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How to Write Radio Drama Cues

Advice from Tony Palermo

It's a Wonderful Life script & SFX for radio - Details about how you can produce my radio adaptation of Frank Capra's classic film.


While there are hundreds of books on writing film screenplays and stage plays, radio scripting isn't a widely known form. However, because radio is produced with the script in hand, it is important that the various cues for dialogue, music, and sound effects be able to quickly and clearly communicate the writer's intentions to the cast and crew for rehearsals and performance. Here are some suggestions and examples to encourage clearly written radio drama scripts.

I not only write and produce my own radio dramas, but also re-create classic shows from the past and perform new works by contemporary writers. Through the years, I have found rehearsals and performances go more smoothly if the scripts are very precise in their instructions to cast and crew. This page--which I'll update as new ideas come to me--addresses the many radio drama conventions and guidelines in an effort to aid writers and directors--especially those with little radio production experience. I've worked on hundreds of radio dramas and have honed these techniques to the point where I can produce a 25-minute show in just two hours--from start to finish--(casting, rehearsal, and performance) for broadcast or recording. Here's the secret of how you can do it too.

I mostly work in the live production style, where the dialogue, music, and sound effects occur in real time as the program is being performed for stage, recording, or broadcast. These guidelines will aid you greatly if you produce in a similar manner, but will also be useful if you record dialogue separately and then assemble the finished program in post-production. The intention of writing good radio drama cues is to clearly communicate all instructions, thereby cutting down on misunderstandings, notes, mistakes, and time. A well-written script will save everybody headaches and make your shows easier and cheaper to produce.


In explaining the conventions of writing an audio theatre script, I'll work from the general to the specific, starting with a typical page of a script. Learn to read a professional script, then write your own, using my free downloadable MS Word radio drama script template. A short, professional demo script is available at life_demo_script.pdf, in the Adobe PDF format. You'll need the free Acrobat reader to view or print that PDF file. You can also download and listen to a recording of that demo script, Life's Little Ups & Downs, as a three-minute MP3 clip demonstrating radio's imaginative range. [1.7 Mb]  

I suggest you download the short script, print it out and look it over to see how I apply the techniques below.
Click on any of the following links to jump directly to that section of this document.

  • Page headings
  • Scene headings
  • Cues
  •     Music
  •         Engineer's instructions for music cues
  •     Dialogue
  •     Sound Effects
  • Production Notes


  • PAGE HEADINGS

    The purpose of page headings is to indicate what program or episode you're working on and what page you are on in the script. These go across the top of the page.

    Typical Header Examples:

     Life's Little Ups & Downs                                   Episode #1829                                                                                       10.

    The Innocents Abroad                                                                                                                                       -17-

    Holiday Playhouse                                            Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol                          REVISED  49.

    Holiday Playhouse                                            Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol                          REVISED  49.  7/7/05

    Holiday Playhouse                                            Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol                                          49-A.

    Suspense                                                           Roma Wine Ad                                                 COMMERCIALS-1.

    Explanation:
    The page number should be in the TOP, RIGHT HAND CORNER, so actors can easily see it as they page through their scripts in rehearsal and performance.

    NOTE: Do NOT put the page number at the bottom of a page--that only slows down tech crew and cast from paging through the script to get to a specific page.

    Old time radio scripts would use a period after the page number (10. 47. 78.) or put dashes to either side of it (-4-  -23- -108-).

    Include program and episode titles on your script in case somebody drops their script pages in a production featuring several sketches or commercials. Many troupes don't use staples to hold their scripts together, so pages can get out of order. (I use one staple in the top left corner and instruct my actors on how to turn script pages quietly--slowly flip the page over. Don't ruffle the paper and make a sound.)

    If a script page is revised after the printed scripts have been given to cast and crew, indicate REVISED on the new page, so they can substitute the new pages for the old ones. You may also want to add a date, in case there are future revisions. New pages inserted into a script after printing can be designated by adding a letter after the page number. So the paging might go 48, 49, 49-A, 49-B, 50, 51, etc.

    For drop-in ads or announcements, I suggest creating separate pages with their own numbering scheme. This way they can be altered or added at the last minute and not affect the page numbering scheme of the dramatic script. All spacing is up to you. For these headings, use a small plain font (like 8-point Arial) and give the page heading a bit of space separating it from the script text so actors won't get confused as they turn to a new page and begin speaking their lines.

    Footers
    Footers at the bottom of the page can be used to indicate the production company, the writer's contact info, or to display the date or revision number of the script. Make sure there's sufficient space between the script text and the footer. Again a small 8-point Arial font here will help differentiate the footer from the scripted cues.

    Typical Footer Examples:

    Production Co. Name  12345 Main St. Radio City CA 90019 - email@something.com

    -- or --

    Fourth Draft  3-04-2003



    SCENE HEADINGS

    Radio scene headings are based upon standard Hollywood film screenplay format. They indicate the scene number, description of the scene's location, and time of day. You can also include info such as (FLASHBACK) or (MONTAGE).

    A scene is some dramatic action that takes place somewhere.

    If one scene ends and then there is a narrator who leads you into another scene, put that narrator's cues in the middle--between the two scenes. As in:

            SCENE 4  (set on a space ship)

            NARRATOR:  For eons, mankind strove to touch the stars. Little by little, they leapfrogged from planet to planet...

            SCENE 5 (set on Neptune). 

    If we switch from one location to another and then the narrator begins speaking, put that narrator in the latter scene.

            SCENE 5 (set on Neptune)

            SCENE 6 (set on space station)

            NARRATOR: Moxie awoke to find herself back on board the Trident Station...

    NOTE: Like all other script text (as opposed to headers and footers) this should normally be in a 12-point New Courier Font that has been bolded to photocopy better. Other fonts can be OK--the 14-point font size is often handy for older actors--but I strive for the traditional look of old-time-radio scripts, plus the New Courier font has enough serifs to make for easy reading in a live performance. All cues for dialogue, music and sound effects are double-spaced, to allow for easy reading on the fly and notes or new lines added in rehearsal.

    Examples:

     SCENE 4: INT. ZORG'S EARTHSHIP – DAY

     SCENE 13: EXT. EMPTY BATTLEFIELD – NIGHT (FLASHBACK)

     SCENE 27: INT. KATARINA'S TUMMY – 30 MINUTES LATER

    Explanation:

    Scene Numbers
    Scenes are numbered to easily identify them. There may be six scenes set on Zorg's Earthship. Numbering scenes keeps them distinct from one another for discussions, rehearsals, and direction. For example, a director could say to a sound designer,  "Zorg's Earthship in Scene 44 has just suffered a power failure. I need the background ambiance of beeps and such to be greatly reduced from all the other scenes set on that Earthship..."

    Environment Descriptions (Where and When)
    Scene headings such as, EXT. EMPTY BATTLEFIELD - NIGHT may seem too "visual" for a radio drama, but they are very important to quickly and easily establish the setting for actors, composers, sound effects artists, sound designers, engineers and directors. Without this brief description, everybody must try to figure out the setting and time of day based upon dialogue or sound effects cues. The listener may never hear these scene headings in your drama, so some writers think it's unnecessary. However, when this information is missing in the script, it must be supplied verbally in meetings and rehearsal--sometimes repeatedly. When I've scored or created sound effects for scripts missing the scene headings, I've had a hard time determining where a scene takes place. Don't make anybody have to guess the setting. They could guess wrong and thus misinterpret your drama. Save time and trouble by describing the setting here--and make it brief.

    Indicating INT. or EXT. (interior or exterior) can help an engineer or director determine the micing or reverb settings. This instruction may suggest background sounds that are not indicated in a sound effects cue--like coyotes for an outdoor scene at night. The DAY/NIGHT/30 MINUTES LATER style info can suggest to a sound designer that crickets or owls be used for background ambiance. It also keeps the timeline straight for actors trying to imagine the scene in their heads. The idea here is be quickly set the scene for the players and technicians. Be brief.

    Characters in the Scene
    I suggest you also  include the names of any characters appearing in the scene. This way the actors, who may be sitting away from the microphone, can see that their lines are coming up and get to the microphone in time. In live radio broadcasts, you don't want actors missing their cues.

    Example:

    SCENE 14: INT. UNION HALL – DAY
                (Mary, Stewart, Babbo, Cuthbert, Lindsay)




    RADIO DRAMA SCRIPT CUES

    There are three things a listener hears in a radio drama: dialogue, music, and sound effects. Each of these audio components is called a "cue"—because they come at a specific time in the script and the director may have to physically point to someone ("cue them") to produce it.

    Examples:

     6. MUSIC:               (BRIDGE) WRY TO POIGNANT--FADE UNDER.
     7. SISYPHUS:            Cuthbert! Get me out of here, my good man!
    
                             Try that bottle. The one on the dresser!
     8. SOUND:               CHAMPAGNE CORK POPS. SMALL CRASH.


    Explanation:
    These components are called "cues"--not to be confused with "lines." These are "cues" no matter how many lines of dialogue there may be in a single actor's speech. Clarity in your script is very important to getting a quick and smooth performance. Since everybody in a radio production is reading along with the script, make it easy to do so. If your script isn't clear, problems will arise--sapping your time, energy and possibly the quality of the performance.

    Cue Numbers
    The purpose of numbering the cues is to speed rehearsals and performances. With numbered cues, if you need everybody to start or restart at a certain point in the script, you only need to say, "Page 14, cue number 8," or "Page 43, cue 5."  The time-consuming alternative is for the director to start reading lines aloud and everybody else having to scan through their scripts to find where those lines occur on the page. Just number them and call out the page-and-cue.

    This is especially helpful when re-recording misspoken dialogue lines after the full program has been recorded. You just call out the page-and-cue for the lines and have the actors say them again. These "pick ups" are also greatly speeded by "slating" the re-take--calling out the page-cue ID for the re-recording just before the actor says a line.  For example: "Re-take. Page 14, Cue 8" and then the actors begin speaking.

    The use of Page-Cue helps composers and sound designers to identify their cues--when they are doing pre-production. It can also be used by the engineer to sort music or SFX cues in running order when burning CDs or creating folders of MP3s to be triggered in a specific sequence. In lists of pre-recorded cues, use the following format P##-C## (for example P01-C07 for Page #1, cue #7 or P98-C17 for Page #98, cue #17)

    In general use, cues numbers start over from #1 every so often--to keep them out of triple digits which can eat into the available space and tabs on a page. You can choose to restart cue numbers beginning with every new page or with every new scene. I prefer starting with cue #1 on every new page, but have no problem when working with cues that restart whenever a new scene begins. In fact, the restart-with-each-new-scene makes sense when scripts are being rewritten between rehearsal and performance. Try both styles and see which one you prefer.

    WRITER'S CUE NUMBERING TIP:
    If the script is revised by adding or deleting cues or even some dialogue lines within a cue, you may have to renumber the cues, so when writing a script, I put an "X." in place of any cue numbers until I'm at the point where I need to print the script to go into rehearsals. I put off numbering the cues until I'm ready to print a production draft of the script.

    Example:

     X. MUSIC:               (STING) HANGMAN'S THEME--FADE UNDER.
     X. PRAIRIE ROSE:        Wait a minute! We ain’t gonna hang him on a 
    			      fool notion like that! We’re a posse, not a 
    			      lynch mob! 
     X. SOUND:               WALLA--GRUMBLES. ONE MAN SAYS "WE'RE NOT?"
     

    Here's something to avoid when it comes to numbering your cues. I've seen some radio script formats that number every printed line in a script. Here's an example:

    Don't number each line in a cue:

    9.    ANNOUNCER:        And so Eunice found herself, once again, trapped in
    10.                     the vacuum cleaner bag. Meanwhile, Biff was having
    11.                     his own difficulties escaping Sylvie, the ravenous
    12.                     gerbil. Only one person could save them--Captain Radio!


    Avoid the numbering scheme above. It interferes with easy readability for cast and crew because it distracts the eye from quickly scanning the short span of the dialogue lines or music and sound effects cues. When actors see that far left number, their eyes go to it and then have to work across to the actual dialogue. Legal documents may benefit from numbering every line, but radio scripts suffer. It may seem easy to use such automated numbering in a word processing program, but avoid doing so. Keep the cue numbering simple and easy to read.

    Here's the same dialogue without excessive numbering. See for yourself how much easier it is keep your place.

    DO number just the cue start:

    9.    ANNOUNCER:        And so Eunice found herself, once again, trapped in
                            the vacuum cleaner bag. Meanwhile, Biff was having
                            his own difficulties escaping Sylvie, the ravenous
                            gerbil. Only one person could save them--Captain Radio!
    
    

     MUSIC CUES

    Music is invaluable to evoking emotion in drama. Clearly written instructions regarding music cues will greatly aid the cast and crew in determining the mood of a given scene. Avoid using vague or non-descriptive music cues such as MUSIC or MUSIC FADES INTO SCENE or MUSIC CUE #18. If you don't understand the unique requirements of radio scoring, see my article Fitting Music to Radio Drama.

    Type of music cues:

    Music cues are used three ways and it can be helpful to let cast and crew know how a cue will function when it plays.

  • BRIDGE:  Music played between scenes with no dialogue over it. Also called "Act In" or "Act Out" music. In radio it is the equivalent of the curtain falling or rising on a scene.
     
  • BED: Music that plays under dialogue, either as brief intro before fading or under the entirety of a speech for dramatic use.  A SOURCE BED cue has music being heard by the characters while they talk. Say, music playing in the background on a car radio while the characters are driving or an orchestra playing while the characters are whispering at the ballet.
     
  • STING: Music that arises suddenly to emphasize a line of dialogue. This was a cliché used in soap operas where a character would get to a certain word in a line and the organist would hold one long note emphasizing the speech. It's still used in film and TV, but with a bit more subtlety. Now, it often leaps out of a music bed as a single sustained note or chord.
  • When you write a music cue in a script, I suggest you decide what type of use (BRIDGE, BED, STING) the music will be put to and include that in the text of the cue instruction. The music cue examples below illustrate how to include these descriptions. If the engineer sees (BED) in the cue description, he'll know to keep it playing under the dialogue and the actors will know their lines are getting dramatic underscoring--even if they can't hear the music while speaking. Similarly, a composer knows she needs a long bit of music under the dialogue and that the music must not steal the listeners attention away from the words. But if  (BRIDGE) is called for the composer can be more melodically striking, since she doesn't need to worry about stealing focus.

    NOTE: Music and sound effects cues are always underlined, as illustrated below. The underlining makes it easy for musicians and sound effects artists to see they have cues coming up. It also differentiates these cues from dialogue--which is never underlined in this fashion. This way actors don't stray from their lines to reading aloud the sound effects or music instructions. As with dialogue--all music and sound effects cues are in a 12-point New Courier font that's been bolded for photocopying. (Again, you may choose to put the entire script in a 14-point font, which is easier for older cast and crew to read, live on-stage.)


    Examples of typical music cues:

    2.  MUSIC:              (BED) LONE RANGER THEME---ESTABLISH AND UNDER.
    
    
    9.  MUSIC: [MUS-21]       (BED) FOREBODING EPISODE OPENER--UNDER--QUICK FADE AT
                            LINE: "...ON MARS!"
    
    
    8.  MUSIC: [LIVE-02]        (BRIDGE) BIG TROUBLE INTO HANGING ENDING.
    
    
    11. MUSIC: [MUS-22]       (BRIDGE) MINER'S LAMENT--LET IT FINISH
    
    
    4.  MUSIC: [TRK-03]        (BED) BELLE'S THEME--LET IT FINISH UNDER.
    
    
    6.  MUSIC: [MUS-04]        (STING) OVER MY DEAD BODY 
    
    
    10. MUSIC: [MUS-55]       (SOURCE BED) MELANCHOLY JAZZ TUNE--IN B.G. UNDER
    
    

    Explanation:

    Music cues should include:
        1) A description of the type of music cue it is. (BRIDGE, BED, STING, SOURCE, etc.)
        2) An identification of the music piece. A playback track number can also be displayed here. [MUS-22] or [TRK-03] (if music and SFX tracks share the same playback device)
        3) Instructions for the engineer on how to fade up, fade down, or let a piece play.

    Naming conventions:
    I suggest music cues be named or described so they can be referred to with the composer, engineer, and director. It's a lot easier to refer to Belle's Theme than "the cue between scenes four and five" or "the music cue at page 5—cue #8."
     

    2.  MUSIC:              (BED) LONE RANGER THEME---ESTABLISH AND UNDER.

    Cue #2 above is named "LONE RANGER THEME" and not "WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE" because there may be a change in the actual piece of music being used. I would instruct the composer or engineer in a separate note to use Rossini's "William Tell Overture" wherever "LONE RANGER THEME" appears. You might also have a problem securing the performance rights for a particular piece and have to shift it later. "LONE RANGER THEME" explains what the music is for. Try to name a cue for it's dramatic purpose rather than name the actual piece of music's formal name. However, if the characters must sing "Skip to My Lou," go ahead and specify the song as the name of the cue.
     

    9.  MUSIC: [MUS-21]       (BED) FOREBODING EPISODE OPENER--UNDER--QUICK FADE AT
                            LINE: "...ON MARS!"

    Cue #9, "FOREBODING EPISODE OPENER," is named with a description of the type of mood music needed to be composed or found on a recording.

    The music cues written by the great radio dramatist, Norman Corwin,  employed detailed descriptions to instruct staff composers such as Bernard Herrmann to create the appropriate mood music. You can also include such specific instructions.
     

    Here is one of  Norman Corwin's music cues from his radio version of Samson:

    18.  MUSIC:            DELILAH'S HARSHNESS AND BITTERNESS ARE CARRIED OVER
                           INTO A PASSAGE WHICH SHOULD GIVE THE FEELING OF CONCLUSION
                           TO THE FOREGOING SCENE; THEN THERE IS THE TENSION OF
                           ANTICIPATION OF SAMSON'S ORDEAL TO COME.

    Corwin's precise instructions were tailored for the large production staff at CBS in the 1940s. Today, this kind of detail would probably be given verbally or in separate notes between a writer/director and composer or music supervisor. You may wish to briefly describe the mood of the piece, since that is the language spoken by composers of dramatic underscoring and "music supervisors" who score using existing recorded music.
     

    8.  MUSIC: [LIVE-02]       (BRIDGE) BIG TROUBLE INTO HANGING ENDING.

    Music cue #8, "BIG TROUBLE INTO HANGING ENDING" is for a live accompanist to improvise on. It describes the moods to be evoked. The "LIVE" indicates that the live accompanist play here--as opposed to other music cues such as [MUS-03] or [MUS-16] which might be pre-recorded tracks. In radio, often the main and closing themes may be pre-recorded pieces, while the cues within the drama may be played live. This "LIVE" labeling handles that situation.
     
     

    4.  MUSIC: [MUS-03]       (BED) BELLE'S THEME--LET IT FINISH UNDER.

    Music cue #4,  "BELLE'S THEME," is so named because this music often accompanies the appearance of a character named Belle. This is useful if you are using the "leitmotiv" scoring approach, where each character gets a particular musical theme. Peter and the Wolf and the Star Wars films use this type of scoring style.
     

    11. MUSIC: [MUS-22]      (BRIDGE) MINER'S LAMENT--LET IT FINISH

    Music cue #11, "A MINER'S LAMENT,"  is named for the emotional purpose of the narration that will follow it. It informs the composer what type of music is needed here and puts the style of music into the context of the story.
     

    6.  MUSIC: [MUS-04]       (STING) OVER MY DEAD BODY

    I often name a cue based upon the dialogue that preceded  or follows it, or some description from the story. Music cue #6 is called "OVER MY DEAD BODY" because that's the dialogue line just before this music cue will play. The description (STING) will be discussed below when I address types of music cues.
     

    Most music is dramatic underscoring, mood music that the characters aren't supposed to be aware of. However, sometimes there are calls for music to be playing in the back ground of a scene--on a car radio, for example, or if the characters are at a dance or a concert hall. These cues are called "source" music because the source of the music is something within the scene.

    10. MUSIC: [MUS-55]      (SOURCE BED) MELANCHOLY JAZZ TUNE--IN B.G. UNDER

    Music cue #10, "MELANCHOLY JAZZ TUNE,"  is a source cue for a jazz club scene. It plays throughout the scene and could even be interrupted if, say a fight breaks out in the club.

    NOTE: I also supplement these music cue instructions by highlighting the engineer's copy of the script with vertical lines showing just how many dialogue and sound effects cues I want music to run through. See my page on Preparing Scripts for Fast Production for more about this method of script preparation.


    Music Cues - Engineer's Instructions

    Typically, music will play alone briefly to establish itself and then, if dialogue will go over it, the music will be faded a bit and finally faded completely out or left to finish or fade itself. These important instructions should be in the script. For many custom composed music cues, I include the instruction "LET IT FINISH" so the engineer doesn't fade too soon. The example music cues above demonstrate typical ways of handling such instruction.

    Here are some regularly used engineer's instructions regarding music cues:

    FADE IN (begin playing the music and fade up the volume gradually)
    FADE OUT (cut the volume gradually)
    FADE UNDER (cut the volume once the actors begin to speak)
    UNDER (let the music play under whatever the next cues are--sound effects or dialogue)
    DUCK UNDER (fade slightly when someone begins speaking, but continue playing) 
    ESTABLISH (let the cue play a bit before any other sound begins) 
    QUIETLY IN B.G. (let this cue play quietly in the background) 
    CUT ABRUPTLY (often with a particular line of dialogue cited for when to cut)
    CROSSFADE (fade one music (or other cue) in while fading another cue out) 
    SELF-FADING (indicating that the cue will fade itself out)
    LET IT FINISH (play this cue in its entirety. Don't fade it out)
    PLAY THROUGH AND OUT (this is the same as LET IT FINISH)

    Another engineer's instruction is the numerical designation of CD or DAT tracks or cue ID numbers for use by a live band or accompanist. Put this information in brackets, as in: [A-3] or [B-4] below:

    Example:

    4. MUSIC: [MUS-03]        (BED) BELLE'S THEME—FADE QUICKLY UNDER.
    5. BELLE:              Jeremy! The only way you'll get a puppy is
                           over my dead body!
    6. MUSIC: [MUS-04]        (STING) OVER MY DEAD BODY--UNDER
    
    7. JEREMY:             Did you say "dead" body, Belle?

    Here, the [MUS-03] tells the engineer to use music playback device--there may be one or two devices, but both should be loaded with the same tracks to allow crossfades or quick succession.  Pre-recorded sound effects should also use these instructions. When using such recorded or "canned" sound effects, I suggest you indicate it with [FX-26S]. The final "S" stands for sample or pre-recorded sound.

    I recommend using two playback devices (CD player, DAT, SD player, MP3's triggered from a computer, sampler, etc.) This allows you to quickly follow one cue with another--and even to crossfade between cues. Plus, you can have pre-recorded sound effects (rain or cars, for example) to play underneath music.



    DIALOGUE CUES

    Radio scripts are the blueprints of your program. The cast and crew depend upon radio scripts in a way quite unlike film or stage scripts. Given enough preparation, actors can memorize a radio script, but there is seldom time in radio productions for such a luxury. So your script is more like a musical score that must be read along to as the play is performed. The cast and crew are the "band members" being conducted by the director. A well-prepared "score" is essential to having  smooth rehearsals and performances. Also, radio writers have more control over their text because it is being interpreted as the performance progresses. Be precise in your instructions and the actors can be more faithful to your intentions.

    Examples:
     

    1. LORD CLIFF:         [CUE](CALLS OUT) My brother-knights! I, Cliff of Thorsness,
                           proclaim this a fitting dance of victory! (PAUSE) And
                           now I will present our...Wait!  My daughter, Elsa has
                           just arrived. Pardon, please...
    
    
    2. ELSA:               Father! You are hurt! Your head is bloodied.


    ------------

    11. GRETCHEN:           (GASPS) C-Cobra? W-Wait! There was a cobra in Lady
                            Bensington's dresser-drawer! I could have been... killed.
    
    
    12. RUFFLETHORPE:       A banded Egyptian cobra, Miss Laytherly. Species: Naja (NAW-JAW)
                            Baje (BAW-JAW) Annulifera--I believe. But my question
                            for Colonel Frothingham is, did this cobra crawl here?
    
    
    13. COL. FROTHINGHAM:   [FILTER] What? All the way from Egypt?


    Explanation:
    Formatting for radio speech is designed to aid in live, error-free readings. You'll note the dialogue is formatted in a bolded 12-point New Courier font, double-spaced, (or 1-1/2 spaced)  and indented, with a short span across the page.  This is to make the lines quickly readable, with space for changes, notes or actor's markups. The short span across the page makes it easy for actors eyes to jump to the next line without losing their place. Also, the Courier font, which has plenty of serifs is easy to read. San serif fonts, like Arial or Helvetica are more likely to be mis-read. Use a 12- or 14-point font to be kind to your actors eyes. Often, recording studios and stages are not lit well for reading scripts. During a live production, this formatting proves invaluable. For recording, it also saves time and trouble.

    Warning: Avoid single spacing of dialogue. This may save printing costs, but often costs you time and confusion in production--as actors flub lines or have difficulty keeping their place if they glance away from the script while receiving a cue or making eye contact with an actor playing opposite them.  Double-spaced lines also allow actors to mark up their scripts for inflections, pauses and correct pronunciation of difficult or foreign words.

    Examples:

    Do NOT use single spacing like this:

    1.   SIR HARALD:       Deeper we went, past hellish lava pits, the
                           remains of ancient camps--ghastly and strange.
                           But in a large grotto, lit by some far off dim
                           glow, a foul stench arose! The smell of a
                           thousand open graves!

    Double-spacing (or 1-1/2 spacing) is much easier to read live:

    1.   SIR HARALD:       Deeper we went, past hellish lava pits, the

                           remains of ancient camps--ghastly and strange.

                           But in a large grotto, lit by some far off dim

                           glow, a foul stench arose! The smell of a

                           thousand open graves!

    Delivery Directions
    Directions like (GASPS) and (LAUGHING) are capitalized and appear in parentheses. The film script equivalent--which employs upper and lower case (Gasps), (Laughing) etc.,--isn't used in radio because these directions could be mistakenly read along with the usual mixed-case dialogue. So these "parentheticals" should be in all caps to stand out as "not-dialogue." Generally, such delivery directions aren't necessary when the dialogue can be read straight and the desired effect achieved. But they should be used if the reading should be in contrast to the text or requires other emotional effects.

    Example - Unnecessary delivery direction:

    4. MIRIAM:               (SADLY) Poor Polly has died.


    Example - Necessary delivery direction:

    4. MIRIAM:               (SARCASTIC) Poor Polly has died.
    
    -or-
    4. MIRIAM:               (SOBS) Poor Polly has died.

    Directions can also be used to let the actor know to switch from a narrating delivery to a conversational in-scene style. This is especially useful for detective stories or wherever a character narrates and then becomes a participant in the scene.
     

    8. RICK LOWELL:          (NARRATING) Whoever it was got tired of waiting
                             and left. I gave them time to make the stairs and
                             then answered the phone--maybe it was Lyndon.
    
    
    9. SOUND:                PHONE RINGS (1X). PICK UP HANDSET.
    
    
    10. RICK LOWELL:         (IN SCENE) Hello--Miss George’s residence.


    Technical Directions
    Bracketed directions indicate technical information, for instance, that the actor will be speaking through a filter to simulate a telephone call. This instruction can tell the actor to use a special microphone or tell the engineer to activate a filter effect for that actor's microphone. Similar other effects can be indicated this way:
    [REVERB] [GHOSTLY EFFECT] [P.A. ECHO]

     

    11. ANSWERING SERVICE:   [FILTERED] This is the Melrose Answering Service
                             calling with an urgent message for Miss Gladys George.

    -------
     

    4. TRAIN ANNOUNCER:     [P.A. ECHO] (ANNOUNCING) Arriving on track 11,
                            the Lark--from San Francisco.


    Besides telling actors how they should deliver a line, these directions also alert other cast members how to respond to someone who's voice is being altered. The direction is not necessary on every line, but perhaps a [NORMAL] direction can be used to signal the end of the effected voice. I generally mark up the engineer's script to indicate how long an effect will be used. If a character has just emerged from a cave, I would indicate that he's no longer to use the reverb with the instruction [DRY].
     

    7.    FRIMLY:            [REVERB] He's getting away, Inspector! We must 
    
                             hurry. [DRY] Ah, now that he's out here
    
                             in the clearing, we've lost him.

    Numbers and Pronunciation Help
    When writing any numbers in dialogue, I suggest you follow the news-radio style and write them out as words. For a year, instead of 2009, write Two-Thousand-Nine. For telephone numbers, instead of 555-1212 use Five-five-five--one-two-one-two. Writing the numbers out as words will reduce actors' errors and transpositions.

    Similarly, if a word is difficult to pronounce or could cause a stumble, write out a phonetic pronunciation beside it in parentheses.

    Example:

    2.    COMMANDER TAL:        Go ahead! Die! Die for the glory of the 
    
                                Sigomah. (SEEGO-MAH) I don't care.
    
    
    3.    ZEEN:                 But we've done that since Fourteen-Ninety-Two!
     

    Typographical Aids
    I always include plenty of typographical markers to clarify the dialogue and allow the actors to think and react quickly as they deliver a line. Due to the short rehearsal time typical in radio drama, any instruction given in the script will aid actors and directors in interpreting your text faithfully. Use markings to improve clarity. Be brief.

    I employ underlining for emphasis; plenty of commas to indicate breaks and clauses; ellipses... to indicate pauses and em-dashes to delay phrases slightly. The idea is to render the meaning clearly, so the actor understands the line as it is being read.

    It is very important to write with a special clarity of expression—for the ear. I suggest you write a line and then say it out loud and try to refine it so it slips off the tongue easily--and is easily understood by actors and the audience. If it needs typographical help to make the line's meaning easily comprehensible, add the necessary markings.

    Some actors or directors may bristle at the writer including any such meaning markings in the script, but I've yet to run into an actor who's interpretation so differed from what the text intended. Most actors enjoy the ease of my dialogue and how the intent is clear on the page. They still manage to bring their interpretations to the dialogue, but now they understand the text better. Typographical direction is a real time-saver. It will greatly reduce the number of  "notes" that a director gives in rehearsal. Plus if it's IN the script to begin with you won't have to worry about actors remembering their notes from the director.

     

    Rhymed Dialogue
    When working with rhymes, try to make the dialogue lines break on the rhyming words. This will make it easier for actors to deliver the lines with the proper rhyme emphasis. Underlining can also help.

    Example:

    5. NARRATOR:               Now, the only other creature who lived around there,
                               Was a mean old Troll--built like a nightmare!
                               He had eyes like saucers, and a bitter little heart,
                               And a long pointy nose, but he wasn't very smart.


    Dialogue in Verse
    Adapting William Shakespeare or other classics presents problems because the typographical style for versification which is typical of such works makes radio-style reading-on-the-fly difficult.

    Example of traditional versified dialogue – difficult to deliver cold:

    7. EARL OF RICHMOND:   The sweetest sleep, and fairest-boding dreams
                           That ever entered in a drowsy head.
                           Methought their souls whose bodies Richard murdered
                           Came to my tent, and cried on victory.
                           How far into the morning is it, lords?

    Here, it may be necessary to remove unnecessary capitalization and spacing to allow the lines to flow the way a stage actor would deliver them--from memory.

    Example of DE-versified dialogue – easier to deliver cold:

    7. EARL OF RICHMOND:    The sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams
                            that ever entered in a drowsy head. Methought
                            their souls--whose bodies Richard murdered--came
                            to my tent and cried on victory. (PAUSE) How
                            far into the morning is it, lords?
     
    
    

    Non-Speaking Dialogue

    There are times when characters grunt or groan or scream. Here are ways to handle them through delivery directions.

    5. EDDY:               If I can just pull this brick out (GRUNTS) Uhh! There!
                           And... open the hatch... (GROANS) Noooo! Get back! 
    
                           Back you monster. No! Back! (SCREAMS) Yaaaaah! 
    
                                 

    Ad-libbed Dialogue
    Sometimes characters are instructed to continue speaking beyond the scripted dialogue. It is indicated this way:

    11. ALL:                (GASP) (AD LIB) Lord Bensington! No! Egad!
    
    
    3. MIKE MAZE:           This is Mike Maze at the corner of Beverly and Santa
    			     Monica. As you can hear behind me, we have a massive 
    
                            traffic jam throughout the city. Every car, truck, and 
    
                            Bus has stopped. It's totally unexplained. (AD LIB UNDER)
     

    Other Common Delivery instructions
    A variety of instructions can be  indicated. Here's a partial list:

                (ENTERING/EXITING)            - Moving towards or away from the microphone--often speaking louder or softer.
                (RUNNING, RUNNING IN )     - Running into a scene (out of breath)
                (FADING IN, FADING OUT)    - Bringing the volume up or down--either via a volume control  or entering/exiting.
                (TO SAM, TO ALL)                - Speaking to a particular character when several are in a scene.
                (DISTANT, OFF MIC)             - The actor steps back from the mic to sound like he's farther away.
                (CALLS OUT, SCREAMS)       - The actor raises his mouth to shout or scream to the ceiling.
                [CUE]                                  - Wait until music or SFX have been established or reached a certain point. Possibly, wait for director's cue before you begin.

    It is especially useful to keep dialogue from breaking unnaturally across several pages. If you have a long speech, try to break it at a paragraph or sentence ending. You should always Indicate that there are more lines coming on the next page.
     

    Example of breaking a speech across two pages:

    6.  SGT. FRIMLY:         That afternoon, Inspector Rufflethorpe and I interviewed
    			      the guests at Twitshyre Manor. Of course, they all had 
    
                             alibis for the time of Lord Bensington's murder. However, 
    
                             some were alarmed by the very notion of a curse.

                                                     [MORE...]

    [A new page starts here]

    1. SGT. FRIMLY          [CONT'D...]
    
                            At dinner, there was much talk of the 
    
                            super-natural, led by that mysterious beauty, 
    			     the Countess Valeska...

     

    
    




    SOUND EFFECT CUES

    Sound effects, often abbreviated as SFX, can help set the scene (factory, barnyard, ballgame, etc.) or depict action (door knocks, footsteps, gunshots, car crashes.) Sounds are the action, the motion in your play. Don't overuse them. You do not need sounds  in every scene, don't make characters do things just to give them a sound effect under their dialogue. It's always better to under-use sound effects than to overuse them.

    There are two types of sounds, self-identifying sounds and unidentified ones. If you hear a door knock, you know what it is. It doesn't require somebody to say, "I'll just knock on the door" prior to the door knock sound effect. However, some sounds,--such as a dull thud or a crash--may be too indistinct for the audience to understand what it is just from the sound. These require some dialogue to clarify them.

    The only sound effects necessary for a scene are the ones you  would "hear" in your head as you read the page. In radio, sound effects create a reality--they suggest something that is often described in dialogue. You do not need to add every sound that a real location would have--if you use too many sound effects or have a very busy ambience behind the dialogue--it becomes "noise"--unidentified sounds.

    Film and Television have a special approach to sound effects that does NOT apply to radio drama. The purpose of sounds in film is to reinforce what you are seeing on the screen. If  you see someone zipper a jacket in a film, there had better be a sound to accompany the image or it won't seem real. That mimicry of pictured sounds is called "Foley" (a term coined in the late 1980s) named after Jack Foley, a sound editor who added "missing" sound effects to film.  However, "Foley" is largely sounds of humans touching things--footsteps, car keys, drawers. Radio sound effects artists also do wind, rain, planes, crashes, cars and other sounds that are left to sound designers in film.

    NOTE: Don't call radio sound effects "foley." Not only are their origins separate, but professional radio sound effects artists are members of the SAG-AFTRA. (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) union, while film foley artists and film sound designers are members of the M.P.S.E. (Motion Picture Sound Editors) union. Calling radio sound effects "foley" shows your ignorance of the medium. Be professional and use the proper terms.

    In radio, there are two types of sound effects, live (manual) and pre-recorded ones. The manual ones are created in real time by sound effects artists. These are the footsteps, door slams, pouring water, etc. The pre-recorded sounds, also called "samples" or "grams," are used for reproducing sounds too difficult to create manually--rainstorms, ambulances, jet planes, cars, crickets, etc.

    Often there will be several sound effects artists, some doing live SFX and another triggering pre-recorded  effects. They will work together to layer the two types of sound. As the writer, you do not need to specify which will be manual and which will be pre-recorded--let the sound effects artists  decide, but have them look over the script and make suggestions, THEN write their cues and instructions into the production script. Here are some general rules about writing sound effect cues.

    NOTE: Sound effects and music cues are always underlined, as illustrated below. The underlining makes it easy for sound effects artists and musicians to see they have cues coming up. It also differentiates these cues from dialogue--which is never underlined in this fashion. This way actors don't stray from their lines to reading aloud the sound effects or music instructions.
    As with dialogue--music and sound effects cues are in a 12-point (or 14-point) New Courier font that's been bolded for photocopying.

    A sound effects artist will always grab a device and then manipulate it, so model  your cues to follow that same process.
    Indicate WHAT the sound is first, then How it is to be played---and for how long.  Think NOUN-->VERB-->MODIFIER.

    7.    SOUND:            ELSIE DROPS TEA TRAY--LOUDLY. GRETCHEN BODY DROPS.
     
    3.    SFX: 	           SLIM CLOSES DOOR/LOCKS. CLOCK CHIME (10X)--CONTINUE 
                            UNDER. 
     
    6.    SOUND:            GUNSHOT. (PAUSE) GUNSHOT. (PAUSE) GUNSHOT. 
     
    14.   SFX:              TIM'S FOOTSTEPS RUN UP.  GUNSHOTS (4X)

    Be very specific about which character is doing what. Tim's footsteps will sound very different from Maria's.

    Describe the sound you are emulating and NOT some device you might think the artist will use to create it. So don't write a cue like "slapstick" when you want a whip or "crinkle paper" when you mean "fire crackling." And never write cues that begin with "the sound of..." Keep them short. Don't write "the sound of a slap." Just write "Tim slap's Maria," if that's what you need. Once you've written your script, give it to the sound effects artist and ask for comments or clarifications. The artist will make notes and rewrite the cues. Take those changes and incorporate it into your production script. Then everybody will know how many door knock or telephone rings have to sound before they can come it for their line. Eventually, you'll learn to specify the door knocks and phone rings yourself.

    How to indicate sound effects to match dialogue

    Sometimes a series of sound effects accompanies dialogue, with the SFX  occurring as a particular line or word is spoken. There are several ways to indicate such timing. I generally list SFX cues prior to the dialogue and let the SFX artist put them in where she feels they fit best. You can also specify exactly where a certain effect must occur.

    Example  of  SFX cue preceding dialogue:

    7. SOUND:                CAR STOP. CAR DOOR SLAMS (2X) FOOTSTEPS ON

                             WALK--CUED WITH LINES THRU "AND THE GIRL"
     

    8. RICK:                 (NARRATING) We pulled up in front of the

                             prop house and got out. The two thugs kept

                             their guns on us as we walked up the ramp

                             and into the building. Now they had me and

                             the girl.

    Example of SFX cues placed within dialogue

    7. SOUND:                CAR STOP.
     
    8. RICK:                 (NARRATING) We pulled up in front of the

                             prop house and got out. (SFX: CAR DOOR SLAMS

                             (2X)) The two thugs kept their guns on us

                                                      (SFX: FOOTSTEPS WALK-- UNDER) as we walked

                             up the ramp and into the building. Now they

                             had me and the girl.
     
     

    However, interrupting dialogue lines with sound effects cues may make the delivery of lines more difficult. This is an option I don't use very often.

    Indicating Pre-recorded Sound Effects

    Many sound effects can be  produced manually, especially footsteps, door knocks and such, but some sounds are difficult to produce manually (rain, cars, planes, explosions, etc.) . Here pre-recorded sounds are best. Even in the golden age of radio, pre-recorded sounds were an important part of many dramas.

    Usually, live sounds are performed by one SFX artist while another artist or engineer will trigger the pre-recorded sounds. It is useful to indicate which sounds are pre-recorded--often called "samples" or "grams" (short for "phonograms"). They can either get their own SFX cue, but I find that live and pre-recorded sound often are employed together, so I suggest mixing them in the same cue.

    Example of Sampled  and Live Sound Effects:
     

    8. SOUND:    [FX-23S] JETLINER CRUISING ALONG.  [FX-24S] FLYING

                     SAUCER.  RAY GUN BLASTS (4X)

    -OR-

    8. SFX TRACK: [FX-23S] JETLINER CRUISING ALONG.  [FX-24S] FLYING

                     SAUCER. 

    9. SFX:        RAY GUN BLASTS (4X)

    Here, the jetliner and flying saucer are sampled SFX and the ray gun blasts are live manual effects. The A- and B- entries for the bracketed samples designate two different playback devices--so the jetliner sound continues while the flying saucer zooms by.

     

    Indicating Silence or the Silencing of Sound Effects

    Sometimes silence is a powerful sound in itself. Also, there are times when a scene ends abruptly or blacks out and you need to cut all sound effects at once. Here's how to indicate that:

    Example of silence:
     

    7. SCROOGE:          What in the ...world? (PAUSE) N-Nonsense.

                         Humbug! It’s all humbug! I had...Wait!

                         What-what’s that?
     

    8. SOUND:            SILENCE FOR 3 SECONDS THEN [REVERBED] CRASH.

                         CHAINS RATTLING. FOOTSTEPS. CONTINUE UNDER.
     

    Example of silencing sound effects:
     

    2. SOUND:           ROBOT SPIDER SQUEAL. SCAFFOLD BUCKLING-BENDING METAL--UNDER.
     

    3. RADIO RANGER:     It’s grabbing the elevator! Hang on!
     

    4. MAC:              I’m... being... sucked... in! (SCREAMS)

                         Ahhhhhhh!
     

    5. SOUND:            SILENCE.


    Walla-Walla - crowd sounds

    One of the most effective and convincing sound effects is the made by having the cast or SFX crew mumble to simulate crowds. This is called "Walla-Walla" because the sound is indistinct. See my article on how to use Walla-Walla for more information on the theory and practice of this powerful effect. Here's how to use it in a script.

    Example of walla-walla:
     

    7. EARL:             Why, then ‘tis time to arm and give direction.
     

    8. SOUND:            WALLA--EXCITED SOLDIERS. THEY HUSH QUICKLY.

    -OR-

    8. WALLA:            (EXCITED SOLDIERS. THEY HUSH QUICKLY)

    The idea is to indicate that it is walla and then describe who and how they are chattering. On my marked up master scripts for actors and SFX crews, I also circle the walla description so it stands out and the cast can see they should contribute to it. As a director, I might choose certain actors to do walla--generally those not already speaking in a certain scene where the walla will occur.

    Walla for radio should usually be mumbling and not real words or sentences because it can steal the listener's attention from the scripted dialogue. However, there are times where crowds are supposed to be reacting to a situation and you will want specific phrases to be used in the Walla. Here's an example:

    Examples of Walla using scripted phrases:

    6. MRS. MALORY:     Please, everyone! Have a spot of lunch

                        to calm your nerves, won’t you?
     

    7. SOUND:           WALLA--”LUNCHEON?” “I’M FAMISHED” “AFTER YOU."

                        ETC.

    -OR-

    8. WALLA:           (GUESTS)--”LUNCHEON?” “I’M FAMISHED” “AFTER YOU."

                        ETC.

     




    PRODUCTION NOTES

    There are times when you must enter specific instructions to the engineer, cast or crew and they are handled as production notes--comments from the writer on how to coordinate cues or obtain a certain effect. Here are some examples:
     

    PRODUCTION NOTE:
          Put Raymond AND the sound effects through a reverb, to
          make it appear that we are hearing his thoughts. As he
          speaks, sound effects fade in and out for a montage. His
          story will halt suddenly with a scream and we will return
          to the external world of his hospital room.

    ------------------------

    5. SCROOGE:        I beg you, I’ll change...I’ll change...
     

    PRODUCTION NOTE:
        The reverb on Scrooge’s voice gets “drier” until
        completely dry, signifying his return to reality.
        Dry it up by "Please, please!

     

    6. SCROOGE:        I’ll change...I’ll change...Please, please!

    ----------------------
     

    PRODUCTION NOTE:
        Put the sound effects and dialogue through REVERBS.
        Frimly’s narration remains dry, but his dialogue is "wet."

    --------------------

    PRODUCTION NOTE:
            The Walla parts may be farmed out to actors with
            smaller parts. The ghostly walla parts will be
            done near the reverbed SFX microphone, all others
            will be at the regular (dry) mikes.

     

    "Q" Markups

    When a sound effect or music cue must be established or complete before a dialogue line begins, you must mark the script to indicate that actors should wait for the cue to be finished or wait for the director to cue them to begin. You can add [CUE] at the point in the dialogue or SFX or music description where the performer should wait for the director to signal.

    I also indicate this by marking up the master script by hand with a large letter "Q" beside the next dialogue line after a certain, important sound effect or music cue. The way to determine where to mark up the script is if the music cue must be established to a certain point--for example 8 seconds in--before the actor should begin speaking, them mark their dialogue line with a "Q". For sound effects, it is only necessary to mark up the script if the characters must directly react to that effect. For example,  if a gun shot must be fired before the actor can say, "I'm shot!" Many times actors ignore sound effects and music cues and begin their lines too soon. The "Q" mark makes them wait. When typing up the script on the computer I use an asterisk beside the cue number to later tell me where I intended the handwritten "Q" to be.

    Examples of Q Mark Ups:
     

    8. SOUND:          DOOR & BELL OPENS/CLOSES. BOB CRATCHIT'S SNEAKY FOOTSTEPS.
     

       9* SCROOGE:        [CUE] (MOCK ANGRY) “Mister Cratchit!” (CHUCKLES)

                           What do you mean by coming in at this time?

    -----------------------
     

    3.  MUSIC: [MUS-2]   TWITSHIRE INTRO--UP FULL. DUCK.

     4*  FRIMLY:        [CUE] Hullo. I’m Sergeant Frimly. I ask you,

                           how can a murderer vanish into thin air?



    This covers most common requirements for writing radio drama cues. The key idea to remember is to clearly indicate the requirements of the scene in a fashion that can be read and interpreted in real time during the production of the program. A well prepared script will save hours and headaches for cast, crew and even the listening audience.

    Good luck.  


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    TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
    He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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