Writing Resources

This page is planned to include information and articles on writing and producing Radio Plays, Poetry, and Articles. Some tips on Self-Publishing is also planned. The first of these articles to be published is that by Dr Cheryl Treadgold OAM on the production of radio plays.

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WRITING AND PRODUCING RADIO PLAYS

by Cheryl Threadgold

Radio Plays

A radio play takes place in the minds of audiences, without any vision, therefore the story has to be told effectively by sound alone.

Some of us may remember growing up with radio entertainment before television arrived in Australia in 1956. I recall vivid images in my mind of the radio plays’ characters and settings, and being emotionally absorbed in the stories. It could never be known of course whether my interpretation agreed with the playwright’s vision for the narrative, but believability and engagement with the radio play surely indicates a successfully written and produced production.

In contrast to a stage play where the settings and characters are visually presented to audiences, the radio play listener can only use imagination to mentally construct the location and characters, based on what they hear, rather than what they see.

Radio Play Structure

A good radio play needs to be structured with scenes or sequences, similar to a stage play. Think of the structure in three parts – the beginning, the middle and the resolution.  Keeping in mind the importance of retaining the listener’s attention, a radio play’s scenes should be shorter than the usual stage play.

There are three choices for creating a visual picture for the listening audience:

1. Use direct dialogue between actors

2. Introduce an omniscient narrator (who ‘knows everything’) at regular intervals to convey the story from a narrative perspective.

3. Use music, sound effects, or even silence, to help tell the story.

‘Hooking’ the Audience

It is important to secure the audience’s attention from the moment the play begins, so consider starting as far into the story as possible, where conflict occurs. Beginning with conflict is one way of instantly engaging audience attention. In other words, “find the moment”, or “hook”.

Duration

The ideal duration for a radio play is 10 – 15 minutes and remember to allow time at the beginning for opening music, and for closing music and credits at the end. Generally, one page of script with 1.5 or double spacing is said to take about one minute.

Terms Relevant to Radio Play Writing

Synopsis: Each radio play should have a synopsis on the front page above the character list, giving a brief summary of the narrative. It should attract the audience to listen to the play but not give too much away.

If the play’s storyline is unplanned, it can be helpful to create a synopsis first, and use that as a guide to construct and write the radio play content.

Plot: Is the main events in a creative work which can twist and turn to enhance the story.

Story: The chronological sequence of events, which is different to the plot. A good story might have a major plot with one or more sub-plots logically linked.

Characters: It is preferable to restrict the number of characters in a radio play to six, to avoid confusion for listeners. 

Remember to include varied personalities, idiosyncrasies, and voices to make for more interesting listening. Provide each character’s key attributes on the front page of the script in a Character List to help the director cast the characters for recording.

Radio is an excellent medium for conveying “interior thought”.  In other words a listening audience can be transported into a character’s mind to share their thoughts and secrets. 

Dialogue:  Dialogue should only be used in a radio play if succinctly written, relevant to the particular character, and pertinent to moving the story along.  So, drop any word that is not important to plot and character development.

Remember that all actions and atmosphere in a radio play need to be conveyed from either dialogue or sound effects.

The character should be identified in the radio play by dialogue expressed by themselves or fellow characters. The listener cannot see the action so will not know if a character exists unless the character identifies him or herself, or is referred to by name by another character.

Ensure that characters are not always replying directly to each other’s lines, but instead bounce off each other’s dialogue to move the play forward in new directions. For example:

   WENDY: Hi Frank, how are things?

   FRANK:  Good thanks.

The radio play’s action is static not going anywhere with the above reply from Frank.

An answer in the style of the following, pertinent to the script, would move the play forward:

    FRANK: Good, thanks Wendy. The fire caused a mess but we have just finished repainting.

Draft: Write a first draft of the radio play dialogue and then revise it several times, tightening up text and using one word to replace several if possible.

Sound: Sound engages a radio play audience’s attention, whether in dialogue, effects or music

When including music in the script, remember to consider the period or style of the play if suggesting music to be used.

Sound effects are a very useful tool, but use sparingly to avoid intrusion on the narrative.  Remember SILENCE can be a useful sound effect if used effectively.

Script LayoutCharacters’ names should always be noted in full in the script in capital letters in the left margin and kept clear of the dialogue. Instructions to the Sound Technician regarding music and sound effects should be printed clearly. Never break up a character’s passage of dialogue by printing it over two pages. The actor should not have to turn the page in the middle of dialogue.

Print on one side of the paper and use double spacing. Fancy fonts are often difficult to read, so keep presentation of radio play clear and reader friendly.

Number pages in the top right hand corner.

Include the © sign, name and year of writing the play on the front page.

The Future

It is wonderful to be continuing the earlier fine work of Terri Adams OAM in broadcasting radio plays to the Kingston and Bayside areas via 88.3 Southern FM.

Writing radio plays is challenging and satisfying. Today’s radio playwrights in the Bayside U3A Writers Group continue to develop fine skills and entertain audiences, ensuring the longevity of radio plays in our local communities.

© Cheryl Threadgold, 2021

published 9 April 2021