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Last updated: October 30, 2018

A Method for Writing Radio Plays

An essay toward developing a method of writing radio drama/audio theatre. This sprang from a question on the (now defunct)Radio Drama list where someone asked how to approach adapting and existing story for radio.

Writing a Radio Play

    Someone asked for advice on adapting existing fiction for radio. I'll try to address both the "get me started" and "what about adaptations" aspects. In effect, we are always adapting. Whether the story came from "thin air" or from somebody else's material, we go through many of the same steps when writing for radio.

    Overall, it's easier to get started writing radio by dramatizing an existing story--but probably NOT a novel. If you are a beginner, try dramatizing a joke or urban legend or a bible story--something where the characters and plot are established--and not too long.

    I find it takes much longer to generate a whole show from scratch. You need a theme, characters, back stories, subtexts, etc.--a lot of questions must be answered. The options multiply and you are easily swept away by too many flavors. So, I suggest beginners start with writing an episode of Superman or some familiar show where you don't have to invent the background basics and can concentrate on writing for the radio form. I cut my teeth writing new episodes of the Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and Superman. Sure, they're genre shows, but the techniques are the same ones used in all shows: dialogue, music and sound effects.

    If you are an experienced radio writer, for adaptations, you'll apply your radio drama skills to telling somebody else's story--a story which may not lend itself to the genre or may be very long and shaggy. Your job is to make it work both as a story and as a radio drama--which may be two different things. Use your sense of what can be effectively dramatized in radio to select those scenes or bits from the story.

    You can avoid the copyright can of worms by adapting something in the public domain--generally any story published before 1908. That includes most literary classics.


    My Radio Drama Resources website has an essay I wrote for a  teacher's workshop on Adapting Shakespeare for Radio Drama.

    It covers condensing scenes, replacing stage direction with narration or SFX, limiting the number of speakers, using music bridges, using sparse sound effects, etc. Please note that it is written for teachers to produce classroom radio dramas from stage plays, but overall it's a good starting point. And yes, I REWROTE Shakespeare. I just "punched it up a little" without mangling too much of the Bard's dialogue. Willie "the Shake" would have loved radio drama.

    I had a great experience adapting Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" several years ago for the Museum of Television & Radio. I've written a bit about that experience and it would be a good case history to examine for how I took a well known story and adapted it faithfully, but still invigorated it using radio's wondrous tools: Script Notes#CAROL

    Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions toward a method to adapting other works for radio. A lot of this advice applies to writing originals too. It's not the only method, but it's what I use.

    1) Read through the work. If it's a classic with Cliff notes available, read the notes too. They'll give you sketches of the major characters and the action of each scene. If no notes exist, turn the story into a "treatment" or "scenario" describing the plot, characters and "sub-text" (what's really going on in a scene). I psychoanalyze the story and look for symbolic structures to find the heart of the tale. I always read with a hi-lighter pen in my hand to note great lines or important scenes--those that leap out at you.

    2) Rewrite the story as a brief treatment--something similar to how you would recap a movie when someone asks "What's it about?" What you recall is what you should use to adapt. If you don't remember a part, maybe nobody else will miss it. If it's a widely known story, make sure to keep the elements that everybody expects--don't drop Queeqeeg from Moby Dick--but  that has been done..

    3) Try to find the traditional three-part structure to your treatment:


             Normalcy---> Conflict/Problem---> Resolution

    Novels are full of twists and turns and minor episodes--look for the essential plot. Many stories have the three-part spine underneath all the subplots and diversions. Try to isolate it. Over the millennia, audiences have been groomed to expect stories with three-part structures and you would do well to fulfill their expectations. I'm never so bald about this, because I've internalized the common Western notions of story telling. See Aristotle's Poetics for a start of these essential elements.


    There are many "how-to" books about story structure aimed at screenwriters. Twenty five years ago, I got a lot out of a book called Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field that prescribed a fairly mechanical, but widely used "mapping" method to movie storytelling. In the late 1980's, here in Hollywood, Joseph Campbell's 1948 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces sparked a boom in using myths as a guide. That sparked a boom-let of "let me show you how to apply Campbell to movies" books such as The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Recently, Robert McKee's screenwriting seminars have been turned into an interesting book devoted to quality storytelling, regardless of medium, called Story.

    These books would seem to apply more to writing your own stories rather than adapting somebody else's, but the rules of storytelling are ancient and you probably only need to have them highlighted to make it easier for you to recognize them in whatever story you need to tell.

    Picture a seed in the ground. It sends its shoots up--to break through to the surface; an obstacle, the crossing of a threshold. That plant continues to grow and then the flower blossoms.

    Building tension --> Engagement (escalating thrills/involvement) --->The climax

    [BACK TO SCENE...]

    4) See how your treatment works as a story. Decide what scenes to keep or combine or delete. Be merciless in cutting out "off topic" sub-plots and characters--especially characters. Look for the drama in a scene. I recall in a photo of film director, Sam Fuller's office, he had a sign from his newspaper days. It read "Is it INTERESTING?" If not, dump it. Yes, you'll lose nuances and grace notes, but the audience can always read the book to get them back.

    5) Tell your story to somebody and see how it plays. Note where stresses are needed or confusion occurs. Rewrite your treatment until it works on its own as a good "What's it about." If you can verbally tell your story well, then you know it.

    6) I then list out the scenes I must include and then write out a "requirements document" for each: Purpose of scene, Characters, Action, Subtext and discussion of direction, Sound Effects possibilities, ending dialogue line. This gives me the "marks" I must hit. I always avoid writing a scene until I know exactly where it must go--it keeps my writing from meandering around. Once your characters start talking, their conversation can stray all over the place and when that dialogue is written, I find it harder to edit. I tend to get married to the lines.

    So, I subscribe to the school of writing were you prep, prep, prep. The standard joke goes like this:

      FRIEND:         How's the work going on your new play?

      WRITER:        Great! I'm 90% done. I start writing tomorrow.

    7) Now, "Radio-ize" your story.


    Decide where each scene begins and ends--this may, and often, should differ from the original. Use music to set the scene or use sound effects to "place" your actors in a location (Factory, war zone, beach, etc.) This may come about in re-writing once the dialogue is established.


    Write the dialogue and action necessary to "hit your marks" as intended in your requirement's document. I use lots of little speeches instead of long monologues. I find that in radio, long speeches tend to bore the listener, I'll take a long speech and break it up between several characters to keep the voices changing--sort of the way a film will use different shots to keep things fresh to the eye. I call this method "ping ponging" as the characters bat the listener's attention between one another. Listen to how old time radio shows had lots of little retorts from characters; "Oh, yeah!" "But that means..." etc.

    I love using the technique of a sound montage under a storyteller. A character tells of some action that took place, and while telling it, we hear the music and sound effects that support the story. I've often found it more effective than a straight "real-time" dramatization of the events.


      In my "Grim Scary Tales" episode, "Crusade of Terror," I had a scene where crusaders are venturing through an underground city in 1204 A.D. Turkey. They wade through an ocean of bones to find a golden tomb and as they open it, are attacked by Ifrits (snake haired monsters from the Arabian Nights). I first envisioned it as a real-time scene, but that took a lot of time on radio: "Look! Up ahead! What's that?" "It's a tomb." "A golden tomb!" "Gold!" "I knew it!" "Let's go in!" "Should we?" etc.

      Knowing that ghost stories tend to work better around a fire, I instead wrote the scene as a tale told by a frightened survivor of the attack. The survivor describes the adventure with spooky supporting music, one line of "live" dialogue (CRUSADER in the scene: "Look! An ocean! An ocean of..." THE SURVIVOR: "Bones!--and it was...") and some key sound effects --wading through an ocean of bones, frightened walla walla, prying open the tomb, attacking creatures, swords, etc. The storyteller kept things moving along and kept the action clear. This approach made a much better scene and really played to radio's strengths--particularly using evocative music and sound effects.

      I discuss this scene at length and quote from the script at my page on How to Write Radio Horror.

    For sound effects, I don't agree with the film-style foley approach, where, if you see it, you must hear it. There has been plenty of discussion on the radio-drama e-mail discussion list about the "total realism" school Vs. the "only what's necessary" school. I feel that you only need the sound effects you hear in your head when reading a book--you don't need every realistic sound. Too many sound effects and unidentified sound effects are just noise. They'll distract the listener from the story.


    Regarding the use of the author's dialogue--sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. When adapting Dickens, I found a full text version of the story on the Web and downloaded it into my word processor. Then I cut and pasted much of that verbatim dialogue into my script. I didn't use every line, but it kept me extremely faithful to Dickens' language--which preserved its Victorian flavor. I later re-wrote parts of the dialogue to condense things or remove archaic references. Some book authors have a tin ear for dialogue and you may have to rewrite it from scratch to get at what's really going on in a scene. It varies.


    Limit the number of characters speaking in a scene. This is very important. I generally find four characters are the max that the radio audience can handle without confusion settling in as to who is talking. Crowd scenes are different, but you'll need to keep tagging lines with "But, Inspector Rufflethorpe! How can you believe a woman murdered..." "It's easy, Col. Frothingham. Those cockroaches were only HALF-eaten..." Using actors with distinctive voices helps, but the blindness of the radio stage can still confuse the audience. Clarity is everything--never confuse your audience--unless it's on purpose.


    Put some action into a scene--not necessarily a plane crash, but don't let pages and pages go by with no music or sound effects. Try to select scenes that have some action, otherwise you risk lulling the listener to the point of tune-out. Old time radio writers would often say, "You need a sound effect every 1/2 page" I don't go that far, but don't turn your drama into a "books-on-tape" style production. The BBC's recent "Trojan War" started with endless jabbering over a sound effect of waves on a shore--I nearly fell asleep at the wheel.


    Use the narrator--it's no crime. A wisely used narrator allows you to save a lot of time in describing characters, setting and past action. Many writers hate the narrator. Just use it effectively. I generally have narrators speak at the beginning of a scene and no more. I avoid having them speak in the middle of a scene because it yanks the listener out of the drama and breaks the spell we're trying to weave.

    If the narrator is too obtrusive, you end up leading the audience around by the nose. Try to avoid this...

      NARRATOR:         John felt flustered...

      JOHN:                I'm upset over the recent turn of events.

      NARRATOR:         And Mary tried--fruitlessly--to comfort him...

      MARY:                There, there, John.

      NARRATOR:         Thus was the die cast for the dissolution of their careers as radio play characters...

    Yikes!  It drama, but the audience isn't comfortable here--they never join the scene between John and Mary because they expect the narrator to jump in at any time and break the spell. As BBC audio-dramatist Bert Coules wrote on the (now defunct) radio-drama list, "Go for the spirit--not the letter." Your job is to be faithful to the story, NOT the author.

TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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