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Hi folks,
I’m taking another look this week at the advice offered by Erik Barnouw in his Handbook of Radio Writing (1947). This time the attention is focused on dialog. Dialog is the heart and soul fo a radio play. Mr Barnau provides some great advice (particularly regarding casting).  This was a particularly useful chapter of his book.  Here are my notes… Enjoy…

Introduction to Speech (in particular Dialog)

Dialog is the chief tool of the dramatist.  It nonetheless has some special problems.

The vanishing character

For characters to stay alive in the mind of the audience they must speak.  Remarks to or about a character may help, but only speech brings the character to life.  This is why long speeches are often broken up with interjections.

The vanishing character utilised for dramatic purpose

In a story with a mute character the absence of voice can create a disconcerting vacuum – something particularly frightening in the case of the silent burglar or kidnapper who never speaks.

The vanishing character utilised for comedy

In comedy, where the world need not be realistic at all, the sudden intrusion of a voice that the audience was previously unaware of can add extra punch to a gag.

Summary on the vanishing character

Except in the case of special effects, comic or frightening, characters in an audio play must usually be kept alive in the listeners imagination through frequent speech.

The number of characters

It is important that the characters in a scene be distinguishable.  As such, it is usual for the voices to be differentiated in casting into one of five (or six and even seven, on occasion) identifiable types;

Bass                       – Heavy/Elderly male

Contralto             – Elderly female

Baritone              – Leading man

Mezzo-soprano – Leading woman

Tenor                    – Juvenile

Soprano               – Ingenue

Trebble                – Child

While such general patterns are helpful (and scenes are generally restricted to four or five contrasting characters at a time) it is not helpful to apply completely hard and fast rules on the subject (for example you can distinguish two otherwise similar voices quite easily with the addition of a foreign accent, or a speech quirk).  Sometimes it is important for two baritone voices to interact.  The intonation and expressive range of the actors can easily carry this… but it is still helpful to avoid putting two of the same type of voices into a group scene.  Sometimes, equally, it is of little importance whether the voices can be quickly distinguished (such as in an anonymous crowd scene).

Because of the importance of distinguishing voices in audio, the cast tends to be smaller than in other dramatic works.

Dialog positions

Dialog is normally assumed to occur at the microphone.  Terms like AT A DISTANCE, APPROACHING, DEPARTING, FADE IN, FADE OUT etc. tend to indicate those occasions when the character moves away from the microphone.  One special instruction relates to SCREAMS, SHOUTS, or CALLS OUT.  In this case the speaker raises their chin to the ceiling and shouts the lines.

Script length

Dialog is delivered on average at 150 words per minute.  A line will average about three seconds or twenty lines per minute.

In a fifteen-minute program, comprising of thirteen minutes of actual dialog, you can expect to write approximately two thousand words.

It is far easier to cut an overlong passage than it is to pad an over-short one.

When faced with cutting dialog from a scene, ask yourself…

(1)    Does the cut version cover the essential facts?

(2)    Which rhythm do you prefer?

(3)    Does the cutting sharpen the focus and clarify the main point of the scene?

(4)    Is the cut too severe?  Does it render the scene empty of character?

Choice of words

Avoid using difficult-to-pronounce, unfamiliar, or esoteric terms.  It is easy for the listener to get lost (and the listener’s pleasure ends the moment they are lost).  It can also be very difficult for the actor to manage complicated words.  An audio script needs to be easy to read and the words must roll off the tongue, particularly where being performed live.

Choice of names

Names which are difficult to picture or easily confused with other words (consider “you” and “Hugh” in a sentence) or the use of multiple names for the same character (nicknames for example being used in the same play as the character’s right name) should be avoided.  The risk of confusion is too great, especially considering that characters in an audio drama address each other by name more than characters in any other entertainment form (book, stage, or screen).

Dialog directions

Keep directions to the actor to a minimum.  Only use a direction where the line is to be read in a manner different than would otherwise normally be expected.  Keep the directions short so they can be instantly absorbed and acted upon by the actor delivering the line.  When a direction is called for identify it with bracketed capitals eg. (ANGRILY).

Dialog punctuation

Audio dramas often punctuate according to the pacing of the delivery rather than grammatical function or construction.  Three dots or the term (BEAT) are often inserted to indicated a pause or momentary hesitation in the dialog.

An experiment in Radio Dialog

During a movie or television program close your eyes for some time.  At the point you become lost consider which of the following causes is to blame: Didn’t know who was talking… Didn’t know whom he or she was talking to… Didn’t know where they were… Didn’t know quite what they were doing… Too many people all mixed up.

This game should develop an alertness for the various pitfalls of radio dialog: unidentified characters, characters who have “died”, too many characters, unidentified sounds, scenes, actions.

After ascertaining the reason for the confusion, open your eyes until oriented again and repeat the process.

If you’d like to see some examples of dialog in the scripts we publish be sure to visit We have some free samples you can download.
See you next time.
– Philip Craig Robotham