The Born Freelancer on Writing a Radio Play

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


It seems appropriate to spend a post on writing radio plays during the very week that marks the 75th anniversary of the initial broadcast of radio’s most infamous radio play, “The War of the Worlds” starring and directed by the late, great Orson Welles. I’ve already written about it on this blog if you want to know more. If you don’t know about it, I’d suggest reading up on it. It is an important slice of broadcasting history. OK, so enough of the past. Today I want to talk about writing radio drama for a contemporary audience, and an utterly unique opportunity to have your radio script produced next year by the BBC in London.


Write a radio play? Me? Nah.

I know many of you will be tempted to ignore this post, thinking it will not be relevant to you. But it is you, the non-radio play writing writer, whom I now address. (Hello to you devoted radio playwrights too, please bear with me. I’ll have useful information for you in a moment.) I know that radio play writing is considered by many of you as something arcane or irrelevant to your career path but I would ask that you put that prejudice on hold for a moment and reconsider.

As a writer you want to attract an audience. Presumably you have something to say. Some of you want to write for theatre, television and film. Some of you are passionate about some cause or another. Radio writing can be a useful experience to add to your career CV. Although completely different in many ways than the visual arts (in other words it’s not just TV without pictures), radio play writing will help budding dramatists develop skills in dialogue, character building, scene construction and so on. Passionate journos dedicated to a particular cause may be finding their audiences becoming weary of receiving the same message over and over again although told through different stories. Why not sneak up on them with your message but told in a novel way that may grab their attention anew? Writing a radio play involving your favourite topic may be a more oblique way of going about getting your story out there. However, if you can engage the heart through human drama told through the radio play format you are just as likely to stir audiences to action, perhaps even more so. I don’t pretend that the radio play audience will ever be a sizable one, but it is potentially more dedicated, passionate and likely to be moved to action than any other. Just remember the reaction Orson Welles received!

So I would like to invite all readers who would never ever consider writing a radio play to consider it now. You may find it a valuable new way of stretching of your creative talents and a potentially new way of attracting a different audience (or renewing the interests of your existing audience). Using the internet means your play could potentially reach a worldwide audience. Local community radio stations can also be an excellent platform if you are prepared to produce your own scripts and wish to reach a more localized audience. I’ll have more to say about producing and distributing your own radio plays in a future post. Today’s post is all about getting that first script written.

Getting started

Hopefully by now you’ve done some preliminary research and listened to some radio plays online as I outlined in a previous post.

Recently, I’ve just come across a marvelous archive of radio scripts at the BBC that you should also investigate to see how professionally produced scripts are laid out and so on.

This is an invaluable resource for you to access to be able to read and dissect some of the best scripts produced by BBC Radio. I wish I’d had this resource available to me when I was first starting out and trying to write radio plays. (Yes, I did eventually have some minor success in this area abroad). Back then I had to literally beg scripts from understanding producers and produced radio playwrights in order to study them in detail. The ideal situation is to find a script of a show you can also listen to so you can analyze and deconstruct why it works/if it works both aurally and on the page. Don’t bother if you can’t find one you like or that isn’t in a style you wish to emulate, that would be too much like school! Find a script that sounds interesting or a genre or a topic you genuinely have interest in to begin. Later on you can try tackling scripts/subjects you find more “challenging”.


To be or not to be…?

I don’t propose telling you how to write drama. I wouldn’t presume to be such an authority. (Although I can tell you that if there isn’t some form of conflict in your script the chances are you don’t have drama coming out of your keyboard at all!) The good news: It’s covered by any number of continuing ed courses, college seminars, books and online resources. Check out your local college or public library if you don’t know where else to look. I’m sure you will find useful answers there. Assuming you have some understanding and background in dramatic writing I do have a few random thoughts on applying those skill sets to the art of creating successful radio plays:

* Radio plays are not just TV without the pictures. The pictures in radio plays are much more vivid, much more engaging, and much more inspiring than any TV screen could ever contain because they all happen in the listener’s mind. (Note: I say listener, singular. Listeners listen as individuals, not in a group. Treat them as individuals, not as some unseen collective mass.)

* You have only sound to stimulate the listener’s imagination, intellect and emotions. To be specific: dialogue, sound effects and music. Used separately and/or in combination with each other, these are your sonic colours with which to draw your aural pictures.

* Your characters and their story need to be clearly drawn but not over exaggerated (unless for comic purposes). Radio requires absolute clarity but also some subtlety as you have your listener’s fully undivided attention (if you have done your job properly).

* You must make every word work for you. The old cliché about every word doing the work of three is not a bad one to apply to radio writing.

* You have about maybe 120 seconds to gain your listener’s attention at the beginning or to lose it. It won’t matter that you’ve written a modern day classic if the beginning is boring. (This excludes well known radio playwrights of course with preexisting reputations. If I hear a BBC Radio play by certain authors whose work is known to me that starts out slowly I know they are building to something worthwhile based upon previous plays I’ve heard. The novice doesn’t yet have that kind of built-in branding advantage. But perhaps the topic or subject will act as a kind of branding for you, keeping your potential audience listening as it may turn out to be about a subject near and dear to them).

* You can experiment with style, content, presentation and topic. Want to set a play inside the human brain? On radio you can do so. Want to travel in time to the distant past or far away future? On radio you can do it. Want to do the dialogue in iambic pentameter? On radio, why not? The only limitations are your own imagination and the writing skills necessary to make whatever you conjure up sound believable.

* Once you have mastered all the rules effectively you can break them. The late Douglas Adams was once told that science fiction and comedy did not mix. Good thing he decided not to listen to the so-called “experts” otherwise he’d’ve never written “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for BBC Radio. And we’d’ve all been deprived of one of the classics of its (now more commonplace) blended genre.


Recommended reading

It’s hard to find find good books about writing radio plays without resorting to very old ones that were written in an entirely different era. (Although they too may cover the basic mechanics involved and therefore be a useful if out of date resource tool should you ever run across them in a used book store or dusty college library shelf.) That’s why I suggest a thorough examination of the BBC Radio script archive that I mentioned earlier. Nothing like seeing how something is done successfully to give you inspiration and a template for your own future success. However, I can also recommend Tim Crook’s fine book, “Radio Drama; Theory and Practice” published at the turn of the new century by Routledge Press, London and New York. The book makes several positive references to CBC Radio drama productions from the past which make me appreciate even more what we have lost in this country. It is no doubt hiding in your local public library ready to be rediscovered.

But I have no intention of producing a script myself, you say. Who else will? Why should I even bother with your crazy idea of writing a radio play – especially now that the CBC has deserted its responsibilities as this country’s national radio drama producer?


Exciting news

I always find far greater motivation in undertaking any new creative project if there is a definite goal or objective in view. Potential writers of radio plays listen up! The 2013/14 BBC World Service International Playwriting Competition is now underway.

Most writers outside of the UK are eligible. Full rules and regulations are all at this link.


Deadline: January 31st, 2014. So you’ve got three months to get your play written.

Prizes: Cash, and a trip to London to see your play produced at the BBC. It will be broadcast sometime in 2014 on the BBC World Service. What more motivation can you possibly need?


The BBC also offers several very useful tips on the site, including (and here I am paraphrasing a bit):

* Radio drama thrives on strong, not overly-complicated narratives.

* Vary the pace, sonic qualities and length of your scenes.

* Don’t write your characters all in your own “voice.” (They should all speak as individuals and not as your own personal mouthpieces!)

And my absolutely favourite piece of their sage advice…

* Enjoy writing your play. If you enjoy it, chances are your audience will too!

Many more useful tips as well as full rules and regulations on the BBC site.


I’d say this competition is an excellent motivation to get writing that first (or second or third) radio play right away. This could be a real creative opportunity and major career boost for the right freelancer.

Good luck! IMHO it’s about time a Canadian wins this prestigious competition.

Why not you?


Posted on November 1, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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