10 Assumptions About Writing Radio Drama
by Oliver Emanuel
I’m rubbish at maths but the last time I checked I’d written 20 radio plays in 10 years. Logically, I should be certain about how to write radio drama but, to be honest, it’s as challenging as it was when I started out. There are no rules or ‘hacks’. Everything is a leap into the unknown. Having said that, there are a few things I’ve picked up along the 9 years which I try to keep in mind. Each point is something I’ve learned by writing a radio play and then another radio play then another radio play. I hope they are useful to you. The playwright Jose Rivera wrote a list 36 Assumptions About Playwriting which I have cheerfully stolen, adapted and share here.
- Writing radio drama is exactly the same as writing any other kind of drama. The fundamentals remain. Character. Story. Let this be your mantra: simple story, complex characters.
- Radio is visual. You are putting pictures into the audience’s head. It’s a mistake to think of it as audio – a collection of sound effects – when sound is entirely purposed for creating pictures but…
- Radio is music. Rhythm, pitch, tone, silence. All of these things communicate the story as much as what is said.
- There are things you can do on radio that you cannot do anywhere else. A woman wakes up as a tree. An army of bacteria fight a fearsome battle on a little girl’s leg. The only limit is your imagination.
- Radio is an intimate medium. Imagine your audience is a single person.
- Don’t overcrowd your drama. It’s impossible to hear six or seven voices in a single scene at once.
- Become an expert. Listen to as much as possible. Develop a taste and be unafraid to play with form.
- Don’t get addicted to narration.
- Bad news. You have to write better for radio than for any other medium. Most radio plays are made within a day or two with very little rehearsal. Your scripts have to be finished and fully imagine the performance. If you hear an actor stumble, it’s probably your words rather than their performance.
- And don’t censor yourself. Yes this is public broadcasting but write about the things you are passionate about and the characters you care about.
The Truth About Hawaii, When The Pips Stop and (Take me to…) The Necropolis are currently on the BBC Radio iPlayer. The script of A History of Paper is available on the BBC Writersroom website. I’m working on my next radio drama, The Tenderness of Boys for BBC Radio 4.