Writing for Radio

Orson-Welles-Studio-1938.jpeg
Orson Wells, causing trouble with 'War of the Worlds'.

Many new writers get their first break in radio. Production costs are far lower than for television so producers are more likely to take a chance on a beginner. If you’re interested in radio comedy go to Writing comedy and Writing sitcoms, the rest of this chapter concentrates on radio drama.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • ​​How to format a radio play

  • Script directions

  • Writing tips

  • Radio short stories

How to format a radio play

The layout of a radio script is similar to that of a theatre script with the addition of technical directions for sound effects and music. For example:

Radio script sample.jpg

Radio script directions

As with television and movie scripts the radio script starts with a line telling the reader if the scene is an exterior (EXT.) or an interior (INT.) and gives a location, in this case a garden. The script also offers suggestions for sound effects to help set the scene in the listener’s mind.

FX
This abbreviation stands for ‘sound effects’. At most radio recordings there’s a sound-effects technician standing by to make all the noises required in the script (the tinkle of ice in a glass, a squeaky gate etc.). These effects are different from the more general background effects that will be provided by a sound engineer.

DISTORT
If one of your characters is speaking on the phone, through a loudspeaker system, or over the radio it’s useful to distort their voice to remind the listener where the words are coming from.

MUSIC
If there’s a specific piece of music you want to use, label it to distinguish it from other sound effects. In the above example MUSIC is going to join the background sounds for a short time (i.e. it will be talked over by the characters) so you include the word ‘under’ to indicate this. Instead of music some writers use the older term GRAMS, short for gramophone recording.

V/O

In the above Jason and Samantha talk over the music. To indicate this we use the abbreviation V/O for voice-over.

Vocal directions in radio plays

Various directions have been written into our script (groans, whispers etc). Most are self-explanatory but two of them, ‘off’ and ‘pitching’ require some explanation.

Off

When you write ‘off’ as a direction you’re saying that the character is some distance away. This is derived from a theatrical term in which distant characters are literally ‘off stage’ and standing in the wings. In the studio an ‘off’ actor will turn away from the microphone to make it sound as if they’re at a distance.

Pitching

This asks an actor to pitch their voice up (as if asking a question) or down (as if denying something). The type of the vocal pitch needed should be obvious from the text, but if not, include it as an additional direction.

Tips for writing a radio play

Most of the tips for writing a theatre script also apply to writing a radio play, so you might be interested in the information in Writing a stage play.

Setting the scene

It’s important to establish where you are as soon as possible, but without being too clumsy about it. You could establish that a character is standing in a railway station by having them say: 

“Gosh, how long have I been standing in this railway station now?”

But people don’t talk like that (at least, not to themselves) it sounds false. In radio a better way of establishing location is through sound effects and in the case of a railway station we’re spoilt for choice we could hear train doors slamming, engine noises, station announcements etc.

In our script example above the garden scene is set by the use of appropriate background noises (birds, bees, lawn-mower) and this message is reinforced by the first line of dialogue:

“I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to sunbathe in my own garden.”

This line quite bluntly tells the listener where the character is and what they’re doing (unfortunately there’s no sound effect for sunbathing) but it sounds more natural than the railway dialogue and it’s immediately followed by a line delivered by Jason making it clear that we’ve entered into a conversation rather than just found Samantha rambling to herself. The line is also useful in that it delivers three other items of information:

  • It’s daytime.

  • It must be summer.

  • It’s sunny enough to be catching the rays.

These facts might not be that important to the story, but they help the listener paint a mental picture of the scene. If the listener is confused about where and when the action is set they might not be able to follow what’s going on.

The line also delivers information about the speaker i.e. that she’s comfortable enough to own a property with a garden, is something of a sun-worshipper and seems to have a busy life with few opportunities to relax.

Introduce your characters

Once the scene is set you have to establish who’s in it. In our example the second line is spoken by Jason. It’s a throwaway line of little importance but it lets the listener know that he’s there. If Jason didn’t introduce himself at the beginning and didn’t speak a word until Mister Perkins arrived anyone listening would be startled by his sudden appearance, we’d also wonder why Samantha was apparently talking to herself.

Always establish who’s in a scene early on. If a new character enters a scene halfway through make sure they get a proper introduction (like Mr Perkins in the above).

Include appropriate script directions

In the above example, the line…

“Oh no. What does he want now?”

…could be delivered in a number of ways. Samantha could shout it angrily, sob it as if she was crying, or say it half-laughing. Because the line is ambiguous it needs a direction (in this case ‘groans’) so the actress playing Samantha knows how it should be spoken. An example of an unambiguous line would be:

NIGEL (Angry): Sir Jasper, I’m furious with you! You shot my dog, burnt down my house and murdered my entire family!

In this case the direction ‘Angry’ is unnecessary. If someone did all that to Nigel you could guess he’d be a quite annoyed about it, and anyway he tells us he’s furious in the dialogue. It doesn’t hurt to have these unnecessary directions in your script, but it’s an amateur move and it might irritate your cast if you constantly state the obvious.

Subject matter

Theatre audiences are used to seeing challenging and thoughtful plays and often expect a production to have complex undertones. In contrast, the audience for a radio play will be much broader and will appreciate something more digestible and entertaining. You don’t have to dumb-down your script, but you should make sure it’s accessible to a wide range of listeners.

Length

In most cases your radio script will have to fit into a specific time slot. To gauge the length of your script, read it aloud and time yourself. As a rule it’s easier to trim down a script than bulk it out, so overwrite rather than underwrite. Remember that every minute of your time slot has to be filled with some kind of dialogue — in a television drama you can stretch the action with scenic establishing shots if you need to add some length, but you don’t have that fallback in radio.

Keep the costs down

Actors are likely to be one of the most significant expenses in your production and although cast members will often take on more than one role by chipping in with the voices of minor characters, it’s less likely they’ll be able to double up to perform more than one major character. Plan for one actor for each significant role in your play. The less major roles you have, the cheaper your play will be to produce. Another reason to keep the number of roles down is the practical difficulty of gathering a large cast round a microphone.

Music can also be expensive. Large broadcasters have rights agreements that let them use music at a cheaper rate, but unless it’s important to your story, keep any music used to a minimum.

Tips for writing radio short stories

Dramatised short stories for the radio are often read by a single actor. If you’re adapting a short story, or writing one from scratch, remember you’re writing for a single person and don’t ask them to do the impossible (such as talking over themselves). Sudden shifts between characters can also be difficult. If your short story involves an old Scottish woman, a spinster schoolteacher and a young girl, then an actress should be able to switch between them without too much trouble. However, if it also features a roaring Sergeant Major things could get tricky. One way of avoiding vocal gymnastics is to paraphrase the dialogue of potentially difficult characters so that information is delivered through narration. For example, if the Sergeant Major was shouting at the old lady you could get across what he was saying by describing her reaction to the tirade.

Where do I send my radio scripts

Tune-in to stations that use scripted material and listen for your chance to make a contribution. Once you’ve found a likely programme write to the show’s producer and ask if they’re interested in receiving submissions. Don’t be shy about getting in touch, no one should mind receiving a short letter or email asking for information or outlining an idea. And don’t forget the new media, there are now many web-based radio stations that have an international audience.

Good sources of contact information are The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the media.info website.

For radio stations in the USA and Canada you can also try the Radio-Locator.

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