Ten tips on writing scripts for audio recordings
by John Hughes
Many teachers write dialogues for use in their ELT classrooms, and ELT materials writers have to produce listening scripts for published courses that are then recorded with actors in recording studios. There’s a wide range of script types to be written; from monologues (or presentations) with one speaker, to dialogues between two people (who might be in a shop or at a café), to more extensive conversations between three or more people (who could be holding a formal business meeting or agreeing and disagreeing about a hot topic).
Whatever type of script you are writing for audio, most will follow some basic principles. For example, here’s the first part of a script which was written to accompany some material on the topic of gossip, which included work on adjectives for describing people (e.g. handsome, dark-haired). It has been prepared for use with actors in a recording studio.
[Two people in a café. A man and woman in their thirties or forties. The man has a Spanish accent. The woman is Australian. Sound of the café and people talking the background.]
Alex: Mmm, this coffee’s excellent. Nearly as good as in Spain.
Rose: [Laughs] Nearly! Hey, isn’t that Tracey over there? Who’s she with? He’s very handsome.
Alex: Where? I can’t see her.
Rose: In the corner. With the dark-haired guy …
Note that the script is following certain principles and guidelines that apply to most audio scripts and that are useful things to bear in mind when writing similar types of dialogues. Let’s consider what they are:
1. Including target language
People often say that we should use more authentic recordings in ELT materials and that it isn’t necessary to write so many dialogues. I agree that using authentic recordings is great for developing listening skills, but sometimes the main purpose of the audio is to present a target language point (e.g. a vocabulary item, a grammar point or a feature of pronunciation). That’s really the reason why we still script so many of our dialogues – to present target language.
2. Adding context
One challenge for students to listening to a recorded script is that – without video – they have little or no context at the beginning. So, ideally, introduce a context near the beginning; for example, one speaker can start the dialogue off with something like ‘The conference is busier than last year.’ or ‘Have you been to this conference before?‘
3. Sound effects
With scripts that are going to be recorded, indicate sound effects on your script that can be added. These will help to add a context (see previous tip) and provide a sense of authenticity. So, for example, if the conversation was a tourist asking for directions, it probably takes place in the street. So, I might write this in square brackets: [Street noise with one or two passing vehicles], to indicate it is information for the editor and studio producer.
If a dialogue includes one person talking for a long time, it makes it harder to follow. So when writing conversations between two or three people, as a general rule, keep each turn short. If one speaker is providing a lot of information, then let the other speaker interrupt from time to time, ask questions or even show they are listening with phrases like ‘I see‘ or ‘Sure‘.) This will help the listener and it’s probably more authentic in many situations.
5. Numbers of speakers
When a script is for audio, limit the number of speakers to make it manageable. If you need to have more than two people, then three speakers are fine if you make their voices distinctly different, but four or more becomes confusing. If you really need a lot of speakers then the script might be better suited to video.
Mixing the genders in your scripts is not only ‘fair’, but it also makes listening easier. If I have two speakers, I normally make them a man and a woman. With three speakers, definitely avoid a conversation where all the speakers are either all men or all women.
7. Naming the speakers
Many scripts call speakers A, B or C. This is OK for short mechanical scripts with the purpose of being for a listen-and-repeat exercise, for example. However, giving the speakers real names adds authenticity and is invaluable for longer scripts where students might need to note who said what.
8. Character notes
As well as providing names, actors in a recording studio will also appreciate any information you can give them about the speakers’ characters. Are they in their early twenties, or middle-aged? Do they sound excited or bored? What is the relationship between the speakers?
Using different accents is another way to make it clearer who is speaking, but – more importantly – it reflects the use of English as a form of international communication and exposes students to a range of voices.
10. Adding features of real speech
Features of real speech include things like fillers (well, err, umm), and false starts (what I mean, what I mean to say is). You can add these in to scripts to increase a feeling of authenticity but don’t overload them to the point where they distort the conversation or take over from the script’s real purpose. Also note that, if you are writing a script for a publication, it will be recorded in a studio with real actors who will read your script word for word. Don’t assume that they will add in features of real speech – they won’t. They’ll read it exactly how it’s written.
John Hughes is a materials writer and one of the lead authors on a number of coursebook series including Life (National Geographic Learning) and Business Result (Oxford University Press). He also provides training to teachers and schools on how to write ELT materials and has recently published an ebook, How to write audio and video scripts (eltteacher2writer.co.uk). His blog is www.elteachertrainer.com.
© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2015