The rise and rise of audio means there are more opportunities for authors to write for audio-only productions that go beyond ebook narration.
(1) What are radio plays and why are they different to other forms of writing?
Radio plays are stories written specifically for audio consumption. They’re often more dramatic than audiobooks because their production includes a host of actors, sound effects, and music.
It’s like watching a stage play but in your head. For this reason, it can be an extremely intimate form of storytelling.
Writing radio drama is different to other forms of writing in a few ways. A typical radio play is 55 minutes long, which is only half of what you’d have for a film screenplay, so you really need to telescope your story.
It’s such a great way to write because it forces you to distill the vital elements of your concept and this drives your plot forward in a way that’s difficult to achieve in a novel.
Unlike a screenplay, however, there is no budget restriction on your work.
If writing high octane science fiction action adventure is your thing, go wild! Your evil scientist’s city-wide explosion is just a sound effect away. Giant RoboPup hologram show? Nuclear ghost town? Bomb-sniffing locusts? No problem! Bring it on.
This is one of the reasons I love adapting my cyberpunk / futuristic thrillers for radio.
Radio drama relies on the character’s interactions for exposition which cuts down on unnecessary info-dumps that would ordinarily slow the action down.
I find that writing radio drama is faster (and more fun) than novel-writing. Novels will always be my first love, but after the intense process of labouring over a 90K-word novel (plus re-writes, editing, reading aloud, etc.), it’s lovely to write some fun, fast stuff in-between.
This isn’t to say you can’t explore your dark side for radio. I find that my more unsettling work is the most well received.
(2) How do radio plays fit into your writing portfolio and add to your revenue as a writer?
Radio drama formed the foundation of my indie author career and it continues to make up a substantial part of my income.
The royalty payment I received for the very first play I sold in 2007 was a pivotal moment for me. I couldn’t believe that someone was willing to pay me for something I had enjoyed writing. The payment amounted to a third of my monthly salary at that time, for a story I knocked out in a few hours.
It changed something inside me, made me believe that my writing was worth something, and it was the first hint of an idea that I could make a living with my writing. To this day I find being paid for my writing extremely validating, which in turn makes me more prolific.
Now I write a combination of original material, short stories and serials for our national broadcaster. Short stories and serial novel adaptions are the most profitable because I don’t need to create new material. I retain my copyright and sell my work over and over again, first as an ebook and paperback, then an audiobook, then as radio drama.
(Bonus: Sometimes the radio station will re-broadcast your play, and you’ll get surprise extra royalties. It’s like finding $100 in your pocket, but way better.)
(3) What are your top tips for writing original material for radio plays?
All the usual storytelling rules apply, with an emphasis on action and character development.
- Because of the intimacy of the medium, character development is key.
- Plot! It’s easy to get lost in the weeds and land up with too many words. A tight outline will keep you in the game.
- Strip out every word that doesn’t propel the story forward.
- Extra points if you make it relevant to the target audience.
- Enjoy it! It’s a challenging, fun way to write.
(4) What are your tips for adapting existing work for radio plays?
Writing an adaption may seem intimidating at first, so start with a bird's eye view.
- How long is your novel?
- How many episodes will make up the serial?
For example, an 80K-word novel = 10x 8K episodes of one hour each.
Next, you highlight the key scenes, and make sure that each episode has:
- A) something exciting and important happening; and,
- B) a hook at the end.
Whenever I write a novel now I plot everything out on an Excel Story Grid (per Shawn Coyne’s book of the same name). Not only does this make writing the novel easier, but it makes planning the serial adaption a cinch.
Then I use the grid as part of my pitch to the radio station, so they can see the outline at a glance, plus where the crucial plot points and hooks are.
The added benefit of adapting a novel as a radio serial is that it forces you to take out any unnecessary words and scenes, and you can then go back and hone your novel further. I find that it’s a great editing tool.
(5) How can writers find appropriate markets for radio plays in their country?
I’d start with your national broadcaster. Many countries have a mandate to produce a certain amount of local content. I’m very lucky that this is the case in South Africa.
All of my books are available on Amazon. I’d be more than happy to share one of my radio play scripts as a template to work from, and to answer any questions your readers may have on Twitter or my Facebook page.
I also have a collection of radio plays published on Amazon as an ebook for any writers who are interested in reading more in the medium.
I wish anyone who is keen to try playwrighting the best of luck!
Have you considered adding radio plays to your writing repertoire? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
JT Lawrence is an Amazon bestselling author, playwright & book dealer. She lives in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, in a house with a red front door.
Connect with her on Twitter @pulpbooks.