Dialogue is all you have
Take a look over this piece of dialogue. Even better, read it out loud.
Man: Can I get you a drink, darling?
Woman: Thank you, darling. I’ll have a whiskey.
Glass of whisky
Glass half full?
Man: Whiskey, eh? That’s a strange drink for a twenty six year old, auburn haired mother of three.
Marvelous, isn’t it? It comes from a spoof radio play written by the actor Timothy West. In that scene and more like it, he skewers the hopeless comedy that ensues when a radio writer tries to shoehorn plot, place, visual detail, backstory and a whole lot more, into dialogue.
The result is woeful but, as a writer myself, I feel that scriptwriter’s pain. Because on radio, dialogue is pretty much all you have. No pictures, no captions, no logos. Just words and voices to say them. There are sound effects, of course, but as anyone who’s spent even minimal time working in radio will tell you, sound effects are decorative rather than structural.
Everything has to be said.
The title of West’s play is ‘This Gun I am Holding in my Left Hand is Loaded.’ Now before you snigger, ask yourself – how would you communicate to a listener that someone had entered a room with a loaded firearm?
No pictures, remember? Without a cinematic close up of the weapon your ‘sound effect of gun being cocked’ is going to be heard as – what? The ring pull on a tin of pilchards? (ask your parents, kids).
Of course, once the listener knows about the gun, it’s a whole different matter. Their imagination – the famous ‘Theatre of the Mind’ – will transform your tinny click effect into the real thing, tense and terrifying. But first they have to know. Someone, somewhere, somehow, has to tell them.
Whether you see this as a exciting creative challenge (congratulations, you’re a radio writer) or an insurmountable obstacle (you’re not), it’s a fact that pretty much everything on radio has to be said.
And it gets a whole lot harder when you add in advertising:
Man: Can I get you a drink, darling?
Woman: Thank you, darling. I’ll have a whisky. A MacJamies, the perfectly balanced, exceptionally smooth, triple distilled whiskey with a rich golden colour and a unique smoky flavour that only comes from being aged in oak casks for a minimum of four years…etc, etc..
Would you accept a drink from a brand that spoke like that? And on radio – the intimate medium that gets close up and personal?
Beware the market stall pitch
As so often the case, the answer lies in the brief. If you give your writer a radio friendly brief – something that is high on personality and low on facts, full of insights that lend themselves to persuasive storytelling – you’re less likely to end up with something that sounds like a market stall pitch.
But spoiler alert: We all know that’s not going to happen any time soon. The arguments have been made too many times by too many people – me included – and still the average radio brief reads like a laundry list. I don’t know why. But there’s only so much a writer can make of that kind of thing, however talented they are.
So what to do? Three words: Get A Director.
A good director adds swing
And what does a director do? They run the session and work with the actors. In other words, they charge you a fee for doing what you could do yourself for free. But here’s the thing. They do it better. Much better.
A director brings experience and expertise. They bring tricks and techniques that can make advertising dialogue sound credible. They know where to put reactions and inflections to add story without eating up time or damaging the sales message. And they have an ear for dialogue. A good director can create rhythm; they can add a bit of swing to even the most challenging script. They can make a mediocre script a lot better, and a good script – well, now you’re talking.
In short, a director who knows radio can make up for a client who doesn’t.
And who knows? If more people work this way, if they experience the power of radio and learn to love its funny little ways, maybe the briefs will finally start to change. Maybe they’ll become more radio friendly and result in better advertising. But, steady on. Let’s take it one day at a time. Start by finding a good director. Your listeners will thank you.