Writing for radio

Writing for radio is something that I’ve sometimes considered, but never pursued, so this week I listened with great interest at a free BBC workshop to do with just this. It was part of Belfast’s 360 Scriptwriting Festival which happens every year, when the BBC runs a week of workshops for people like me who are curious to find out more about this area of writing.

Now, to be honest, I thought the workshop I was attending – ‘From Fact to Fiction’ – was going to look at writing prose for radio, but it was actually drama. Which, as it happened, turned out to be great anyway. Our BBC Radio 4 writer (and Man Booker Prize nominee/established author) Eoin McNamee, chatted about what it means to write for radio, and even alluded to the old short story as well. 🙂

Not the best pic but... at my BBC radio scriptwriting workshop with Eoin McNamee

Not the best pic but… at my BBC radio scriptwriting workshop with Eoin McNamee

“There’s a strong relationship between a short story and a radio play,” he said. “I try to write the last page of a short story first – it means you’ve thought the idea through. This helps you see where the story’s going.”

Other handy tips we picked up were – using sound. Yes, it might, er, sound obvious, but when you’re writing drama for the radio, it isn’t, as Eoin told us, a play for the stage. Or a movie for the screen. You can have an aeroplane, a storm – anything that you can attach a sound to. That’s the brilliance of radio – you paint a picture through the soundscape and the words.

As for using real stories from the news to inspire radio plays, Eoin said: “Real stories have their own architecture. They take you places you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself. But – you’re also in danger of libel. There are moral issues as well. I struggled with this for a long time, until I realised I’m not a priest. My responsibility is to the fiction.

“If you get the story – the art right – the morality tends to follow with it.”

We were also told:

  • Don’t over-research – “When it’s finished, go back and check the facts. You kill the heart of it if you over-research.”
  • Don’t address issues directly – “Put the people (your characters) off to one side of the main events.”
  • Think of the constraints you have regarding cast – probably around three to four actors.
  • Duration – these Radio 4 dramas are just 12 minutes long.

IMG_0396“Radio is immune to the form and structure of a TV movie,” said Eoin. “Think about sounds you can use and can create. It’s not a stage play – there’s no constraints.”

It definitely gave me some food for thought… Perhaps I’ll try my hand at a short radio piece next…





Going back to fiction, today I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Why? Well, I watched a documentary on Lewis Carroll last night, which was made to mark the 150th anniversary of the story, and of course, it made me want to go back and remind myself of what this highly lauded book was like.

I have to admit – it’s never been one of my favourite children’s stories and that’s coming from someone who loves fantasy tales and the weird and wonderful. Reading the books again, I think my main issue is this – IT’S ALL A DREAM!!IMG_0399

Whether you believe creative writing can be taught or not, everyone knows that the cardinal sin in writing fiction (surely) is coming to the end of a book and finding out that it was, yes – all a dream. She didn’t actually have any adventures. It was all in her head. Twice.

It’s a bit annoying and the nonsensical stuff also grates on me a little, but then, that’s dreams for you. I’ve never been one for dream stories, so maybe that’s why I’ve never loved this duo of books. I like it and I did enjoy revisiting the stories again today but… I think Catherynne M Valente’s modern-day ‘Alice’ stories with September in her children’s fairyland novels, is more me. What do you think? 🙂




Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Writing for radio

  1. I agree with not using the it was all a dream ending in fiction. However, I loved Alice in Wonderland. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that Lewis Carol was one of the first people to use this ending so I suppose that makes it all right in my mind! It was certainly the first book I read that did this, it’s only now I’m older that it has become cliched.

  2. Yes, that’s true. Remembering the period in which it was written, the dream ending wouldn’t have been common! Cliché aside though, I always feel a bit let down when you find out an entire story was a dream, but I do think it’s a good book all the same 🙂
    Thanks for commenting!