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International Radio Playwriting Competition 2013

By John Morrison
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The BBC has announced the World Service International Radio Playwriting Competition in partnership with the British Council. The competition is now in its 24th year.

There are two first prizes – the best radio play by a writer with English as their first language and the best by a writer with English as their second language. The overall winners will each receive £2000 sterling and a trip to London to see their play being recorded for broadcast on BBC World Service.

This year’s competition is run in partnership with Commonwealth Writers again with co-producers – The Open University. This has allowed them to introduce another prize – the Georgi Markov prize for the most promising script.

The playwriting competition welcomes scripts from anyone living outside the UK, whether established or new, and encourages writers to use the immense power and accessibility of the medium of radio drama – to their your story, use their imagination and have their “voice” heard.

This is a fabulous opportunity for radio playwrights from around the world to have their work produced professionally by the very best radio drama department in the world.

I would encourage writers to make the most of this chance and to enter the competition.

Before entering the competition, make sure your play is in the best possible shape. Polish it and hone it until it you can do no more with it. Don’t simply hope that the readers will be able to see all the great stuff you intended, but which somehow isn’t on the page. The reader’s job is not to take a leap of faith and to predict the great work that might have been. His/her job is to read and be touched or moved by what’s on the page, not by what’s in your head.

To this end, have a competent working writer or script editor look over your work. None of us and I mean none of us, can read our own work in any objective way. Neither can our buddies or our families. So get the best help you can. You will see the benefits and you only get one chance.
The competition is now open for entries and the closing date is midnight GMT on the 31st January 2014.

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For more information check the website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0043kb2/profiles/international-p0043kb2

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

Bergman
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.

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How to get commissioned

By John Morrison
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By far the most important commissioner of radio drama is the BBC. Radio 4 in particular has a huge range of potential opportunities and its plays reach anything up to 1.5m listeners. Yet the opportunities it provides are sometimes overlooked by writers focusing on television and movies.

Radio playwriting provides many opportunities but it’s still very hard to be commissioned. In all writing there are far more writers than slots available.

Let’s look at the slots where drama can be heard on Radio4.

Radio 4 Drama

The Archers – this long-running soap opera totals 1 hour 15 minutes of air time per week, making for 65 hours a year

The Friday Drama – this is a 60 minute, post-watershed play. Right now it’s calledThe Friday Play, but is being rebranded.

The Saturday Play – a 60-90 minute play put on the afternoon

Woman’s Hour play – these are a series of five 15 minute ‘issues plays’ run over a week, during The Woman’s Hour magazine programme

Classic Serial – multi-part adaptations of contemporary and historical classics

The Afternoon Drama – an original 44 minute 15 second play broadcast every weekday – about 140 hours a year

Out of all those however, The Afternoon Drama is the only slot available to new writers. All the others have their own writing teams or are commissioned directly by Radio4. The Afteroon Drama is where we must turn our attention,

Understand the Radio 4 audience

I don’t want to be too prescriptive but it’s important to know just what type of an audience listens to the Afternoon Drama. They are mostly ABC 1s, they read the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, live in south-east England – mostly London- and are extremely well-informed. These aren’t my findings but the BBC’s own research. Of course all types listen to the Afternoon Pay but the majority of listeners fit this classification.

This audience is the backbone of Radio 4 and the Radio 4 audience is highly engaged and knowledgeable about current affairs. This means that plays that link with current affairs – or future current affairs – stand a better chance of getting commissioned.
The Radio 4 audience also loves reading, but it is highly unlikely that adaptations will be commissioned for the Afternoon Play, as the Classic Serial is already covers this territory. Instead, a different take on literature appeals to this audience.

Listen to Radio 4
Before writing for Radio 4 you have to listen to Radio 4’s plays. If you expect, tea and crumpets or “anyone for tennis” cosy dramas you couldn’t be more wrong. The Afternoon Drama engages with a huge range of topics and doesn’t shy away from the controversial. Very few subjects are really taboo. In my experience producers of radio drama want to be surprised and this is the perfect slot to take risks.

What makes a good Afternoon Play
As in all drama, the most important thing is story. No matter what the subject matter is, hook the audience into listening and the battle is won. A BBC producer described this slot as being “radio for curious minds”.

Plays that link into current affairs have a good chance of being commissioned. (upcoming elections, world events, environmental issues etc.)
Radio 4 listeners love history, but not “typical” historical biographies – the plays must reflect how people live now and be relevant to current society.

It’s only a personal observation but I would say that plays set somewhere other than places we our familiar with in television stand a good chance of being commissioned. Radio 4 likes to make plays set in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe etc as long as the story is good.

Make the play challenging. Avoid monologues or soap operas
It must be a single play that stands on its own accord.
Write in your voice – don’t try to emulate another writer. The best plays are ones that you, the writer are “desperate to tell”
Take risks. The Afternoon Play has the freedom to tell powerful, challenging, irreverent and disturbing stories

Straight through-line narrative is the best. So avoid cross-cutting or multiple thread narratives.

Dialogue is all-important – radio plays live and die on dialogue. If your dialogue is not superb, your play will not get on the air
Each Afternoon Play is precisely 44 minutes 15 seconds long – no shorter, no longer. In reality then you must be very close to this. No-one can be exact but plays will be cut or have added incidental music to fill this slot exactly.

But most important of all make sure you have done the very best you can with your material before sending it in.

Get Writing. What is a writer? A writer writes.

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Script Editing and the Radio Writer.

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By John Morrison
Radio Opportunities
The BBC, easily the world’s most important producer and broadcaster of radio drama, receives thousands of spec radio plays every year. Of course there are loads of great opportunities across the range of BBC stations, particularly at Radio4. The Afternoon Play provides most opportunities for the new writer to break in to radio with over two hundred productions per year. There is also the Saturday Play, the Fifteen Minute Drama, The Archers and countless comedy shows. This is a vast amount of time to fill. Yet the supply still far outweighs the demand. Most of those thousands of hopeful plays, written by eager writers will not, alas, be produced.

Unfortunately most of these writers don’t give themselves a good enough chance of being produced. They submit their plays after only showing them to their mates or a school teacher or an actor they know or somebody who once went to school with Sam Mendes.

The First Ten pages
The BBC admits that it only reads the first ten minutes of plays and screenplays submitted to them. If they’re not grabbed by then they don’t read on. Only if they are hooked do they read the complete play. What chance has the new writer who hasn’t gone through a rigorous process of analysis and re-writing have of getting his bright new play read, let alone produced?

We are all far too close to our own work to properly see what we have on the page or understand what works and what does not. I have worked on radio and have had plays produced. I also write movie and television screenplays but I wouldn’t dream of submitting my work to a producer or broadcaster before I have it looked at and analysed by a script editor that I know and trust. Every time I’ve had my work analysed I’ve had fresh new insights into what works and what doesn’t and what can make it better. I don’t mean sometimes, I mean every time.

Give Yourself the Best Chance
Why would a writer not want to give himself the best chance of being produced by missing out this key element in the chain that starts with a blank page and ends up with a broadcast? We all need to be aware of this simple fact. Readers never say to themselves, “Oh yes I see what he’s getting at, I’ll just imagine the scenes that should have been there and not the one’s I’m reading”. Never.

You might think that of course I would say that. I’m offering a script editing service. Yes I am, but only because I have read so many plays that could have been much, much better if the writer had just consulted a good editor.

Somebody once said ‘there are fewer good readers than good writers’. I certainly wouldn’t go that far but a good reader can give your script that something extra that lifts it out of the ordinary and helps get it made. Isn’t that what we all want?

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Radio Drama Check list
By John Morrison
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How to re-read your own work.

After you’ve finished writing your radio script put it away for at least two weeks then dig it out and read again. If you still think it’s great and needs no changes I’d be surprised but if you are unsure about what’s working and what isn’t (which you will be) use this check list to make sure your radio play is really as good as you’d like it to be. To be a real writer you must be ruthless in the checking. Try the John Morrison method.

Characters
Did you believe in them? If you’ve any doubts at all get back to work.
Is the speech pattern of each character (i) individual, (ii) true, (iii) consistent?
Do we know enough about everybody important to understand them fully? Are they written at sufficient depth?
Are their motivations clear? They must know what they want and so must the listener.
Do they develop or do they end the piece the same actual people as when it began? Your characters must change or to be more accurate they must grow and be different at the end. is is crucial to story telling.
Do they have a life of their own or are they puppets manipulated by the writer for his own purposes? Wtch out for giving characters opinions or dialogue that comes from you own opinions and not your characters. This is a common error we all make.

Conflict
Is there any? I mean that. There can be no drama without conflict so make sure it’s there.
Is the conflict something vague in the background. Someone struggling alone with their relationship with God for example would somehow need to be personalised.
Is anything of importance to the characters at stake? The ‘what’s at steak’ doesn’t need to be earth shattering for the listener but it needs to be that to your protagonist.

Action
Do people do things?
Does anything happen?
Does anybody make anything happen? (Or is it all a business of people chattering about things, or a mere portrait of an individual or a group?)
Does the play mark time while the characters unburden themselves?
Do people actually get to grips with things or is it all shadow boxing?

Plot
Is the story a mere succession of events (e.g. ‘This happened and then this happened and then…)?
Is it full of cause and effect? Can you say ‘therefore this happened’ or ‘despite that this happened’ between scenes?

Construction
Is there sufficient variety of pace?
Are the climaxes right? Do they appear at the right time?
Does the plot develop at the right speed?
Does the end work? What we look for is a surprise ending which still manages to appear inevitable.
Are the audience’s expectations satisfied?

Content
Is the theme implicit or explicit?
Is it clear what the piece is actually about?
Do the characters know?
Should they know?
Is it the right length for what you want to say?
Is the theme clearly illustrated or brought out by the plot?
Are you bringing your own individual point of view to the piece? This is very important. Sniff out any moments where you are trotting out a cliche or parroting someone else. This, more than anything could save your play.

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Hi Everybody.

And Welcome to my new blog, all about the art and craft of scriptwriting radio drama.
danq

I am John Morrison, a working scriptwriter and teacher with a love of radio drama.

I will be posting how-to ideas, observations on the playwright game,  general info on radio and  all sorts of hoojar on the business of writing and selling scripts for radio.

I also offer a script editing service that differs from others in that it’s specifically targeted at those who are trying to get radio plays read and produced. 

Stay tuned here and hopefully see your play honed in to shape, ready for a radio production.

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