Writing in Stereo

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WiS Lesson 1A Notes

March 26th, 2010

The original Writing in Stereo was published online back in the late 1980’s.  Its purpose was to apply creative radio dramatics to all aspects of the teaching of high school English.  Each lesson included a lesson plan and notes.  I’m sharing these with you here.

Notes (I.A)

1. The radio dramatic scripting format I've chosen for this program may be familiar. I've selected the simplest for teaching the course. Here's a sample:

(MUSIC UP AND UNDER)

(BIRD NOISES)

(SOUND: FOOTSTEPS ON STAIR)

PAPA BEAR: Boy, am I hungry! Hungry as a bear. Where's the little woman? Where's my breakfast? Aw, there she is!

MOMMA BEAR: Here I am, Papa, and here's your breakfast.

PAPA BEAR: Oh, boy! Let me at it! (SOUND OF SLURPING ... SPITTING) Owweee! I'm burned! I'm burned!

MOMMA BEAR: Oh is it too hot, Dear?

PAPA BEAR: (BARELY UNDER CONTROL) Too hot ... yes, Dear. Maybe we should go out for a little walk while it cools down.

MOMMA BEAR: Finally, we're getting out of the house. I'll get my hat. There. How do I look?

PAPA BEAR: Just lovely, Pet. After you. Come along, Junior.

(SOUND OF DOOR OPENING AND CLOSING, FOOTSTEPS)

(MUSIC UP AND OUT)

In the format I've chosen, character names are capitalized, dialogue follows the usual mix of capitals and lower case letters. Sound effects, music cues and descriptions of action are in parenthesis. I underline the SOUND effects cues to make them easier to spot.

2. Dialogue is the most important aspect of radio dramatics. It describes everything the audience cannot see. Since the audience sees nothing, the dialogue describes everything.

It describes characters ... by their own speech and actions and by other characters' descriptions of them. Voice characterization is the unique sound of the character's voice. An old man sounds like an old man. A child's voice is higher pitched, immature.

In the sample scene from The Three Bears, characters spend a lot of time talking about the things they're doing at the moment. "Where's the little woman?" "There she is." "Here I am, Papa, and here's your breakfast." "Let me at it!" "I'm burned! I'm burned!" "I'll get my hat. There. How do I look?" "Just lovely, Pet. After you." Perhaps the major reason we think of radio drama as a very "talky" medium is this necessity for what we call the plant. (The term "plant" has a variety of meanings. In some script writing, it refers to any piece of preparatory exposition--something necessary to the resolution of the conflict. In radio, the term means generally any reference to unseen objects or actions.) Typical are such words as "Here," or "There," indicating an action taking place at that instant. A more melodramatic example would be a line like, "He's got a gun!"

If there is one unique characteristic of radio dramatic writing, the plant must be that attribute. Your students will be tempted to sprinkle their dramas with narration. As a demonstration of planting's importance, I generally begin by disallowing any narrating. Once students get into the planting habit, they feel less compelled to allow an omnipotent voice to interrupt the flow of the plot. I tell my students, "We're writing radio drama, not storytelling."

Tagging is another concession to the limitations of this invisible theater ... and another trait associated with its old fashionedness. Tagging is the frequent use of characters' names in the dialogue. So Momma Bear says, "Here I am, Papa." Characters sprinkle their dialogue with name tags for the other characters. That way we know who is present and who is talking to whom. This rule is harder for students to remember than the more obvious and plainly necessary planting.

When characters exert effort, they show it in their speech. When a character is trapped in the wreckage of a car, he says,

"I can't get my leg free!" As he says the plant line, he suggests he's trying to get it free at that very moment by showing the effort in his voice. Generally, this means adding some well-placed grunting.

We can convince listeners someone is across the room without walking away from the microphone. We use a simple strategy we call "off-mike." The actor simply leans away or to the side of the microphone to sound fifteen to thirty feet away. Moving away or toward the mike as we speak gives the impression of someone leaving or closing toward the place where the other characters are "standing." (Experiment with your equipment to get the best results.)

3. Sound effects are another misunderstood aspect of radio dramatics. They are far less necessary than most novices realize. Sound effects are said to "support" plants. It's not enough to hear a crashing sound. A character must say, "He's going to throw that chair!" Then we hear the crashing sound. Your students can do whole plays without complicated sound effects. Experiment with simplicity. Most effects can be the simple mechanical variety handled at the microphone. Recorded effects are more complicated. Learn by doing.

4. Every space has its own ambience. You sing in the shower because the shower echos a little like--but not exactly like--a concert hall. The sound of the human voice has a different presence in an office from that in a city bus. When my students imagined a mini traffic helicopter reporting on congestion in the school hallways, they recorded and repeated the middle of a sound effect of a passing helicopter. Then they decided to make their onboard dialogue suggest they were yelling to be heard over the engine noise. So they sat back two or three feet from the micronphones and shouted their dialogue. The results of this can be heard in our "Anthology" recording on the Archives page.

5. In the movies and television, music is heard all the time. It sets the mood, builds suspense, even comments on the action. Radio uses music more sparingly. We have what we call the "music bridge." The music bridge does what the dissolve performs in the camera media. It tells the listener the next scene is later or somewhere else. The music comes up with the end of one scene and fades under with the beginning of the next. In the simplest of technical arrangements you'll need another recorder or player to add these to your classroom productions. An audio mixer is recommended.