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Archive for August, 2013

Tell the Story
Writing Radio Dialogue.

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If movie writers follow any rule, and they seldom do, it’s ‘show, don’t tell’. In other words a thing shown always has more impact than something said. This is generally the case. In radio however we can’t show anything, there are no pictures, so just about everything has to be said. The rule becomes ‘tell, tell, tell’.

In radio, dialogue has to do much more than in any other dramatic medium. It has to carry the plot forward, portray the characters, place them in time and space, provide the props and paint the scenery. All of this without the advantage of a safety net. Of course dialogue can be aided by sound effects and music but these cannot, on their own, tell the story. They can back up the words and create mood and atmosphere but can’t give us the amount of detail needed to deliver a plot for example.

The job of the writer becomes one of artful manipulation of language to set the scene in a naturalistic way and introduce the required narrative detail while still creating something that sounds like real conversation. This can be very difficult. If Uncle Jack enters and we need to introduce him, the writer must find ways of saying something other than ‘Here comes Uncle Jack’. The best way to do this, as in all revelation of story or back-story, is to find a conflict somewhere in the scene. If for example someone says ‘Here comes that two-faced swindler Uncle Jack’ the listener will be interested without realising he’s being fed necessary information.

When we design our cast we must also be careful not to have characters who are too much alike. In movies and television we can easily see who a character is and rely on sight alone to differentiate between each player. In radio we don’t have that luxury. We have to use voice to set them apart. If, for example, you have written a play or a scene involving three teenage girls from the same background it will be very difficult for the listener to work out who is who.

Without sounding too simplistic it is best to have scenes in which a man talks to woman, or Russian talks to Englishman, or street kid talks to toff etc, etc. This is not always possible and I’m not suggesting you give your characters speech impediments or make them Spanish for no good reason, but clever use of cast design can greatly help your play. My first play for Radio 4, Macmorris, involved four minor characters from Shakespeare’s HenryV. They are all soldiers of about the same age. This could have been a nightmare for radio. However the four are, an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman. They are immediately recognisable by their accents and the audience needs no introduction to understand who they are. In fact I hadn’t planned it that way but discovered the simplicity of this while working on the script. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten.

Do not overlook the potential of monologue on radio either. A voice-over narration or a soliloquy takes on new power when delivered by a radio actor directly into our ear. The one-to-one feel of a radio drama can be therefore exploited for dramatic force. There have indeed been successful radio plays for one voice only but I think monologues are best reserved for moments when no other way of driving the story can be found. In that situation, the full power of the monologue and English words can be turned to full dramatic advantage.

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