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:
– 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.’
‘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.
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).
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.
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.