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SOME GUIDELINES REVISITED

radio
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 Some of the material is out of date but he wisely highlighted a few paragraphs which are as good as, if not better than, any of the BBC’s currently published guidance.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.

THE NATURE OF THE MEDIUM
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.

SOME PRACTICAL POINTS ON CONSTRUCTION
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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