A Radio Play? Now That I'd Like To See by Neil McGowan


I've been thinking recently about trying something new from a writing perspective. I mainly write novels, with some short stories thrown in. I enjoy writing the shorts (although I seem to have less and less time to do them nowadays) as it allows me to approach writing in a different way, kind of like a mental version of cross-training.

Anyway, back in 2018 I wrote short story (by hand, as I was on holiday) which I quite liked at the time. It started in the usual way for me – sitting in the coffee shop enjoying the view over the firth to the Isle of Bute, I spied an older gentleman, sitting on his own, nursing a drink. The waitress seemed quite attentive of him, and it piqued my curiosity – why was he there? What was his story?

Over the rest of the week, I drafted the story, setting it mainly in the fifties and using the old man telling his story to the waitress as a framing device to tie it all together. After a couple of rewrites to tighten it up, it was done. I was pleased with the finished piece, and it sold reasonably quickly.

The rights reverted to me a few months ago, and re-reading it, I was struck by how well it worked with such a small cast of characters – just five – and began to wonder if it could be adapted.

Anyone who knows me will confirm that I don't really watch television – I've got almost no interest in it. It's not that I dislike it, but the thought of having to sit and engage with it without being able to do anything else? Ugh! The whole drama of Line of Duty recently had me looking slightly puzzled, as I've never seen it. I'm a big music fan, and much prefer to have the radio on – I can listen to that and still work at the same time.

I've been catching up on a lot of radio dramas, and that's what got me thinking. Would my story work as a radio play? I thought it would, so I began researching how to write for radio. I can't be that hard, I reasoned to myself. Famous last words…

Writing for radio is hard. I'd naively assumed I could take the basic structure of my story and just rewrite it in a play format – I figured that the dialogue would be doing the heavy lifting and would need fleshing out to replace narrative description.

Wrong! That was only a small part of it. After a few failed attempts, I bought a book (So you want to write a radio play?) and pored over that. Extensive notes were pencilled in the margins, many pages in a notebook were filled with ideas and structural elements, and I created a template for the correct format in Word. (I tried a few of the script-editing packages and can't get on with them – I'm old-fashioned in that I like just one document to work with.)

It took a couple of months to get a workable plan and draft that I thought had promise. More research ensued, only depress myself when I discovered that getting a break in writing for radio is even harder than being picked up by a traditional, mainstream publisher.

I've not abandoned the idea as yet, but I'm now treating it as more of a fun exercise to stretch my writing muscles. And it has made a difference in my writing. The current book I'm writing is a gritty thriller set in Edinburgh that tackles sex trafficking and I'm finding myself using some of the techniques from scriptwriting in the way I'm writing, from structuring the individual scenes, to using dialogue and other, non-verbal cues, to add atmosphere and sense of place without 'telling' the reader too much or writing an info-dump. And I'm enjoying myself again, although perhaps 'enjoy' shouldn't be the right term considering some of the things I've been writing about…




Peter Leyland said…
Just an idea Neil, but on an Arvon Radio Playwriting course I did some years ago with Caryl Phillips the technique he and his co-tutor used was to get us to read a radio play together and record it and play it back. I subsequently wrote fun plays for friends and children but never on a commercial basis. The radio play genre is fascinating and particularly suited to the work of authors like J.B. Priestley. Good luck with whatever you are doing.
Griselda Heppel said…
I needed to read this. I often daydream about contributing to the Archers on BBC Radio 4. I mean, it's been going for 70 years or so, they must need a constant supply of script writers and sometimes the script quality is so rocky, surely I could give it a go... But your experience is rather sobering and I have to admit I wouldn't know where to start. I bet the discipline of learning how to write for radio has fed into your thriller writing in a big way so that is a huge plus.

And I still hope to hear your radio play one day!
Neil McGowan said…
Thanks, Peter, that sounds like a fantastic way of seeing how things flow, almost like an extension of reading your writing aloud, but with a focus on the rhythm and flow of dialogue. There's a local amateur dramatics group and I'm thinking of asking them if they'd do a read-through (once I have something I'm happy to share...)

Griselda, I know exactly what you mean re The Archers. Some days, I just shake my head at it. I misremembered the title of the book, to my chagrin - it's So yYou Want To Write a Radio Drama' by Claire Grove and Stephen Wyatt. I was at a BBC Writers Room event a whiles back and it was one of the recommendations from the various talks.

I'd say trying to write radio drama has given me a better ear for dialogue. I'm much more attuned now to using speech patterns to inform character and vice versa

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