Writing for Radio

By Colin MacDonald

I write drama for radio. I have done so for years. I write out of choice. Not because I think it will improve my screenwriting (although it does). But because I love doing it and because I love telling stories that get made. The audience figures aren’t bad either. My ten-part adaptations of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels were listened to by around one million people each time.

I find radio very close to film as a medium. Big pictures. I have written a drama set on a hijacked liner in the Indian Ocean; on a train hurtling through the night with a gunman on board hunting our heroes, and I have told the gripping story of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in 16th Century London.

In radio, there is a burning need to stick to the story. To jettison clutter and drive on with what matters to tell the tale. Story story story. Does what you are doing in this scene drive the narrative forward? Or does it slow it down fatally? Can I shorten this scene? The answer to that is, invariably yes! These questions also apply consistently to my screenwriting.

Radio drama has hopefully taught me to be very clear. Because if you confuse someone or bore a listener they may just walk away from the radio and they won’t be back anytime soon. The same applies to my screenwriting for TV (someone flicks a channel and they are gone) or film (they get antsy and chat).

Radio drama has taught me to listen. To listen to the way people speak. And how dialogue is not necessarily clean or full of wisecracks. With screenplays, it’s the same. Dialogue that isn’t neat and honed, but fractured and true, while still furthering the story and increasing our understanding of who is speaking.

Radio drama is also a good market for writers new to the medium. BBC Radio 4 alone, commissions dramas from up to 50 new writers each year. The main way in is through the Drama series, where approximately 190 new plays are broadcast each year.

I think that writing for radio is an end in itself. By which I mean: I don’t write radio drama because I want to get on in the world of writing screenplays. But the very nature of the medium means that you learn about quick sharp honed-down storytelling. And that in itself is no bad thing for someone who wants to write screenplays.

You can read the best radio drama scripts on the BBC Writers Room site. But you could always sit down and listen. You can hear great dramas every day of the week. And sometimes, because there is such a large output, you can hear dramas that are not so good.

But they should be a spur. If you think “That’s crap”, or “I could do better than that”, then do. Sit down and try it. I learned to write for radio by listening to radio dramas and reading scripts. The way I learned to write screenplays was by watching movies obsessively and reading screenplays till my eyes glazed and I could read no more.

Remember, persistence pays. And it is vital to keep going in the face of rejection. Good luck.

Bio-ColinMColin MacDonald has written more than 30 hours of television, including Sharpe’s Honour, The Dunroamin Rising, Blue Murder, and The Wreck On The Highway. He has also written for tv series Dr. Finlay, Para Handy, Casualty, and Heartbeat. He has written extensively for films (Calum’s Road, Ivanhoe, Weir of Hermiston) and stage (The Bones Boys, The Gowk Storm). But radio remains a constant: he has also written 18 dramas for Radio 4 and Radio Scotland as well as the series Dark Fire, Dissolution, Sovereign, Revelation, and The Whole of The Moon.

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