The BBC Radio drama lab I’ve been on has been a fascinating and inspiring experience, reigniting my enthusiasm for writing and – unsurprisingly – writing radio drama. Job done, I guess. We’ve met and talked with half a dozen radio producers and writers, all of whom have had interesting and valuable things to say about the medium and writing in general. Here’s a random selection of notes and quotes from the lab thus far…
5 THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
a. How will you tell your story?
b. What is at the heart of your story?
c. What’s the potential of your story?
d. What are the practicalities of your story?
e. What are the misconceptions of your story?
You must make the audience CARE. Radio drama has to be led by emotional action. Radio drama is about a moment of change – something is happening. What’s the difference between a monologue as a piece of prose and a piece of drama? Momentum, emotional change. Forces are pulling people apart or pushing them together. By giving characters something to do while they’re talking, you make the experience more aurally interesting.
In classic serial adaptations for radio, there’s an expectation of narration. 45 minutes of radio drama equates to a 7000-7500 word script.
ADAPTATION: Consider your favourite short story. What would you do if you were adapting it into a 14-minute radio play? How might you dramatise it? How would you break it into scenes? What would you keep? What would you omit? What’s the centre of the story, what’s the heart of it?
FROM THEATRE TO RADIO: Ultimately you can’t transpose theatre straight to radio. Radio is an intimate, individual experience where theatre is a shared, group experience. On radio you’re asking the audience to create so much in their imagination. Radio doesn’t have a captive audience, that’s why plot is so important.
You need to be telling a story on radio to keep the audience investing emotionally. Radio can be guilty of challenging the audience more than telling them a story – but story must come first on radio. The BBC wants stories that make you stop and listen. Mostly, it’s the human element within a story that achieves this. Producers wanted to be moved, rather than challenged.
The three most important things in radio drama? Story, story and story – but that story needs to have emotional content, texture and a convincing world. Reveal character through dialogue, but do it obliquely – not overtly. Space, silences and pauses impact massively on the sound of radio storytelling. Careful use of revelations propel an audience through your story.
When characters move into a different room in a radio drama, it becomes a new scene for script purposes, even if the audience follows the characters into that room. When a character leaves a room, you need to acknowledge this in your script e.g.
ROB: (Going) I’m leaving now, I’ll see you later – bye!
Another way of achieving this effect is:
ROB: (Recede) I’ll see you in hell, damn you!
MARY (Recede) Wait, let me come with you!
Equally, when a character is arriving into a scene, there’s a similar script shorthand:
ROB: (App.) Well, here we are in Hell. Hmm, it looks a lot like Slough.
MARY: (App.) Actually, I think this is Slough.
ROB: Really? I could have sworn this was Hell.
The above examples also point up another script transition trick. When two characters leave one scene and arrive in the next scene, the person who left first – in this case Rob – always arrives first at the next scene. It’s a convention of radio that works well.
If you’ve got three characters (or more) in a scene, don’t leave characters standing silently for too long, otherwise the audience is liable to forget the character is present.
In radio drama you should strive to be CLEARLY SUBTLE. Low-format is BBC Radio jargon for CHEAP e.g. contemporary domestic drama. The most important job in radio drama is to keep the audience listening. You are dealing with only one sense – sound. Radio suffers from the shit-click syndrome. People listen to a play, think it’s shit and click – off goes the radio. You have to grab the listener and keep them listening. A great character or story alone isn’t enough.
Writers are magicians using misdirection to keep the audience guessing. Your tools: character and story. But you can also vary the content and context of your scenes: monologues and narration mixed with crowd scenes; two-handers mixed with trios and four-handers; angry scenes followed by quiet moments full of pauses and silences. Use contrast to your advantage.
Think about how you COMPOSE a play as well as how you WRITE it. Think of the texture, the sensual experience of listening to it. Give the ear a variety of aural experiences: big settings (warehouse, train stations) and small, intimate settings; few characters and many characters. The listener’s imagination gets worn down by repetition, it likes variety. Remember you are writing for your dialogue to be SPOKEN and ACTED.
In radio drama actors don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, they don’t learn their lines or have the chance to delve deeply into their characters. Chances are they’ll only be getting to know their role by the time recording is finished. You should be AMBITIOUS in your writing. Aim to entertain, but also strive to shock, scare, to make the audience laugh and care. Good radio drama must have a real EMOTIONAL CHARGE.
SILENCES and PAUSES draw the audience in – they can make comic scenes funnier. SMALLNESS AND QUIETNESS can be vital ingredients, don’t deny the low-key. INTIMACY is powerful on radio, it reflects the listener’s experience. Ideally you should tell a story that can only work on radio e.g. Cigarettes and Coffee by Anthony Minghella was told entirely through answerphone messages. You can create incredible soundscapes on radio – induce audience panic with effects.