Orson Welles, March 1, 1937
Orson Welles, March 1, 1937 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are awash in visual storytelling of all kinds, so – just to be difficult – I have been exploring the dramatic medium… of Radio. I studied shows: the Mercury Theater productions of Orson Welles, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, the X Minus One science-fiction series, and others.

I intended to write a selfcontained, halfhour science-fiction adventure play, but I had too little experience, and too much narrative, to resolve the piece within twenty-six pages. I had stumbled, by happy accident, upon a cliff-hanger ending. My respect for the audio medium has only grown; even after writing six half-hour episodic scripts (so far), I’m still learning how it’s done.

Radio seems the one storytelling medium in which “Show, don’t tell” does not work.  The audio character can only inform the listening audience what is happening, which would lead to a lot of clunky dialogue, stating what would be far too obvious, if we could see it.  These notes apply not only to writing dramatic or comedic stories, but to radio advertising; remember, my dad likened an ad to a short story – or a short play.

I first heard some recorded radio dramas in high school, and thought they were fantastic.  I could ‘recast’ the same story, each time I heard it, with someone new, and sound effects were enough to help me picture the scenery and the action. It was a best-of-both-worlds situation: coupling the intensity of watching a visual drama with the intimacy of reading a printed story.  I remember trying to picture what musicians looked like while they recorded some of my favorite songs; most actual ‘music videos’ later paled, by comparison.

Knowing that is one thing; writing one of these suckers turned out to be… a much bigger challenge.  I had the characters, I had the plot, but I had to “sell it” with dialogue, a narrating track to connect scenes, sound effects, and music, and nothing else. I wouldn’t write someone saying, “Look at that green dinosaur, charging towards us!”  I would write the stage direction, “SFX: [Dinosaur roars.]” and follow it up with more naturalistic dialogue, such as: “It sounds mad… is it supposed to be that green? I’d be sick, if I looked like that.” Modern audiences are sophisticated; they can fill in the blanks.


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