Writing Radio Drama
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.
Deadline: 9pm, 7th April 2019. A new award for young playwrights (18 and under) based in the East of England. There are 4 different categories prize-winning categories and an overall winner.
Deadline: 5th March 2019. Amateur playwrights worldwide are invited to submit unpublished one-act plays for the 16th Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing.
Deadlines: 2nd February & 28th February 2019. Green Curtain Theatre will be staging their 3rd festival of fringe plays in the summer and autumn of 2019 in London. The theme of the festival will be “Breaking Away”. They are looking for one act plays on this theme that reflect any aspect of the lives or experiences of Irish people living in multi-cultural Britain. They are also looking for monologues or playlets on the topic of 'Finding Love in the UK' and have an ongoing opportunity for short plays based on or connected to an Irish song.
Read this script from the BBC Drama archive.
Read these scripts from the BBC Drama archive.