How To Write a Radio Play

Radio plays bring us back to the days when there weren't the visuals of television.  Listeners relied upon their imagination and the talents of the 'actors' to produce the story in their minds.  In this they must have been successful, because when H.G. Wells' radio play first aired on Halloween in the 1930's, it caused mass hysteria among listeners who were convinced that it was indeed an attack from extra-terrestrial beings!  Let's make your radio play equally effective!

  1. A radio play is based upon a form of drama called 'reader's theater.'  No emphasis is put upon what the 'actors' look like, only upon how they sound.  There is nothing visual.  So your play must center upon attention-grabbing sound.
  2. Write the draft of your play as you would a stage play.  Each player has lines.  Entrances and exits become verbal.  There are no scenery props.
  3. Focus your dialogue upon the type of play you are writing: drama, poetic, comedy, melodrama.  Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' is a good work to follow for drama.  For comedy, you can't beat Abbott and Costello.
  4. Create your characters by the way they sound.  What word choices would they make?  Do they have a regional dialect?  Is their speech mannered in a vernacular?  Do they use colloquialisms?  Look at the writing of Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris and Edgar Lee Masters for some examples of local voices.
  5. Consider your characters' temperament and personality.  Are they rude, bossy, shy, arrogant, bumbling, silly, stammering, melancholy, strident?  Write these into the dialogue.
  6. Concentrate upon how you want your readers to portray their characters.  A character communicates innuendos, his attitude toward other characters, the subject, the situation and himself with vocal patterns.  These are especially crucial in radio plays, where we rely upon dialogue cues for our understanding of the production.  The Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor is a great example!  Consider:
    • Tempo.  Use the 'pregnant pause,' interruption, hasty speech and slow speech.
    • Rhythm.  Use interruption, characters talking at the same time and symphonic talking to show distress or concord.
    • Pitch.  Pitch involves the timbre or level of the voice.  High pitch can indicate nervousness, agitation or excitability.  Low pitch often indicates drama, secrecy, intensity and mystery.
    • Inflection -- how individual words are said.  Use caps to indicate words of importance.  For example, a detective may say, 'Oh he said THAT, did he?'
  7. You can create a mood with tone of voice and delivery of lines.  Indicate to your actors how a word, phrase or comment is to be said.  You can write in:
    • Irony -- heavy emphasis on ironic ideas or words.
    • Sarcasm -- add a sneer to the actor's passage.
    • Understated humor -- the actor makes a comment with a lilt in his voice.
    • Tension -- actor speaks slowly and directly, in a quiet, low-pitched voice.  Unsettling music is often present.
    • Pathos -- you can add 'with a catch in the voice' to your dialogue notes, indicating lines said with sadness
    • Sympathy -- 'with feeling or warmth.'  It indicates to the reader that she has sympathetic quality.  Touching music is often used.
    • Bitterness -- like irony, this sentiment is expressed by emphasis on words, but it has a defeated anger in the voice.
    • Defeat -- dialogue spoken in heavy, dull, indifferent speech.
    • Fear -- lines spoken in high gasping voice, often with oppressive music.
    • Malaprop -- misspoken phrase that, if timed correctly, is uproariously funny!
  8. Use instrumental music to heighten all emotion.  Music can definitely create an atmosphere.  Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf is 'narrated' by instruments of the orchestra.  We recognize characters by their instrument. 
  9. Use sound effects.  This is a place for real creative genius!  Popcorn in a pie plate sounds for all the world like rain!  Thunder can be simulated with a drum!  Insert your sound effects where important, and have fun experimenting!  'War of the Worlds' relied heavily upon homemade sound effects to produce eerie effects.
  10. Keep the story moving!  In your plot, dead space kills a play.   Pacing is crucial in your radio play.
  11. Readers should read slowly and clearly.  It is easier to read too fast than too slow.  Reading slowly gives the listeners time to digest what is taking place.

I love a good radio play, and I hope these tips help you to produce an amazing production that will have us on the edge of our seats!  Break a leg!


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