The obvious challenge of writing a radio play is that there are no written or visual cues to centre the listener in the world so the place and the characters have to be completely constructed through sound. Let’s start with the scene because that will be your first paragraph.
Now I was going to start with the sound element but anyone who read the first part of McAllen will have noticed that there are two brief descriptions of the characters in the scene:
‘DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDENT JAYNE MCALLEN, THIRTY-SEVEN, STIFF OF MOVEMENT AND SHARP OF SUIT IS CONVERSING WITH DETECTIVE SERGEANT MATT DESAI, MID-FORTIES AND NURTURING A BEER BELLY.’
I know what you’re thinking; ‘Jesse, you just said there’s no visual cues for characters.’ The character descriptions aren’t strictly for the audience but rather for the makers to give them a sense of the characters to help them cast the actors. I have to admit that the idea perplexed me to begin with and it was difficult because the description has to be very short and yet still hit the main points. I found the best way was to simply write the description and then boil it down, but I like to think that brevity doesn’t mean you can’t get a few linguistic twists in. Where would be the fun if you couldn’t?
So, now I have my characters I need my scene. I knew that the first scene was going to be in a pub so how to describe it if the listener won’t get to see my words? The method that worked for me was to close my eyes and picture myself in a pub and imagine what I can hear and came up with:
‘CLINKING GLASSES, CHATTER, A SLOT MACHINE, AND A JUKEBOX PLAYING ‘OLD CLASSICS’ WITH A STUTTER.’
This all seemed fairly simple but when I was discussing it with my tutor there was some debate over a later line where:
‘THE SLOT MACHINE CASHES OUT LOUDLY AND A GROUP OF MEN CHEER.’
Now my tutor didn’t specialise in radio plays and found this contentious because of the number of people it would require. However, I was lucky enough to have a special tutorial with a radio play writer who said that when multiple characters appear in the background it was more likely that the cast would do the cheer so they wouldn’t need to hire extra actors. All that said while you need sound to create the space there is a point where there is too much sound because the listener still needs to be able to clearly hear the actors otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. A method of doing this that I didn’t choose to use is to have the background sound to establish the scene and then fade it out so it won’t mask the character’s speech. When I think about it I can’t recall a radio play that I have heard do this, but perhaps that’s the point. Once the scene is establish perhaps your brain takes over and fills in the blanks so the absence of the background is less conspicuous.
Now we have characters and scene but what do you do when you come to the inevitable moment where the listener needs to see but can’t? By scene two I had a crime scene the listener couldn’t see so the characters had to tell the listener what it looked like, but how? At the time it seemed impossible because the conversation had to sound natural though what it was doing was unnatural. As my play was supposed to be no more than twenty minutes I did what, apparently, some radio playwrights would consider a cheat and used Jayne’s interior monologue. The second was suggested by the professional radio writer I met and that’s the Dictaphone, I was a young inexperienced writer at the time and I don’t think it would’ve occurred to me had it not be suggested. That is one of the reasons I would encourage writers to find people they can work with because sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees and need a fresh pair of eyes. Though Jayne would probably be using her phone these days, not a separate Dictaphone, but the same principle still applies.
So, we have a few methods to paint our scene with sound and the characters’ speech in radio plays but I would suggest trying the soundscape method in prose writing too. Though it’s far easier to be visual in prose extra depth can be add by using other senses such as sound, smell and touch. The next time you’re stuck with your proses description try closing your eyes and imaging what the character might hear and you might get a different perspective on the world you’re building.
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