Posts Tagged ‘Dialogue in radio’


By John Morrison


The Three Tools of Radio

In Movies or Television the rule is Show Don’t Tell. In Radio the opposite is true. There’s nothing to show. You must tell.

We deal only in what people can hear. To do this we have three tools.

1. Talk
2. Sound Effects
3. Music


Dialogue in radio has to do much more than in any other medium. It has to carry the plot forward, portray the characters, place them in time and space, provide the props and paint the scenery.

A great deal of our craft is using dialogue in a sophisticated way to provide information without sounding like we’re hitting the reader over the head with exposition and scene setting. This requires a great deal of imagination and hard work, honing the script to sound natural yet providing a vast amount of information.

We are also constricted in the number of characters we can use in a scene.
Having too many characters confuses the audience.

Characters must be distinctive. We must find different sexes, different ages, different accents, different nationalities. Strong dialects are important tools. The audience is confused if a group of characters is say, all male, twenty something, English and working class. We must look for variety.

Dialogue is not conversation however. It is everyday speech boiled down to a concentrated essence where every word has a reason for being there. It has to:

Illustrate character.

Carry the plot.

Build atmosphere and set a location.

Monologue is great weapon in radio writing. Great speeches are much more effective when they are told into one ear rather than shouted from a stage.


Sound effects are very useful in writing a radio play. They should however be used with discretion.

The main job of sound effects is to create atmosphere. The mood of a piece can be set by sound effects. They can’t, however, tell the story for you.

It’s very difficult to create location using only sound effects. To suggest a beach is possible for example but to locate a particular place in a city is not. A general city atmosphere however can be created through sound.

Strong sounds create instant atmosphere. A bell ringing, a seagull etc. are easliy identified but mushy sounds like traffic and rain are best thought of as background..

A surprising amount can be achieved by sound perspective. A voice approaching for example is created by standing back from the microphone. This is much more effective than footsteps for example.

Voices in a small room sound very different from voices in a cathedral or open space. Somebody phoning from a bathroom is different from someone phoning from an office.

There is a current trend for on site recording which gets over the problem of creating ambient sound by using the real sound of the place.

Live effects/spot effects v Pre-recorded effects.
A whole range of pre-recorded sound effects is now available to the radio producer but live effects or spot effects are still used.
One of the most famous spot effects is using coconut shells for horse’s hooves. Others are a hot water bottle for being sick or a sawn off bicycle pump and cork with Alka Seltzer, for opening a champagne bottle and pouring it out.


Music is a powerful generator of atmosphere. It gives a clue to what sort of story it is. It also sets mood and signals change like the arrival of a ghost or recalling a memory.

Music can capture emotions and images. It can swing you instantaneously from one mood to another. It can, as subtly as a raised eyebrow, give to a phrase an extra, and possibly contradictory, level of meaning. It can provide unity, where unity might otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Again it can’t tell the story for you. Dialogue must do that.


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