Radio drama, redrafting and unpeeling the layers of your ideas

enclosure doorI’ve had the melodic tones of plainsong drifting through my writing space this week.  It has set the tone for the redraft of my new radio drama, The Cloistered Soul.  More than that, it has transported me back to the enclosed order I visited earlier this year to get an insight into the life lived by the nuns there.  What’s amazing is that, after a few days, I began to recognise the patterns of the melody for each service of what they call the Divine Office (Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Mass, None, Sext, Vespers and Compline).  Eight times a day the nuns assemble to pray, filing in from the cloisters into church and taking their places out of sight of the main congregation.  Their days are threaded through with the simplicity of this ritual and the rich texture of the music of the Office.

So my task is to try to capture some of this world in a fictionalised, forty-five minute drama.  The story of the play has a long genesis (it began with my idea for a mute musician found wandering on a beach – a story based in fact – but that in itself is a whole other post).  It has been devised and redrawn numerous times, all in conjunction with my producer, Nadia Molinari, with input from the other radio drama producers who work at Media City, Salford and with feedback from the BBC’s Commissioning Editor for Drama.

It’s only with this, the second draft (some eighteen months after first pitching the idea), that I feel I’ve really nailed the story.   And here’s some of what I’ve learned about the process of writing for radio:

The idea you originally have might not be the actual story you write.  While the fictional world of this play has remained the same, the plot and characters have morphed several times.  Be prepared to unpeel the layers of your ideas. Trust your instinct, and stay true to the heart of the story.

Listen to the feedback of others.  Writing for radio is a collaborative process, and the story develops organically as a result of dialogue with others.  The last meeting with Nadia was essentially a conversation about the play’s themes: silence, faith and community.  I think this is her way of trying to wrest the story – and the best writing – out of me.

Think pictorially.  Writing a radio play was once described to me as like writing a short film.  That’s true, I think.  My first draft was far too expositional and didn’t contain enough painting of the picture through sound or words.

Of course, these are only some of the the things I’ve learned.  So far.  There is still a long way (and probably at least five more drafts) to go before The Cloistered Soul is recorded in early December.



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