Guest post: Writing for Radio and Theatre by Dal Burns

I’m delighted to bring you this guest blog post, today on the topic of writing for radio and theatre, by Dal Burns.

‘Writing for Radio and Theatre’

I began writing for radio while working for a local Theatre group.  I had worked my way into writing articles in the play programs and they were happy with what I was producing. After listening to the radio ads produced by the local station, I knew I could do better and sat down to write.  I found it takes real discipline to write an ad that can be narrated in either twenty-nine or fifty-nine seconds. A lot depends on the narrator and the speed at which they normally speak in an ad. I timed my own narrations at different speeds and it soon became clear what words were easy to speak at speed and which ones caused me to require the Heimlich maneuver.

Most ads are poorly-written. Trying to generate excitement by using buzz-words and an excited tone of voice is so tired, so I decided to use the best medium for getting out a message. A little touch of humor and the use of subtle picture words is where I headed. Funnily enough (no pun intended) that worked.

Here’s my formula. Don’t preach. Use a little humor and seek for the picture words that will get your point across. It takes quite a bit of banging on doors to get work at local stations but it’s worthwhile as once you are in the door, the different style you employ helps the station to sell more ads. A writer who can generate good ad copy is worth a lot.

Once known at the local stations, I tried my hand at radio plays. This type of play relies on a combination of sound effects and picture words.  I always had my plays broadcast or recorded in front of a live audience. This brings an ambiance and life to the play that is simply not possible in a regular studio recording.

One great technique in a comic play is to have the actors break character once in a while and speak to the other actors. One of my favorites is to have one actor ‘steal’ another actor’s line. This generally leads to a short argument, before the engineer breaks in and gets the show back on track.

The long history behind radio plays makes them an ideal resource for research. As most people have never heard a radio play, it’s easy enough to take the basic idea behind an old play and bring it up to date with new words and ideas. Case in point would be the old Richard Diamond series from the 1940’s. Diamond was one hard-boiled and whip-smart private eye.

This was too much to resist, so I took Richard and married him to a 1950’s style of British comedy and suddenly he was a major goofball with a very cool-dude voice. From there, it was simple to write a script that highlighted Diamond’s strengths and weaknesses. Several examples were:

“Hi, I’m Richard Diamond, private eye but my best friends call me diamond dick, swinging detective…I wonder why?” and “I was sitting in my office the other day when a man came through the door (crashing sound). I wish he’d opened the door first!” Speaking of his secretary, “Now there’s a gal who carries a pair of 38’s, and a gun, wherever she goes.”

Corny as all get out and yet the studio audience howled with laughter and the local critics loved the show.

Theatre plays are another animal entirely. Theatre is the actor’s medium, much more so than the writer’s. Once the curtain goes up, it’s the actor’s play. They are in control of the process of bringing your words to life.

It’s said there are only three types of play:

  • American: Man gets girl. Man loses girl and spends the rest of the play getting her back
  • French: Man gets girl and spends the rest of the play trying to get away from her
  • Russian: Two people, who neither want nor get each other, spend two hours complaining about it

Forget about them. As the writer, you have three tasks:

  • A plot line that is coherent
  • An emotional dilemma for each actor that is slowly revealed during the play
  • A sharply defined resolution to the play

I’m adding two more essential elements:

  • The picture words
  • Blocking

The plot’s the easy part. Movies and books can provide the framework of a play. Plays, though, require a great deal of emotion in the plot, to keep the limited action on stage from becoming dull and static.

Emotional dilemmas are vital. The dilemma each actor is given will enable them to make a rich and interesting character. It really is the actor’s food and drink on the stage. It drives the words they speak and movements they make. The script is designed to make the actor’s dilemma more and more difficult to hide as the plot progresses. The plot must force the actor to reveal their hidden dilemma slowly and with much resistance.

The resolution is not really about the plot. It’s about allowing the actors to resolve their emotional dilemmas. That’s the payoff for the audience. It’s their emotional release. All audience members have dilemmas. To present them with the same dilemma on stage and then provide a resolution is cathartic for an audience member and it sells tickets!

Picture words. Your script must contain words that evoke pictures in the actor’s mind as that is how the actor relays the emotion and plot of the play. Without them, the actor is lifeless. If you don’t see pictures when you write the words, the actor won’t be able to communicate those words to the audience. It’s that simple.

Blocking. Forget about it. Don’t write a single word of blocking into your play. It shackles the director and the actors. Let dialog drive action on the stage. Make them get up, sit down or pace the stage because the words they speak force them to. Not because you block the play for them.

This is great, thank you Dal!

Dal is a fourth-generation entertainer first put on stage at age eight, by his father. He has been involved in TV, movies, radio, recording studios, rock band, theatre etc. He has written for radio ads, theatre programs, screenplays and radio plays (he says they were fun!) theatre plays (two of which were produced and quite successful). Dal wrote his first story at seventeen, after a mentor suggested he enter a writing competition. He said the suggestion was made because he was rather well known in his village (in the wilds of Northumberland) as the local storyteller. After that he didn’t write again until in his thirties, when working with a theatre company.

Dal has written four books and is working on a fifth, which is an illustrated children’s book, with co-author Kari Wishingrad and illustrators Sona & Jacob. That book will be released this year with the title “The Neighbor’s Cat”. He is also working on three new books; another children’s illustrated book, a YA story about an alternate universe and a YA story about two horses. Although Dal has never visited an alternate universe, he thinks he owns Bella, a Peruvian Paso mare. Bella knows better. Dal’s websites include and He can also be found on Twitter and Facebook and leading the ongoing children’s writing competition ‘Write Across America‘. You can also read Dal’s interview with me here.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).

We'd love you to leave a comment, thank you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.