you’re thinking of a particular accent/voice for a character, write it in – allow each personality to come through. But beware peer groups where characters have the same gender, age, class/status and accent/dialect - they might be indecipherable on radio.

Know your ending and leave us satisfied - a poor ending is no reward for sticking with a story. Finish with a strong resolution (one way or another) to the issues raised. Don’t be afraid to move at pace, like TV or film, if the story or genre demands it.

Make sure you aren’t masquerading prose as dialogue Don’t over-explain – keep it lean and dramatic. Radio scripts can be just as spare as screenplays. Boil it down to the minimum, the essential. The silence, the pause, the space between the words is important – particularly in building suspense. Radio is a very visual medium. Allow the listener’s imagination to ‘see’ the story. Think too about inarticulacy – most people don’t speak perfect, coherent RP. Every character needs their own ‘grammar’. The internal monologue is a great device but can be over-used – especially for exposition or telling the audience how the character is feeling. So make it dramatic. Monologue requires extraordinary strength of character voice – Spoonface Steinberg had her own unique language.

Language is more naked and potent on the radio, so less is definitely more. Audiences can be as sensitive to religious oaths as to bad language. Gratuitousness of any kind won’t work – though something contentious put in meaningful context might. But also beware self-censorship - it's easier to tone a script down than it is to make it more exciting and interesting.

The medium of radio for drama is liberating, not restrictive - it can mean more variety, more locations, more action, more imagination, and more originality. So use it to its full potential.

It's crucial to identify and familiarise yourself with radio drama slots in the schedule:

Monday-Friday 10:45-11am Radio 4 (repeated at 19.45 weekdays)

15 Minute Drama - Short form (15min) commissioned in multiples of 5, ideally a series with individual stories in each episode or short term stories that mature over 5 or 10 episodes.

Monday-Friday 2:15-3pm Radio 4

Afternoon Drama - Daily narrative drama strand. A complete story that is imaginative, accessible and entertaining.

Saturday 2:30-3:30pm Radio 4

Saturday Drama -  Enjoyment and escapism. For example: love stories, thrillers, and extraordinary personal stories.

Sunday (time varies) Radio 3

Drama on 3 - Radical drama, classics and new theatre productions.

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Latest opportunities

  • The University of Southampton - Green Stories

    The University of Southampton - Green Stories

    Deadline: Various deadlines. Green Stories Writing Competitions are a free set of competitions with prizes, open to all, looking for radio plays (deadline 12/7/2019), film screenplay (deadline Sept 2019) and TV series/drama (deadline Nov 2019). Writers are asked to write stories that present positive visions of what a sustainable society might look like, or integrate green characters, policies, solutions etc. in the backdrop of an otherwise mainstream story.

  • Ink Festival 2020

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    Deadline: 5th October 2019. INK is a theatre company and registered charity, that sources, develops, and produces the best new short plays for stage and radio, from writers predominately with an East Anglian connection and each year showcases the new work at The INK Festival and on Tour. For 2020 entries are open to writers worldwide in the categories Short Play, Radio Play, Themed Play, Radio Game Show and Young Writer (under 18).

  • The Comedy Crowd - Chorts

    The Comedy Crowd - Chorts

    Deadline: 20th September 2019. Comedy writers and performers - can you make a 2 minute comedy video? Chorts are 2 minute comedies that show potential to be developed into a series of superb episodes or sketches.

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