Writing for radio
On 21 July New Writing North held a workshop for prospective applicants with Jo Combes from the BBC writersroom and radio producer Charlotte Riches. It was a really interesting and informative event.
Below are my notes, some of them are general insights into what kind of writing radio producers are looking for and some are script notes that are useful prompts if you are developing work. There are also some tips on how to enter the Alfred Bradley Award this year – don’t delay as the deadline is Thursday 15 September 2011. Most of what is written below is advice that works across any writing for radio and will be useful to you if you are developing a pitch for radio at any time.
The Alfred Bradley Award
The Alfred Bradley Award is a biennial programme run by BBC Radio in the North. The award is named in honour of Alfred Bradley, who was a radio producer who did much to champion Northern writers such as Alan Plater, Stan Barstow and Alan Ayckbourn at the BBC. The award supports writers from the north of England who have never written for radio before and through a £5,000 bursary allows them to devote time to writing and to making a first stab at the radio commissioning process with a producer as a mentor.
The award has a great track record of identifying new writers and then working with them to establish them within the BBC. Last year eight commissions were given to the five shortlisted writers. Previous writers to win the award include North Easterners Lee Hall and Peter Straughan, both of whom credit radio drama with giving them a great start as writers.
The plays that usually win are written for the Radio 4 afternoon play slot. The scheme is not really looking for edgy, challenging work, though work of this kind does sometimes shine and make it through to production strands such as Radio 3’s The Wire (a longer evening commissioning slot).
Changes to entry
If you’ve entered before there are some interesting new rule changes for 2011: writers now no longer have to submit a completed radio play for consideration. To enter you now have to submit two things:
1. A full-length script in any format (theatre, radio, screen) of at least 30 pages. (Please note that you can’t submit prose, it needs to be a script so that the judges can tell if you can write a script.)
2. A proposal for a radio play (the proposal must be different to the script that you submit).
From the entries, six scripts are shortlisted and these selected writers then get to work with radio producers who will mentor them through the development of their new script. This process is partly to ensure that the writers selected can function professionally as writers, ie develop work in response to feedback and script notes, and deliver to deadlines.
What makes a good radio script?
• Have a good opening – get the listener hooked immediately. The average turn-off time for people listening to radio drama is two minutes, so there is no time for vague openings in plays.
• Have impact with your opening pages of script, cut into the story quickly and make use of music and sound. Make sure your opening is working hard enough for you.
• Consider delivering a reversal in your opening scenes. Play on the contrast between what your listeners might be imagining and what the reality of the story is. Have fun with the things that radio allows you to do that other forms of writing don’t.
• Producer Charlotte Riches said, “Get in late and finish early, know your story but also know the greatest moments that there are to dramatise.” Don’t dramatise the boring set-up bits, go straight to the heart of the story and start there. An example given for this was to dramatise the after-effects of a tragic event rather than the event itself – doing so can tell you much more about the characters involved.
• Be wary of too much narration early on. Don’t be dependent on monologues – try to be more original with how you approach telling the story.
• Make your listener ask questions and hook them in by not revealing too much too soon.
• Don’t be literal with sound effects (knocking doors, boiling kettles etc) and don’t over-do it. Try to find an imaginative way to approach using sound as an integral part of your play.
• Be imaginative with how you use language and be economical with it. A number of poets have created really strong dramas recently and this was noted at the event as a very positive thing.
• Radio can be epic in scale. Take your listeners to the top of a snow-capped mountain – because you can in radio – anything is possible. Do things in your play that can only be done on radio – show that you understand the possibilities of the form.
How to write a proposal for a radio play
Before you write the proposal, stop and consider the following:
• Is your idea a good one – are you really being as original as possible?
• Don’t try and second-guess what a ‘Radio 4 style play is’ (ie, kitchen sink dramas). That’s the last thing the BBC wants to see.
• In the outline of your story, detail how the story will be told, what the emotional cost of the story will be and what will be at stake for the characters? If there is nothing at stake for your characters, your play probably has some fundamental problems and might not be dramatic enough.
• Think audio. How does your play use the medium of radio to best effect?
What makes a good idea?
• What is the concept, premise or hook for your story?
• Is your idea fresh, unique or an original twist on a familiar story?
• What is your inciting incident? It might be a small incident rather than a large one but whatever the scale it must be massive to your character.
• What is the climax or resolution of your story?
• What makes this a play for radio?
• Why do you want to write this? Is the story really burning you up? If not, ask yourself why?
• Be topical but don’t be too topical. Ideas can date very quickly.
• Stay away from historical settings unless your idea has a great twist.
• Tell a contemporary story that’s relevant to now and how we live now.
• One side of A4 only.
• Sell your idea in the first couple of sentences. A proposal is a pitch document after all; the first two sentences should summarise your story.
• Outline the story that you want to tell.
• Outline your emotional connection to the story in your pitch – why do you want to write this story? Why are you the person to tell this story?
What to avoid when entering
• Bad spelling and sloppy presentation. Avoid at all costs as it will make your entry look rushed and thoughtless. Send in a draft that you are happy with. Give it your best shot.
• Don’t send in scripts that have already been rejected by the BBC writersroom unless the feedback that you got on the script was encouraging and you have done further work on the project and re-written it.
More things to explore
The BBC writersroom website at www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom is a hive of interesting sample scripts, links to inspirational articles and hosts opportunities.
Keep in touch with the BBC writersroom on their blog at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/
Sign up to the radio drama newsletter at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/newsletter/drama/join/
Follow the BBC writersroom on Twitter: @bbcwritersroom