Rules are there to be broken. The best writing is when people surprise us with something distinctive, individual and special. However there are a few key points to bear in mind:
Don’t be afraid of the blank page – do a wild draft and see where it takes you. If your script takes a turn away from your original idea, let it. Once you’ve got it down on paper you should be able to see if you need to focus in on something. You will instinctively know if you’re trying to do too much.
Writer Tony Grounds (Births, Deaths and Marriages, When I’m 64) says that a script is a window on your world. Your perspective, quirks and peculiarities will inhabit your piece.
Don’t put down the history, the set-up, why the characters are there – hit the ground running. Everything must earn its keep – it may be a fantastic bit of prose or a wonderful image but if it’s not relevant to the story and the characters, it shouldn’t be there.
Who are we meeting? Who do we identify with, where do we start the journey, how do we get into the piece? Cut the preamble and emotionally tie people down so they can’t reach that off switch. Simple often works.
The opening can act as a trailer for the whole play. You can set up the idea of the piece and convey something of what’s to come.
No drama works without emotionally engaging characters. The audience must want to spend time with them. They don’t have to like them but they must want to know what happens to them. Radio has the fastest turn-off of all drama – in theatre you generally can’t leave until the interval; in the cinema you’ve paid for your ticket – so you have to make the audience want to stay.
Each character must earn his keep. Could someone else say those lines? If so kill them off!
If you’re thinking of an accent or a particular voice for a character, write it in – allow the distinctiveness of each personality to come through.
Don’t over-populate your play – bad scripts often have too many characters jostling for space. Think about who the audience can emotionally engage with. Be careful with peer groups – a play LAST BUS HOME featured a group of seven Hull lasses – a nightmare to tell apart!
Make sure that your writing isn’t prose masquerading as dialogue – read it aloud to make sure. Avoid being descriptive or prescriptive – don’t tell the audience how to think and feel, and don’t tell them what’s happening. Don’t over-explain – keep it lean and mean.
Dialogue is not ‘conversation’ but drives the story on. Try to avoid obvious exposition, and use subtext, ie saying one thing but meaning another. Sometimes it is what isn’t being said that is most illuminating.
Distinguish your voices; make sure that the characters sound distinct from each other. It can be more authentic to write characters who don’t finish sentences, forget what they’re saying halfway through, who don’t round everything up – it’s how we all speak. Let the inarticulacy through.
Paul Abbott (Clocking Off, Shameless, State of Play) says “writing is re-writing” – boil it down to the minimum, the essential.
Even though this is a short piece, your script should still tell a story involving drama, conflict, journey, change – don’t let your story, characters and audience sit back or stand still. Always be aware of finding the drama in any scene/moment, and moving the story forward.
Radio can cover both the epic and the intimate. Think about the camera doing a close-up of someone’s eyes – radio can voice that.
The internal monologue can be a great device but can be over-used. Always think about what you’re using it for – is it a convention to use through out the piece? Is it a direct address to the audience? Is it the character thinking?
If you’re writing your play as a monologue you’ll need a strong voice – for example Spoonface Steinberg (radio play by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall) had her own language.
Narrators are most often used with adaptations. If you feel you need one, give them an attitude; don’t let them be bland onlookers. They must have a reason to be there, a perspective on the story (as with BBC1 Drama House of Cards). Two examples from Martin Scorsese films show good and bad use: in Taxi Driver the narration is a direct line into the brain and heart of the character; in Casino it’s pure exposition.
You, as the writer, create the world – no matter how fantastical, it must still be real. Even if you’re setting the drama on Mars, it must still be authentic.
Don’t be afraid of the surreal – you make the reality, so if it’s real to you that will translate to the audience. It must however correspond with itself, even if it doesn’t correspond with anything else in the known universe.
Structure The listener’s imagination is an important part of radio drama – allow them space to think and feel. Space on radio is very important – that’s where the pictures are. Radio is a visual medium.
As well as the close-up, radio can do a ‘long-shot’ – something can happen ‘off’ or aside. A character who never speaks or even appears in a drama can still be a very strong presence. Also think about how a TV play cuts between scenes.
Simplicity can be your strongest tool. A single voice can work as well as a multi-layered piece filled with effects.
Be careful of including too much back-story in your script – you have to do the thinking (ie working out histories for your characters) but it doesn’t necessarily have to reach the page.
The artist Georges Braque says it isn’t the objects but the space in between the objects that counts. With radio drama, it’s the silence, the pauses, what happens between the words that’s important – particularly in building suspense.
An enormous amount happens in a script apart from the words – it is the writer’s job to include this in their script. For example in Spoonface Steinberg, writer Lee Hall knew that he wanted musical arias – music can play such a huge emotional role.
Underscoring can get the audience into a scene really quickly, or can provide a counter point. It can undercut the action or deliver home a key moment.
Also consider ambient sound, the weather, a dripping tap, etc.
If you’re writing to a particular genre, be aware of their own specific rules. For example with horror, there is an expectation of being scared so provide the tension. Horror is mostly in the mind of the audience (i.e. Jaws) so be aware of what the audience will bring to it. Comedy isn’t just about an endless stream of gags – the juxtaposition of character and situation is ultimately more satisfying.
Short Form drama is like a poem; it’s perfectly shaped, perfectly formed. You need to think about the space in which you’re creating and beware of covering to much ground. Short radio plays, like short films, capture a moment, a place, a character.
As well as swearwords, audiences can be sensitive to religious oaths. Challenging language is more potent on the radio – less is definitely more.
Write a first draft and give it to a friend who will give you some honest constructive criticism – your mum telling you that she loved it isn’t particularly useful! If you’d rather not show it to anyone, print off a copy and put it in a drawer for a few days so that you can take a more objective approach when you next read it.
Don’t worry about a studio-ready script (speech-numbering etc) at this stage. As long as the character names are distinct from the dialogue, in a reasonably sized font (at least 12) it will be fine.
You can roughly estimate 45 seconds per page (in the standard format) but of course the pace and style of your piece will affect that – a page of reflective monologue will translate to a longer piece than a page of snappy banter. Don’t use small font to disguise an over-long script – it’s will make your script seem difficult to read.
Read more tips on writing radio drama from the writers and producers.