Posts Tagged ‘radio writer’


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 Some of the material is out of date but he wisely highlighted a few paragraphs which are as good as, if not better than, any of the BBC’s currently published guidance.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


Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »


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

Read Full Post »


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.


Read Full Post »

Script Editing and the Radio Writer.

chris and vic cut off (2)
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?

Read Full Post »