Posts Tagged ‘radio play’


I was reading Ian Briggs great blog http://www.ianbriggs.com when I came across some interesting stuff on writing for radio. He’d dug up a list of guidelines for writing radio drama, issued by the BBC back in 1982. Some of the material is out of date but he wisely highlighted a few paragraphs which are as good as, if not better than, any of the BBC’s currently published guidance. I have to say that I agree and I don’t think he’ll mind if I also share them with you.

Radio is a descriptive medium. On the surface it has obvious attractions for the writer in its very simplicity and freedom from technical restrictions. It is the medium of the word — where anything that can be described can be imagined. It can span centuries and continents and can present extremes of action and movement without the limitations imposed by the cost of sets and costumes. It can explore the recesses of a man’s mind without the problem of how to fill the rest of the stage or screen. In short, it is a medium of almost unlimited possibilities — even in times of economic stringency.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that this freedom makes it easier to write for than other media. On the contrary, it calls for a greater discipline of structure and a more precise awareness of the nuances of language than most other forms of dramatic writing. Given that the listener must be attracted and held by means of sound alone, then that sound must be constantly stimulating. The visual media can rely on a variety of stimuli — on light and colour and movement — to compel the attention. Deprived of these, the radio writer must construct mental images in the listener’s head by a careful orchestration of the only four sources at his disposal — speech, music, sound and silence. Each of these may have a proper place in the author’s original concept but of course speech is the most important. In radio, the writer must provide everything in his dialogue.

The producer can underline, heighten or embroider by skilful casting, timing and use of effects and music, but he can seldom, if ever, create from scratch an idea which is not originally planted in the dialogue. So the dialogue in a radio play will actually contain more information than is normal in everyday speech, but it should still be able to sound completely natural. It follows that radio dialogue and construction make the highest possible demands on the writer’s skill. A radio play that was simply ‘all talk’ in a conventional conversational sense would be very boring.

1. In radio, one abandons the convention of theatre or film in deciding the length or number of ‘scenes’. A sequence in a radio play may be several pages long or it may be simply one line. It depends on the complexity of the idea or the mental image you wish to create ‘ and should never go beyond its natural length. Of all the media, radio can most easily create boredom — and is fatally easy to switch off.

2. When nearing the end of a sequence, it is important to prepare the listeners, as subtly as possible, for the next one. It is easy enough to make a rapid change of scene from a technical point of view but the listeners need help. They have no programme and they can’t see. When the scene or viewpoint has changed, an equally subtle signpost should confirm it.

3. ‘Stage directions’ for the producer’s benefit are a temptation that should be avoided. If it’s important, it should be in the dialogue. If it’s not, then nobody need ever know.

4. It should be remembered that the listeners will always (quite involuntarily) supply their own mental images in response to what they hear. They should be given enough ideas to work on but never so many that they become restricted or confused. Radio is not a definitive medium. At all levels, it should stimulate only, so that the listener can adjust the basic idea to his or her individual experience.

5. When deciding the number of characters in a scene it should be borne in mind that the only ways of establishing someone’s presence unequivocally are either to have them speak or for them to be spoken to by name. If there are too many characters in a scene, the listeners will lose track or become confused.

6. Sound effects, either singly or in sequence should certainly be part of the writer’s concept but it is worth remembering that they need to be integrated in, and usually identified by, the dialogue. Sound effects that are ‘left to the producer’ will be hard to introduce at production stage without altering the balance of the sequence.

7. Since radio involves only one of the senses, it is important to construct each individual sequence and the play as a whole, to provide a variety of sound which will hold the listener’s attention. This variety can be achieved in lengths of sequences, number of people speaking, pace of dialogue, volume of sound, background acoustics and location of action. On radio, one room sounds very like another, if they’re roughly the same size, but the difference between in interior and an exterior acoustic is considerable. The difference between a noisy sequence with a number of voices and effects, and a quiet passage of interior monologue, is dramatic and effective.

8. There is no formula for writing a successful radio play. It requires all the basic techniques of good dramatic writing plus an imaginative awareness of the restrictions and advantages of a medium where nothing is seen. It is only by listening as often as possible to radio plays that a writer can begin to judge what works and what doesn’t.


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The closing date for this competition is getting close.

Entries must be in by 31st January 2014

A number of writers have sent me their plays for script editing, with a view to entering this competition. I have to say that a couple of them are very good indeed. I will be watching the results as nervously as anybody. If you are still considering sending me your play I would advise that you do so as soon as possible. The sooner I get a chance to look a them and report on them the more time you’ll have to rewrite that important draft that’s going to change your life.

Remember, 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.

For Further Information:

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International Radio Playwriting Competition 2013

By John Morrison
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.

For more information check the website:

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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

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Radio Drama Check list
By John Morrison
Cork 2010 cropped (2)

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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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The BBC’s own solid good advice on writing your play, getting it read and where Radio Drama can be found. The BBC is the world’s greatest producer of radio drama and this site is a must for all aspiring radio dramatists. Keep this on your favourites.


Tim Cook’s excellent site. He’s opinionated and controversial but dishes out some good sense.


This is good practical nitty-gritty stuff from the BBC back in 1981. It’s still relevant and a lot more useful than much of the stuff posted recently.


This is a brilliant fun site with a lot of wise thoughts and great clips from produced plays to illustrate the points made. A must hear.


This is a good interesting blog from a working writer struggling to write his first radio play. Well worth checking out.

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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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