Veteran radio dramatist Neville Teller offers tips for authors new to writing audio drama.
Before Shakespeare launches on his account of Henry V’s adventures in France, he has his Chorus address the throng of groundlings waiting in anticipation for the play to begin. ‘Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…’, he begs of them, ‘Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hooves i’ th’ receiving earth…’
Aware of the restrictions that a stage, scenery and props impose in recounting great events in dramatic terms, Shakespeare knew how much depended on the words he conjured up and on the actors who mouthed them. He was also anticipating what radio drama would be able to help an audience achieve 400 years later. Radio would allow its audience to overcome the restriction of perceiving only what was set before it – a restriction inevitably imposed in theatre, film and TV drama. With nothing to see, the radio listener would nevertheless ‘see’ horses, hundreds of them, whinnying and stamping.
The unique quality of ‘audio drama’ – the term being increasingly used in recognition of the ways, in addition to radio, now available to disseminate it – is that it builds a private and exclusive picture in the mind of each separate member of its audience. It becomes a personal experience, individual and different, for each person listening.
Audio drama gives the widest possible scope to the imagination of both writer and listener. In a radio play you can have inanimate objects converse, you can have people speak and also communicate their innermost thoughts; in an instant you can be whisked from earth to Mars, from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest coal mine. And the images that listeners experience are the most vivid of all: images in their own mind.
"Audio drama allows writers almost limitless freedom of expression, and perhaps that is why it has attracted the most brilliant writers and poets"
Audio drama allows writers almost limitless freedom of expression, and perhaps that is why it has attracted the most brilliant writers and poets, often at the beginning of their careers – among them Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed, John Betjeman and Laurie Lee. Major works have been created for radio, including Samuel Becket’s All That Fall, Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, while the list of writers who made their dramatic debut on BBC radio is long and glittering, and includes Joe Orton, Tom Stoppard, John Mortimer, Brendan Behan, Angela Carter and Susan Hill.
Somebody once wrote to the papers about how disappointed they had been at a stage performance of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. I responded, pointing out that the piece was originally written for radio, and represents the high-water mark of the now-defunct BBC Radio Features department, which raised the art of radio to its greatest height.
The producer who brought Under Milk Wood to listeners was Douglas Cleverdon, and he later wrote that he had persuaded Thomas to drop his original idea of a plot in favour of exploiting the versatility of the radio medium. It is precisely because Under Milk Wood is constructed as a collage of voices, moves rapidly in time and space, and alternates speech and unspoken thoughts, that it makes brilliant radio and indifferent theatre.
What writers need to know
Writers who want to try their hand at audio drama might be inhibited by the thought of coming to grips with an unfamiliar medium. Despite the plethora of advice available online, some of it contradictory and much of it not particularly helpful, outside suggestions cannot really assist the creative process. A writer’s inner vision, or flash of inspiration, is unpredictable. What might help is advice on bringing an imaginative concept to life in audio terms.
Surprisingly, there is no universally agreed format for audio drama scripts. Search ‘audio drama’ on Google, and dozens of suggested templates are thrown up, while the sample scripts on the BBC’s Writer’s Room website appear in a host of different presentations.
There are one or two basic requirements, though. An audio drama script needs to be set out in three distinct areas of the page. The extreme left is reserved for the characters’ names, best printed in bold capitals; next, nicely indented, comes the dialogue; beyond that, further indented, come the technical directions. My practice is to print them in bold capitals, and enclose them within brackets. Other templates – to my mind rather unattractive – show them in underlined capitals.
Normal practice is to set line spacing at one-and-a-half, and it is essential to number your pages. It might be impossible for a producer who lets an unnumbered script fall to the floor ever to reassemble it. There is no real need in the early stages of writing an audio drama to divide the play into separate scenes, or to number the speeches. These steps follow when the script is being prepared for production.
The sound palette available to the audio dramatist consists essentially of four elements: the spoken word, music, sound effects and technical devices.
"Dialogue can, of course, make or break a drama, and an audio dramatist in particular needs an understanding of how to make characters"
Dialogue can, of course, make or break a drama, and an audio dramatist in particular needs an understanding of how to make characters, but also the piece as a whole, live through what is said. Narration is an important element in many audio dramas, and its tone, place and purpose within the piece needs to be carefully judged, especially if the narrator is also a character within the play. Some basic instructions to actors should be included, in lower case italics and in brackets, in the dialogue section. A scene set at a tea-table could include ‘eating, drinking’ by the character’s name. If a character is moving towards or away from the listener while speaking, the dialogue script should specify ‘advancing’ or ‘retreating’.
Judicious use of music, even just a snatch, can establish mood and period in an instant. It can also be used to punctuate a drama, or to emphasise an especially dramatic point. The writer needs to indicate in the technical directions where music should appear, and perhaps the type of piece in mind, but once a script has been accepted for production, it is the producer who will normally have the final say.
Sound effects should be indicated in the script within the technical directions – for example, if you need a door to be opened. A word of advice: if you direct that a door is opened, you must also remember that often – not always – it will need to be closed, or the sound picture conveyed to the listener is of a permanently open door. It will niggle some of your audience, when they should be concentrating on other things. If a telephone is lifted and a conversation held, you will normally need to specify that the receiver is replaced.
Doors, telephone receivers, crockery and cutlery are ‘spot effects’ – that is, sound effects produced in the studio and recorded with the dialogue. Technical directions include a range of effects that can enhance the sound picture. For example, if you place characters inside a church, or within a cavern, their voices will need to be provided – by the studio manager, via his magical console – with an echo.
Your script will need to provide both the location, and the need for an echo. When two characters are on the telephone, one will be with the listener, the other’s voice will need to be electronically altered. Indicate which one. This the studio manager will do, on your instruction as to which character’s voice needs to be ‘on distort’.
The most basic of all audio drama techniques, perhaps, is the fade – that is, fading the volume as a scene ends, sometimes when a character is speaking, sometimes on a sound effect or music. It implies a change of venue or the passage of time. ‘Fade’ or ‘Fade out’ would be the technical direction. Depending on the effect required, the listener could be carried into a new scene gently (‘Fade in’), or brought straight in (‘Full up’).
It's all in imagination
A search online will provide an aspiring audio dramatist with the scripts of some of the most acclaimed radio plays of the recent past, and the techniques of writing for a listening audience will become apparent. I have just published Audio Drama: 10 Plays for Radio and Podcast – a collection of my own radio dramatisations which have been broadcast either by the BBC or across the United States. The book is intended primarily for lovers of radio drama and for audio drama podcast producers looking for material on which to exercise their technical skills. The ten plays will also, I hope, be of value to writers keen to write for radio.
It goes without saying that technique on its own is not enough. The creative imagination of the writer, in this field as in all others, is the essence of the matter.
Photo © Anatoliy Sadovskiy / Adobe Stock
This article was originally published in the summer 2019 issue of The Author.
About Neville Teller
Neville Teller is a radio dramatist and abridger with more than 50 BBC radio dramatisations to his credit. He was Chair of the Broadcasting Group (now the Scriptwriters Group) in the 1990s, and again in 2004–6. In 2006 he was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours ‘for services to broadcasting and to drama’.
Audio Drama Awards
If you're feeling inspired, take a look at two audio drama awards, presented annually at the BBC Audio Drama Awards for audio drama writing: the Imison Award (£3,000 for the best audio drama script by a writer new to the medium) and the Tinniswood Award (£3,000 for the best original audio drama script of the year.). Find out more and enter here