for radio

By Jeremy Mortimer

When I first read Christopher Hogg’s stage script I was struck by how much of a ‘radio’ feel there was to the approach. By which I mean that it wasn’t a conventional stage structure – the short scenes weren’t fixed chronologically, characters spoke directly to the audience, there was a deliberate attempt to find a stage language to convey the sense of confusion and interaction in an online world.

Perhaps it was also because Christopher wanted to present some of the action from David’s point of view – the audience was put in a position of being unsighted, responding to apparently random events as they suddenly came up at them out of the dark.

And that’s what audio drama is – things happen ‘in the dark’. The writer’s task is to use words, and sounds, and silence to shine a light on what the listener needs to know, or feel, so they can find their path through the play. I say find ‘their’ path because unlike in the theatre, where the audience as a whole watches as a play unfolds on stage, the radio listener nearly always listens alone, and what they hear is essentially their own interpretation of the writer’s intention.

This space for the listener to use their own imagination, and to engage actively with a play contributing so many of the elements of scenery, design, costume, light and shade, is one of the great strengths of radio. In fact I would say that those radio plays which make little or no call on the listener’s imagination, because the writer has taken care to write in all the detail, and ensures that each character tells you exactly who they are and what kind of clothes they are wearing, are not radio plays at all, but are more like narrated audio books. 

There is no doubt though that a balance needs to be struck. If the writer gives too much information the listener will soon lose interest. Too little information, or information provided in an apparently ad hoc or contrived way, and the listener will be confused and – yes you’ve guessed it – they’ll lose interest. Radio is fatally easy to turn off. You don’t actually have to flick the switch. You just have to have a thought that is more interesting, or more important, than what is coming at you out of your radio/speakers/phone.

So when I was advising Christopher on adapting RATHBAND for audio I was keen that we kept all the key elements of the stage play. The short scenes, the snatches of tweets and Facebook updates, the exchanges over police radio, and the extracts from radio broadcasts. But they needed to be set up clearly; they needed to last long enough to push the story along but not so long as to break the flow. We would use all the tools we had to help clarify the storytelling – silence, sound effects, background sounds, different room acoustics – but we wouldn’t spoon-feed the listener. My intention, with all of the radio work I do, is to try and make each play into a whodunit. To encourage the listeners to become sleuths in order to seek out and discover a truth that the writer has hidden in the play. There is a dark secret at the heart of RATHBAND, and none of us will never know quite how life felt for David in those dark times, but through drama we can stand at the entrance to that world and listen to the sounds from within.  

Here are a few suggestions for creating a script for an audio fiction.

Good Radio Drama production requires:

  • Arresting, imaginative, intimate storytelling
  • Identifiable characters
  • An engagement with the medium (‘think sound’)
  • The production should always be one step ahead of the listener

What is a dramatic idea ?

  • A dramatic idea needs to contain the seeds of conflict. All drama is about conflict, or the threat of conflict. A happy couple living a life of bliss is not dramatic. A happy couple living a life of bliss until they take in a psychopathic lodger is dramatic.
  • A setting is not an idea (‘I want to write a play about life in a Kibbutz’). A genre is not an idea (‘I want to write a love story’).
  • A dramatic idea is about what happens to your characters and how they are changed by it.

What is dramatic structure?

  • Structure works on the basis of cycles of rising action: the tension in the story mounts until something happens, then ebbs for a moment and builds up again to another major event which tops the first, and repeats until the end of the story.
  • This is a rather fancy way of saying that all stories have a beginning, middle and an end. An even fancier way of saying it is to talk about the ‘inciting incident’ leading to a ‘dramatic climax’.
  • An inciting incident is an event that propels the protagonist in a particular course of action. It could be a meeting, it could be a letter. It could be a result of taking a different walk to work. But the point is that it changes something for the protagonist.
  • The dramatic climax is the final denouement of the story. When the protagonist has to face the consequences of their actions.
  • Keep them guessing – you need to work to surprise your audience.
  • Complicate the plot by generating additional points of conflict.
  • Create a sense of anticipation by revealing some of what will happen to the listener, but keeping the protagonist in the dark.
  • Reverse this process and surprise the listener when they finally realise something that the protagonist (or another character) has known for some time.

The best radio plays are essentially detective stories. The listener works hard to guess who has done what and to whom, and is both surprised and satisfied by the conclusion.


In radio things happen ‘in the dark’
If the writer gives too much information the listener will soon lose interest