Writing … short stories for radio

I’ve been asked to post a little about writing short stories for radio. I have to admit that I haven’t done a huge amount of this – five for Short Story Radio is the sum of my dabbling – but with Internet radio stations and websites incorporating podcasts, the area is opening up.

A radio short story is written for the spoken voice. We talk about producer where we’d normally say editor and audience or listener where we’d normally expect reader.

Early decisions need to be made about the central character:

–       age

–       gender

–       ethnicity

–       social class

The actor that eventually reads your story for broadcast will be suited to the narrating character. In italics or underlines state what type of voice the short story is written for: Gerald is a middle-aged educated man without much accent. Ron, his father, more down to earth and with a Southport accent.

A radio short story is read by an actor. An actor. Not a cast. This means all dialogue must be suitable to be read by that actor. Dialogue is not as effective to listen to as when read from a page and the BBC, for instance, suggests that you cut it or cut it to a minimum for a short story. For broadcast we use a greater amount of reported speech than we normally consider good craft. You need to think, too, about attribution of any dialogue. A reader can see who’s speaking by the way you’ve arranged your paragraphs, but a listener cannot. They need to be told, immediately.

The woman called out to him. ‘The water’s rising! I’m moving my things upstairs.’

Not,

‘The water’s rising! I’m moving my things upstairs,’ the woman called.

Cut indicators such as, she grumbled. The actor will be able to use a grumbling tone of voice and should be able to pick up that it’s necessary from words and context.

If your story does contain the dialogue of more than one character, aim for a contrast or it’ll be still more difficult to speak the dialogue without constant naming of characters – but you still keep these characters within the range of one actor! If you don’t want a single-sex cast give direct speech to the characters within your actor’s range, and indirect speech, action or paraphrase to the one that isn’t.

NB A short story for broadcast shouldn’t be confused with a radio play. A radio play will have all dialogue, a whole cast of people and ‘noises off’ etc. But this article is about a short story for broadcast.

Who’s listening?

All kinds of people listen to the radio – as they work, relax or drive. Generally, they’re adults. So, appeal to the adult mind but avoid offensive language and subject matter because children may be in the vicinity. A listener doesn’t exert the same concentration as a reader does. Make your story palatable and attention grabbing and use only three or so characters. A 15-minute radio short story slot needs a story of 2100 to 2400 words. Use the active voice wherever possible and simple sentences.

The producer wants stories that appeal to a wide audience, offend no one, bore no one, irritate no one, grab the attention of everyone and make them want to switch on again the next day, thoughtful and dramatic enough to grip the listener yet with the odd touch of humour to make them feel the better for having listened. A horror story, for example, will only satisfy a sector of a potentially wide audience. And it will frighten the kids. (And, probably, me.)

An idea cannot be too big for radio! No set is necessary as it’s created in marvellous colour in the listener’s mind’s eye. Take your listeners to desert islands, remote jungles or a street in your home town, the cost is the same. One writer, one actor, one studio and a small production team. Stories can be first or third person.

Short story openings should grab the attention and begin delivering information immediately but don’t make it the only place you mention something crucial to the plot – listeners sometimes take a minute to tune themselves in. Endings tend not to be open ended or inconclusive, but definite. A twist in the final lines sometimes go down well (except for with listeners who are interrupted at the vital moment).

Market study

Studying the radio short story market is like plotting a course through shifting sands. Slots come and go on local or hospital radio and are minimal on the largest radio stations. As Internet-based radio stations proliferate some are devoted to the spoken word. On these budget stations there’s room for a lot of stories – but there may not be a budget to pay the writer.

Listen to the output to understand what the radio station wants and needs from writers. Find their website for submission guidelines.

Good luck!

And all of this reminds me that I’m going to be interviewed on the Bernie Keith Morning Show on BBC Radio Northampton on Friday 26th February 2010, 11.40am.

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “Writing … short stories for radio

  1. Really useful article, thanks Sue! I’ve linked to it.

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  2. Oh, and good luck with the interview on Friday!

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  3. Very well-described summary, Sue. I enjoyed reading it even though I have no desire to write for radio.

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  4. Fascinating stuff, Sue. Obvious when you think about it – but you need that prompt TO think about it first.

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  5. Roberta Grieve

    Hi Sue – very useful info – is it Ok if I print this off to pass on to my writers’ circle?

    Robbie

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  6. suemoorcroft

    Yes, that’s fine, Roberta. Thanks for asking. 🙂

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  7. I haven’t ever thought about writing for radio before so this is a really useful article and is now prompting me to write something for this purpose.

    Thank you!

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  8. This is great information, thank you. I shall link to it from my readingandwriting blog, if that’s okay.

    May I also print a copy, please, to mention at a seminar I’m doing on market research at a Scottish writers’ conference?

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  9. Penny

    Thanks, Sue. Neat to have the points clearly put.

    That long-ago writing we did for local radio was really good editing practice – so short, though, blink, and you’d miss ’em!

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  10. That’s really useful, thanks. I’ve never written anything specifically for radio, but I’d like to try.

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  11. Helen Grieve

    I absolutely adore Malta too, having been there on numerous occasions, sadly not since 1995, as there’s not too much for kids of 18, 15 and 11, and my husband doesn’t fancy it, being a devotee of the Greek islands.

    I love Tony Camilleri’s self-deprecating anthem, and I made a good few friends ( in fact, I nearly married one). I’d love to go back and live there permanently, because, in my view, it’s the most wonderful place on earth. Relaxing, the “tomorrow” attitude, the fenec in white wine, I could go on, but I’d only make myself depressed!

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  12. Hi and thanks for the advice. You’re evidently on the other side of the Pond. Would you say there’s much of a market for short stories these days? I’m just under 40 and remember the women’s magazines of my youth being full of them. I’m not sure British weekly magazines even publish fiction any more.

    There also used to be monthly magazines devoted entirely to short fiction. I believe Strand Magazine, where Sherlock Holmes first appeared, was one such publication.

    I’m not a particular fan of the genre because most are so short they barely go anywhere. The others I encounter, usually in books, go on and on and on!

    But just because a lot of other writers’ stories are crap doesn’t mean mine have to be!

    We were so blessed, up until a few years ago, to get a (usually new) 15-minute story each morning on BBC Radio 4. Ask any British person and they’ll say Radio 4 is the most amazing speech radio station in the world. If you’re curious, you can tune in online from anywhere, free.

    Radio 4’s morning story was a great spot for new writers and the stories were always good. Now the BBC hardly broadcast any short fiction, though they do still run the Afternoon Play ~ a 45 min., slot for drama.

    I wish you all the best with projects current and future, and thanks again for the information!

    Gledwood
    in London

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    • There is still a short story market in Britain, but it’s shrinking, in my experience. If you’re interested in writing for weekly magazines I recommend you take a look at the guidelines on http://www.womagwriter.com. I’m pretty sure that The Strand is still going and there are other, more literary, magazines such as Granta and The London Review.

      There are also plenty of Internet radio stations that use short stories. (They may not pay …)

      Good luck!

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  13. Helen Grieve

    You’ve given me a great idea, given that I have a very depressed, Asperger’s Syndrome – suffering 18-year old son, who nonetheless has a brilliant imagination and writing ability. Writing for radio isn’t something he’s considered ( being more into theatre and poetry). I will suggest radio when I get off this post!

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    • Glad to help. I have a student with Aspergers and he is much more imagination orientated than organisation orientated. So scenarios and plot points come to him much more easily than actual full-length plots and structure. Everything he writes is fantasy so radio might be a good choice for him, too, as the ‘setting’ for a radio story is limited only by the listener’s imagination. Thank! You’ve made me think about his work in a different way.

      Like

  14. Abi

    Sue, thank you for this article. Also, I really needed a link like the womagwriter.com that you posted. Your efforts are much appreciated.

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  15. namse

    great piece sue,u have given me motivation to complete my story for the commonwealth short story competition. can i mail my story to u?

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  16. just wanted you to review my story before i enter it.

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  17. Malcolm beaton

    I see this is dated material but if its active then would appreciate any info you could give on learning how to read your life story on radio, there was something on BBC a while back I seem to recall but not heard anything since.

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    • Hi Malcolm,

      It’s not my area of expertise, I’m afraid. I do teach a course on writing Personal History for the London School of Journalism but didn’t know radio was interested in the subject. So sorry! Maybe the search engine on the BBC site might lead you to better information?

      Best,
      Sue

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      • Malcolm beaton

        Thank you for the reply, being a while ago date, I wasn’t expecting a reply, but perhaps finding out how to write part of my life story better could also be of advantage, ie met girl in 67, got engaged in 68, being in the army had to go to Ireland when it started in 69, never got any letters, then got ring back wrapped in loo paper and letter saying soldiers cant be trusted so its over… utter devastation for years, meet again on friends reunited in 2008 only to find out neither of us wanted to break up, found out her dad was the cause he was getting rid of all letters going out coming in as fiancé was on early starts so left mail to be posted, he was able to stop my mail to her as it was delivered before he left for work 41 years later get married

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        • That’s a great human interest story, though. Why not try one of the magazines with it, such as Yours? Look at their guidelines online to find out what they want in terms of wordcount etc.

          Good luck!

          Like

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