by Annie Caulfield, Crowood 2009

Here in the UK, radio drama is alive and well, and living on the BBC. Thanks to the license fee, the BBC is able to subsidize drama and fiction in a way that would be unthinkable in other countries. BBC Radio 4 puts out an afternoon play five days a week. It also broadcasts plays on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, and serializes classic adaptations on Sundays. The output doesn’t end with plays, either. Radio 4 broadcasts sitcoms, sketch shows, short stories, serials and panel games, in addition to its news and magazine output.

Feeling jealous? Don’t be. BBC radio broadcasts worldwide over the internet both live and on demand via the iPlayer.

Having said that, if you’re a writer based outside of the UK, and you’re looking for radio markets, you may have some cause to be jealous after all. Over twenty percent of dramas commissioned by the BBC are created by new writers.

Of course, there may be local markets for radio writing. Certainly This American Life springs to mind.

By the way, British speech radio listeners should not get too smug. You should investigate some of America’s public radio output. There’s some really good stuff out there.

So I’ve been considering pitching a script or two for a while. In some ways it’s a good fit, because I’ve been consuming radio drama since before I went to school. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a kitchen worktop listening to the afternoon play. I recorded The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s first incarnation — a radio serial, and learned the scripts by heart to recite at school. I recorded every single episode of the BBC’s Lord of the Rings which was broadcast over 26 weeks in 1981.

Although the bookstores are full of books about novel, screen, and theatre writing, there’s almost nothing about writing for radio. So I was interested to find a book named.. Writing For Radio.

Here are a few items from my notes:

Radio plays are relatively cheap to produce and the period between the commissioning of a script and its production is short. The audience is healthy. In 2008 a BBC radio afternoon play could attract 600,000 listeners.

A good radio play, Caulfield advises, should generate questions in the listener’s mind from the start. “Every good radio play starts with a good tiny moment.” (p21).

It’s a nice idea to site such a moment far away from the play’s theme and outcome. “If you really want to write a story about a failed love affair.. begin with something far away from the story. Begin with a happy, newly married character arguing with lonely busybody neighbour. (The neighbour will be their only friend at the end).” (p22).

Who’s who
Think about your point of view character. He or she may not be the subject of the play (he could be Nick Carraway observing Gatsby, for example). Think about what this central character must discover. If you choose to use multiple POV characters, make sure that each one provides a different fragment of the same story.

Tension and movement
Look for opportunities to create tension. One way you can do this is to set scenes in a situation a character must soon leave: on a station platform just before a train pulls out for example. You can raise the stakes further with anxiety. “Consider giving your characters a problem in the scene, then add an additional one, such as illness or financial worry or sudden horrific revelation. The problems added in may not tourn into anything of substance in the play, but they tell us more about the characters, create excitement and add a little more for the listener to speculate about.” (p33).

Keep your characters moving.

Dialogue and information
Don’t have characters convey information that’s obvious to them. If you need to convey information in this way, add a compelling pretext. If you need to describe a dire situation, for example, you might get the information across in a discussion about escape options.

Don’t be too pointed
Always have more than one thing going on in a scene. “In order to get to the point of a dialogue, it’s important for characters to have a distraction. Contradictory as this may seem, it gives the dialogue texture, while allowing for a naturalistic sounding hesitation and evasiveness.” (p42).

Have your characters talk about something other than the issue at hand. “… make sure that you know what the key piece of information you need to get across will be. Then build a dialogue about something else that gets the characters to that information logically, or to an emotional pitch where it will be blurted out.” (p46)

Silence, action, interruption
Silence can be eloquent. One silent (or less loquacious) character can draw out a nervous talkative one.

Actions are another non-verbal way of communicating subtext. “What characters are doing while they are talking can reveal character, plot, mood and atmosphere. Try to think about what they are doing as much as you would think about the action in a film.” (p50)

When one character interrupts another, write a few of the words that are smothered by the interruption. If you don’t do that there’s a danger that a slight pause will creep in between the interrupted speech and its successor.

Vary locations from scene to scene. Vary the number of people in scenes. Vary pitch, so that a violent scene is followed by a more reflective one. Interrupt discussion, and contrast words and atmosphere. “As a rule of thumb characters should discuss war in a bar and types of beer in a war. The scene will always be livelier if the words and atmosphere don’t match.” (p64)

It’s not the movies
Set pieces like battle scenes and big parties often don’t work well on radio. It’s often better to use skirmishes, asides, and voiceover to represent the wider sweep of the play’s milieu.

“Have sex on the radio with caution.” (p67). Partly this is because BBC Radio is not big on erotica. Also graphic sex just doesn’t work that well on radio.