Writing for Radio. It’s like Writing for the Movies.
By John Morrison

Theatre v Radio
I’ve read a couple of scripts lately where the writer has seemed a little confused as to what you can really do with a radio script. Some writers seem to think that because radio is inevitably word or dialogue driven it is therefore closer to theatre than it is to television or movies. At first the reasons for this appear obvious. Radio seems to resemble theatre, after all a stage play, properly produced for radio, loses very little in the translation to the new medium. Radio also loves the spoken word, as does theatre. The monologue or one man show, much loved by theatre, is even better on radio where the single narrating voice is right in the ear of the listener, like someone telling you a story in a bar or at a kitchen table.
Therefore some people might assume that the best way to structure a radio drama is to imitate the structure of a theatre play. For example, in theatre the locations are few with the characters coming and going, passing through a limited number of scenes. The location is fixed but the characters change. We open on a sitting room in act one, move to a bedroom for the second act and return to the sitting room for the third. However, this is most definitely not the case with radio drama.
Movies v Radio
Writers should realise that radio is much closer to movies than it is to theatre in its structure. In radio you can cut, cut, cut to different locations and different times in a manner impossible in the theatre. Although there are no visual clues in radio to tell the listener that the scene has changed we can, with dialogue, sound effects and music suggest the movement to a new scene in a way that the listener will believe. Provided we don’t overload the listener with too many voices or confusing sounds the possibilities are virtually endless in moving the action from scene to scene.
Of course some great radio plays have been set in one location and in continuous time just like a theatre play, (the movies do that also on occasion as in The Twelve Angry Men). However we should never, as radio writers, feel at all limited by the medium. The capacity for radio to conjure up new and surprising worlds is virtually endless as is radio’s ability to move us rapidly from place to place or from time to time.
Think Visually
So when you’re writing your play, try to visualise it as a movie and not a theatre play as you write. See the action unfold on a screen first and only afterwards look at how you can work the play within the radio framework and its lack of visuals. Rely on the listener to conjure up in his mind’s eye the world you are creating. I think this will generally add more drama and interest to your work. Never forget the old maxim; the only difference between radio and the movies is that radio is far more visual.



009 – An Introduction to Scriptwriting

Verbal Arts – with John Morrison
Tuesdays | 7:30-9:00pm (18+ yrs) | 12 weeks: 17 Sept to 10 Dec | £90 / £82

at Crescent Arts Centre, University Road, Belfast.

“Grab ‘em by the throat and never let them go” – Billy Wilder.

This class is aimed at those beginning to write drama for radio, television, cinema or for those working in the other areas of fiction who would like to expand into scriptwriting. These interactive classes will look at the basics of story structure, character development, scene design and dialogue.

By the end of the course each participant will have written a 12 minute radio play or 10 minute short film.

For the attention of my friends and followers in Northern Ireland

I will be running this scriptwriting course in Belfast from Tuesday 17th September.

The course will be looking at all aspects of scriptwriting, including writing for television and movies but I will also also cover, in detail, writing radio drama. This is one of the few courses that includes all these media.

Check the Crescent Arts Centre website for more details.

Tell the Story
Writing Radio Dialogue.


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.


There are those who believe that somehow writing can’t be taught, it’s instinctive. They hold that writers are born not made. Well maybe James Joyce or Graham Greene were born writers but for the rest of us writing is hard work, a job of honing the craft and learning from everything that went before. Playwrights aren’t called playwrites. They are play makers and like craftsmen must learn their trade and practice it every day to stay in order to compete in the market place.

For the radio dramatist the best way to learn is to listen to as many plays as possible. Familiarise yourself with the methods, the techniques used, the themes, the rhythms, the dialogue, and everything that goes in to the making of a play. After this read as many scripts as possible. Radio scripts aren’t as commonly available as movie scripts but they are there if you look hard enough. The BBC Writers Room website has a section devoted to television and radio scripts, so click on that site and absorb as many plays in the original formatting as possible.

Then there are the how-to manuals. Again some people dismiss these as unnecessary. I couldn’t disagree more. There is plenty to be learned from these books for both the beginning writer and the experienced professional. A writer is constantly learning and if you only find a few useful ideas in an instructional book then that’s maybe enough. The writer’s mind must constantly be open.

The shelves of bookshops today groan under the weight of scriptwriting manuals for movies and television. Guides for radio are harder to find.

These are a few that I have found useful over the years. They are in no particular order.

Writing for Radio by Rosemary Hortsman
This is a basic text covering all aspects of writing for radio. It includes, as an appendix, the text of ‘This Gun in my Right Hand is Loaded’ the spoof play written by Timothy West to show how radio writing should not be done.
This book is, I think, out of print but here’s a tip, it’s currently available on Amazon at 1p. Get it.

Radio Drama by Tim Crook
This is possibly the most intellectual work on Radio Drama. It’s a highly opinionated but very enjoyable read. He brings in Roland Barthes and structuralism so that’s the territory we’re in. The work includes an excellent critical examination of ‘Spoonface Steinberg’, Lee Hall’s brilliant radio play.

Writing for Radio by Vincent McInerney
McInerney goes into the philosophy of radio writing and examines the theoretical aspects. He covers not only drama, but short stories, documentaries, drama documentaries and poetry. There is also a section on radio advertising.

Writing for Radio by Shaun McLoughlin
McLoughlin’s is an authoritative work, as he spent over twenty years as a drama producer in BBC Bristol. There’s a lot of anecdotal material among the practical advice. As well as dealing with writing, there are sections on directing radio plays and acting on radio.

Radio Drama Handbook by Richard J. Hand

Radio Scriptwriting by Sam Boardman-Jacobs


Part One – The Spec Script.

Recently I was asked to script edit a radio writer’s spec script for the Archer’s on Radio 4. This encouraged me to look again at what it takes to write for a continuing series on radio and to make some observations on the whole business of spec script writing for television and particularly for radio.

Here I will examine the dos and don’ts of writing an episode for a continuing series.

If you want to write for a series like Coronation Street or EastEnders or Hollyoaks be sure to choose a series that you enjoy watching or listening to, and for which you feel best qualified to work. Make sure you know the programme thoroughly. Find out the name of a script editor by watching credits or contacting the programme office. Have a sample of your work available and send it to the script editor with a covering letter. If your work appeals then you may then be asked to write a ghost episode.

It is generally not a good idea to write a spec script based on an episode of the show. Script editors are more interested in seeing how you well can write first, before offering you a ghost episode. Send a play or a movie or radio script first.

If you are interested in writing for the Archers however, the producers there take a slightly different view. They will send you a script pack, which contains some writing tips, a sample script, sample synopses and a story line on which to base your episodes. You are then asked to submit outlines of a week’s episodes (that’s six episodes) and a completed script for one of these episodes.

A promising submission could win a place on a mock script-meeting day. This enables the producers to sound you out and to discover how well the sort of suggestions you make might sit within the shows ethos. If you appear to be of the right stuff you will then be given a further storyline to confirm how well you handle it in writing terms.

Be aware that this is a very difficult process and only a few writers are chosen. So be sure you really know and love the show before setting out on this journey.

Writing a spec script for any show is a particularly difficult venture. It isn’t enough to just write as well as the current writers on the show. You have to be great and you have to draw attention to yourself. You must have something which sets you apart.

The producer wants you to bring a personal voice and fresh ideas to the show. Do not slavishly follow the story outline you’ve been given. Follow the spirit of it but find new and interesting ways to interpret the story you’ve been given. Do not think that you are there to write clever dialogue. Yes, smart dialogue is important, but you must bring something new to the story too. The producer is looking for surprises. Find them.

If you do get a chance to write for the Archers also be aware that is very hard work. A writer is typically given 5 or 6 days to come up with outlines for 6 episodes then around 11 days to actually write the 6 scripts. That’s a very tight schedule. Also the stories might well be overtaken by events as in the case of the foot and mouth outbreak where episodes were being written and re written on the day of the broadcast.

However people working on the show really enjoy the work and wouldn’t have it any other way. So if you think writing for the Archers is your thing it is worth the effort to give it a try but be really sure what you’re doing and what you’re letting yourself in for first.



The Browning Version
You have just five days left to listen to this sensational production on BBC iPlayer.

I first heard this in June 2011 as I was driving into the city on a Saturday afternoon. It started up on BBC Radio4 and I was so captivated I drove around for an hour and a half, wasting petrol, polluting the environment and causing endless wear and tear on my battered jalopy-as well as on the nerves of other drivers.

The play is a masterpiece and a masterclass for writers. I broke down in tears at the traffic lights when retiring schoolmaster Crocker Harris is given a going away present from one of his pupils in the despised lower fifth. Michael York’s performance is up there with Michael Redgrave in the film version and the whole production reeks of class. Please don’t miss this.

Written by Terence Rattigan. A starry celebration of Terence Rattigan’s centenary. Michael York, Joanne Whalley, Ioan Gruffudd and Ian Ogilvy star in Terence Rattigan’s 1948 masterpiece. Set in an English public school on the last day of the summer term, buried emotions re-surface when unpopular classics master Andrew Crocker Harris is given a present on his final day.

A once-brilliant classicist, now known by boys and staff alike as ‘The Crock’, he is retiring due to ill health. When a pupil, Taplow, presents him with an unexpected gift (a copy of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon) The Crock, also known as the Himmler of the Lower Fifth, is overwhelmed. His dammed-up misery, disappointment and humiliation are released and the way is paved for a series of surprising revelations and decisions.

A brand-new production directed by Martin Jarvis with an outstanding cast. Acknowledged as Rattigan’s enduring masterpiece, ‘The Browning Version’ shows the writer’s unrivalled ability to characterise repressed emotion, and provides a devastating portrait of a dead marriage. One of the finest, most moving and beautifully crafted plays of the 20th century.

In the second part of the programme Martin Jarvis, director of ‘The Browning Version’, reveals some of the play’s background and describes Rattigan’s hopes, fears and ambitions for its ongoing success. The reading – adapted from ‘Terence Rattigan – a Biography’ written by Geoffrey Wansell, describes some of the author’s ‘behind the scenes’ difficulties – and includes a number of surprising and very funny anecdotes concerning the play’s first production in 1948.
Director: Martin Jarvis
Produced by Rosalind Ayres

New Drama on Radio 4

Watch out for two cracker shows to be broadcast soon on BBC Radio 4.
These are two must-hear programmes for radio scriptwriters.

The first, Neverwhere is radio drama at it’s best and the second, Rhymes of Passion is the fascinating story of the fierce love affair between poets Eizabeth Smart and George Barker. Don’t miss them.

Beneath the streets of London there is another London. A subterranean labyrinth of sewers and abandoned tube stations. A somewhere that is Neverwhere.

An act of kindness sees Richard Mayhew catapulted from his ordinary life into a subterranean world under the streets of London. Stopping to help an injured girl on a London street, Richard is thrust from his workaday existence into the strange world of London Below.

So begins a curious and mysterious adventure deep beneath the streets of London, a London of shadows where the tube cry of ‘Mind the Gap’ takes on new meaning; for the inhabitants of this murky domain are those who have fallen through the gaps in society, the dispossessed, the homeless. Here Richard meets the Earl of Earl’s Court, Old Bailey and Hammersmith, faces a life-threatening ordeal at the hands of the Black Friars, comes face to face with Great Beast of London, and encounters an Angel. Called Islington.

Joining the mysterious girl named Door and her companions, the Marquis de Carabas and the bodyguard, Hunter, Richard embarks on an extraordinary quest to escape from the clutches of the fiendish assassins Croup and Vandemar and to discover who ordered them to murder her family. All the while trying to work out how to get back to his old life in London Above.

A six part adaption of Neil Gaiman’s novel adapted by Dirk Maggs for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, sees James McAvoy as Richard lead a stellar cast which includes Natalie Dormer, David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Lee, Anthony Head, David Schofield, Bernard Cribbens, Romola Garai, George Harris, Andrew Sachs, Lucy Cohu, Johnny Vegas, Paul Chequer, Don Gilet and Abdul Salis.

Beginning on March 16, 2013,[1] BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra will broadcast a new six-episode production of Neverwhere.[2] It will be available for worldwide replay on BBC iPlayer.
The one-hour pilot will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on March 16, 2013 with five half-hour episodes following on BBC Radio 4 Extra between March 18, 2013 and March 22, 2013.

The Show was produced in Belfast by Heather Larmour who had the brilliant idea of adapting the book for radio and was the brains behind getting the project produced.


About the Show
Laura Barton tells the story of the passionate, obsessive love affair that inspired the extraordinary poetic novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

Elizabeth Smart chanced across a book of poems by George Barker in a Charing Cross Road bookshop in 1939. It intoxicated her so much that she decided to marry him there and then, whoever he was. She tracked him down in Japan and embarked on an affair that would last for two decades and which led to Smart bearing four of Barker’s 15 children.

She would also produce the passionate prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept detailing the affair. It was an underground success when it was published in the 1940s but became both celebrated and reviled by the generation of feminists in the late 1960s.

Some might say Smart is an appalling role model for women, as she seemed utterly submissive to Barker. She was a single working mother of four in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. She moved to Europe in wartime and went on to become the highest paid copywriter in London. In many ways she was ahead of her time.

In this programme, Laura Barton discovers the real story behind By Grand Central Station… — a story of deceit and disappointment, but also, overridingly, of intense and passionate love.

Featuring Christopher Barker, Elspeth Barker, Sebastian Barker, Robert Fraser, Rosemary Sullivan and Fay Weldon.

Producer: Martin Williams.

The play will be broadcast on Monday 11th March 2013 at 11.00pm on BBC Radio 4.