Writing a radio play: what I’m learning

July 16, 2008

[copied from my old Myspace blog]

It’s a refreshing and fascinating challenge to me to change formats.  I love dabbling in screenplays, for instance.  Not only does it seem to go a hell of a lot faster than prose writing, but its nature forces me to tell stories differently because the presentation is limited to what you can see and hear.  Now when I write prose, I find that I’m setting up scenes as if they’re shots in a movie, and I like the effect it’s having.

So, now I’m in the throes of writing a radio play for a local theatrical group.  Again, it’s different can of worms because now I’m limited to just what you can hear.  This means an even greater emphasis on dialogue, which isn’t my strongest point.  I’m also finding how important and helpful sound effects are in this format.  This website of archived scripts and this website on formatting were a huge help.  Elizabeth Massie, who wrote a previous radio play for this group, has also been kind enough to share some pointers and her script, and to be a beta reader.

The only real wrench in the works was what to write about.  The performance venue is a free, family variety show, which means that it has to be rated G.  It’ll also be performed over four installments between September and December.  “It should end with a Christmas event,” the producer said, and there was a lot of discussion about what that means.  And, of course, don’t forget that I’m horror writer, so things will have to be slightly twisted to interest me.  It’s also been strange to be submitting proposals and synopses of stories I haven’t even written yet;  I’m so used to writing on spec, which essentially means writing for myself.  We finally settled on a throwback to radio’s roots.  The working title is How the Martians Stole Christmas.

One other thing that’s proved important is to have a working outline because structure is so important.  My limitations are not only to write it in four serialized installments, but each chapter must be about 12 minutes long and divided in half to allow for a commercial break.  And every time they stop for a commercial or the end of a chapter, it should be a on a cliffhanger.  So I’m glad to know ahead of time where the play is going to go.  I know there’s a lot of controversy about whether to outline or not when you write–about whether outlines stifle the creative process–but I guess the important thing to remember is that they should be working outlines.  You’re free to revise as you go!  To me, advance planning is the equivalent of drawing sketches or “studies” of something I’m about to paint, which gives me the comfort of imagining that I’m emulating someone like Galileo or Michelangelo.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing how other people perform my stuff!  It’s a little scary.