By Stephanie Weston
Do you know the problem with writing a comedy murder mystery? Mobile phones. I don’t mean that you keep checking yours when you’re supposed to be writing – although this could be the case – but that your characters need to be isolated from the rest of the world and these days thanks to mobiles, no one really is. There needs to be a pressure-cooker atmosphere, where tension builds but no one can escape. The solution, of course, is to set it in the past but I was adamant I didn’t want to write another country house mystery, set in the 1920’s/30’s. Other periods of history are available, but I wanted to do something really unusual.
So, what would be different? Noah’s Ark, that’s what! Totally isolated, no means of escape, Noah’s family not necessarily on the best of terms with each other; this seemed to tick all the boxes. And crucially, as this was to be an audio drama, there would be the chance for an amazing array of sound effects, from the weather to, well, every animal on earth. It wasn’t well-trodden territory, as there aren’t that many plays or films dealing with the situation and I’d certainly never heard it tackled in an audio drama before.
Predictably, it was not as straightforward as it initially appeared. My first attempts were rambling and lame. There just seemed to be too many characters, with even more being referred to off-stage. Did I really need all of them? I suspected not but wasn’t sure how to make it work without them. The play also seemed weirdly raven-heavy. I didn’t know what the market was for raven-heavy audio dramas, but suspected it was niche. I abandoned it and forgot about it.
About a year later, I looked at it again. I realised that it wasn’t being told from one character’s specific point of view and I felt this was partly what was making it difficult for me. Now, lots of excellent writers can create splendid ensemble pieces, but I was struggling with it. I picked a character, the one I felt had the most potential, as she was something of an outsider in the group and used her as a starting point. Once I had made it one character’s story and made their voice dominant, the piece improved. But it still didn’t really work. I abandoned it for a second time.
Then, earlier this year, I saw the Pen to Print competition advertised. I remembered my ark play; could I try again? I looked again at the main character. What if I made her a writer, someone who records events and so – completely unwittingly – writes the first ever murder mystery? It would certainly add another dimension to the piece. But I’d been writing the piece with a 45- minute Radio 4 afternoon drama slot in mind, and Pen to Print only wanted 30 minutes – would it work? That’s a big difference; the running time would need to be reduced by a third. I quickly realised I’d have to look at it differently, cut a lot of extraneous material…you’ve guessed it, this turned out to be the key. I really had to cut to the chase and get on with telling the story. I learned so much simply by having this restriction in place.
To say I was delighted to win the competition is putting it mildly. I got a lovely pen, certificate and trophy, plus a tablet (an electronic one, not medication to calm me down, although I probably needed some), but by far the best thing was that the play got to be professionally produced. This really is the Holy Grail for all audio drama writers.
The experience was amazing. I’m an actor myself, but mainly stage, so the production side was largely unknown territory for me. I was nervous. Really nervous. What if the actors – all very experienced – thought this was some sort of vanity project? I had a small part in it as well; what if they thought I was unsuitable, or just plain dreadful? They all knew each other, having worked together extensively before, which was actually very helpful, as it really speeded things up, but I kept having moments of minor panic. I told myself it was unlikely the day would end with them chasing me down Haggerston High Street, brandishing pitchforks and torches (if they did, hopefully they would chase me towards, rather than away from, the overground station).
I needn’t have worried. Producer Chris Gregory (from Alternative Stories) plus the cast of Tiffany Clare, Charlie Richards and Emily Inkpen – not forgetting, of course, Orpheus Studios – were all kind, amazing and produced some quality work. Everyone had an excellent handle on their characters. They did what any writer hopes their cast will do, which is to lift and improve the work, bring it off the page and give it an extra dimension that you haven’t previously imagined.
As I write this, we’re at the stage where I’ll soon be involved in the post-production work, choosing the best takes, the sound effects and so forth. Hopefully my strategy of including soon-to-be-deceased animals that, for the purposes of audio drama, sound just like existing animals (spotted horses, hairy elephants etc) will pay off. Again, plenty to learn and, I’m sure, plenty to be enjoyed.
So, what is the moral of the story? Keep trying and, if a competition catches your eye, go for it! Even if you don’t win, you’ll give yourself useful parameters and a deadline and you’ll have a completed piece of work at the end. Your writing will move forward. Oh, and probably best to turn your phone off before you start.
Stephanie Weston is a professional actress and emerging writer who has had work performed at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court, The Queen Dome, Edinburgh, The Rondo Theatre, Bath, Bridgwater Arts Centre, Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Taunton, and the Brass Works Theatre, Bristol, amongst others. Writing competitions she has won include Pint Sized Plays, Page To Stage, Sandalles Five n’ Ten and Chorts (written). She has also contributed to comedy podcasts, and has had her monologues and sketches broadcast on Radio Bristol.
You can connect with Stephanie on Facebook: facebook.com/stephanie.weston.75 and on Instagram & Threads: @stephanie_weston
You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on Podcasters.Spotify.com.
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Keep trying and, if a competition catches your eye, go for it! Even if you don’t win, you’ll give yourself useful parameters and a deadline and you’ll have a completed piece of work at the end.