A Guide to Basic Script Conventions in Audio Drama

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microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

At the outset I should acknowledge that there are numerous conventions in use for script production and presentation. The ones I am writing about here are the conventions that I, personally, use most frequently. They are not original to me, having come by way of the very talented Tony Palermo (google him, his website is a great permanent resource) and Erik Barnouw (whose hard to locate “Handbook of radio writing” is in my opinion, yet to be surpassed – and among my most treasured possessions).  So, without further ado, here are the guidelines I employ…

To make it easy to find and keep your place within the script all the lines should be numbered consecutively (as should scenes). I like line numbers because they make it easy to reference sections of the script in rehearsal and performance (especially if you can’t get people in the same room at the same times or need to record or rehearse out of order).

“Let’s pick it up from line 196” is just a whole lot easier than “Let’s go from JIM’s line half way down the third page of Scene 3”.

Numbers which are to be spoken aloud should be spelled out (e.g., thirteen, three hundred and twelve).

Sound effects should be underlined and capitalized to reduce the chance that they will be mistaken for a line that needs to be read out.

Sound effects are cued with the word SOUND and underlined. MUSIC should be cued likewise.

Sound effects should be accompanied by a square bracketed number (e.g., [31]). These numbers should correspond to a sound effects list included in the Appendices following the end of the script for the sound designers. They should also be placed at the beginning of sound directions so that they can be found and referred to quickly and easily.

Sound effects should be described as efficiently as possible presenting the description first followed by a hyphen and any direction for the sound effects team eg. SOUND: [31] PLANE FLYING – ESTABLISH AND FADE OUT.

Sound effects should be described as simply as possible (to be read quickly – this is especially important in live performances) eg. SOUND: [12] (WALLA) CROWD MURMURING – ESTABLISH AND UNDER rather than SOUND: [12] THE SOUND OF A LARGE GATHERING OF PEOPLE CAN BE HEARD MILLING ABOUT – ESTABLISH AND UNDER. Sometimes a long sound description (particularly for something unusual) is absolutely essential.

As already stated, I include an appendix for the sound folks (that allows me to add more detail to sound descriptions than appears in the script), in the form of a numbered list keyed to the script. I find that creating this master list lets the SFX folks identify and gather the required sounds (whether practical or recorded) prior to performance/recording (or for post production) without risking them missing any of them because they accidentally overlooked a particular sound cue buried in the script itself.

Speakers are indicated by the character’s name appearing in capitals followed by a colon (e.g., TOM: ).

When introducing a character for the first time the cue should utilize the full name. It may be shortened thereafter but should remain capitalized throughout.

Occasionally, directions regarding the delivery of a line will appear. These are capitalized and bracketed, e.g., (NERVOUSLY), and appear at the beginning of the delivered line (or section of line) to reduce the chance that the direction will accidentally be read aloud.

Difficult-to- pronounce names and words should include a guide to pronunciation in order to make pronunciation easier, e.g., Cartagena (KARTA–HAIN–YA), and should appear after the word itself.

Each scene is numbered and identified as being either an interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.) scene to assist the sound production in setting the right amount of echo and ambiance.

Usually some indication of the time of day is provided, e.g., NIGHT, again to assist the sound designers.

The scene’s title should always be followed by a short bracketed list of the characters required for the scene. This lets the actors know they are going to appear in the scene so that they are ready when called upon to deliver a line. Eg. SCENE 1 – INT – SAM SPADE’S OFFICE – MORNING (SAM SPADE, SALLY WILSON, MISS WONDERLY)

Try to avoid splitting dialog between two pages. It’s better to start a line on a new page than risk recording the sound of pages turning in the middle of a speech. A long speech may, of course, be forced to cross pages. In that case, break the text on the end of a paragraph and include the words (CONTINUED OVER), capitalized and in brackets, at the end of the line.

I also set up my preferred word processor with styles for dialog, sound, and music, and to handle the automatic numbering of lines (so that I don’t have to worry about renumbering when I insert new dialog or sound directions during revision etc.).

The term [CUE] is used at the beginning of some lines to inform the actors that there is no sound effect or music to indicate when a line should be delivered and that the actor should look to the director to indicate when to begin speaking.

Commonly encountered descriptive terms and directions found in audio scripts include:

(BEAT) — A momentary pause for the count of one or a single beat.

(BRIDGE) — Music played between scenes — the audio drama equivalent of raising and lowering the curtain on a scene.

(CALLS OUT/SCREAMS) — Achieved by raising the head and mouth to shout or scream to the ceiling.

CONTINUE UNTIL — Let the sound or music play until a particular line number or symbol (such as * ) is reached.

[CUE] — The actor should wait for the director to indicate it is time to begin delivering the line.

(DISTANT, OFF MIC) — In traditional radio broadcasting this was achieved by having the actor step away from the microphone before delivering the line.

(ENTERING/EXITING) — Approaching or moving away from the microphone.

ESTABLISH — Let the sound or music play for a moment before any other sound or dialog is added.

FADE IN — Start the sound or music softly and then gradually increasing its volume.

FADE OUT — Gradually lowering the volume on the sound or music until it can no longer be heard.

FADE UNDER (or simply UNDER) — Lowering the volume of the sound effect or music until the actors’ voices are clearly audible over it.

LET IT FINISH — Playing the sound or music until it is complete without fading it.

(STAGE WHISPER) — A loud whisper uttered by the actor, intended to be heard by the audience but supposedly unheard by other characters in the play.

(STING) — Music used as punctuation to emphasize the emotion of a moment. The “dum-de-dum-dum” that plays when a body is discovered or the “bada-bing” cymbal crash of a joke being delivered etc.

(TO ROBIN, TO ALL) — Dialog to be directed to one or a number of characters in the scene.

UNDER — Continue a sound effect or music at low volume under the dialog or action taking place.

(WALLA) — Background sound belonging to the environment (for example, the sounds of a busy street).

British and American script writing conventions differ somewhat and there are significant differences between the conventions applied in the golden age of audio-script writing and those used today.

My own preference is to use the conventions of the past… the conventions used at the height of audio drama production arose to make the job of producing a script easier in the incredibly high volume production environment of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. I personally feel the older conventions are a lot more efficient than the ones in use today (and they were the conventions I learned first, so they are also more familiar to me).

Modern script writing conventions (particularly in their American form) tend to be ported across from screenplay writing, a form that is similar to, but doesn’t fully meet the needs of audio production.

That said, when submitting work to be considered by producers, it is essential that you identify and use the format they require. In my case this requires me to adjust the format of my scripts when I submit them to U.K producers and do so again when I submit them to American producers. The adjustments aren’t large, but to submit a script that doesn’t meet the formatting requirements of the organisation to which it is sent is a sure way to guarantee it doesn’t get read. If you have only one market for your scripts then identify the formatting requirements of that market and stick to them.

Have I left out any important conventions? Do you have any advice or alternatives for formatting audio scripts? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.