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This topic sheet was originally devised for the Exciting Writing for Radio course. There is a table of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.



Radio is a particularly powerful motivating force for the imagination because it lacks any visual dimension.

Whereas picture books, film and television constrain the imagination by imposing more or less explicit visual images, words without pictures compel the mind to provide its own "visual" content. The use of sound effects may further increase the imaginative stimulus in the listener.

Memories play a crucial part in the imaginative process. When the imagination is called into play, one's memories are its most abundant resource by far.

Sounds, words and phrases often trigger subliminal links to specific memories or categories of memory. Since memories include the full range of sensory experiences, the triggers may evoke (literally "call out") remembered sights, smells, emotions, sounds and speech.

The imagination, once invoked, is capable of huge leaps of thought. Memories may trigger other memories, perhaps unrelated. Ambiguous words and phrases, or the linkages or conflicts between the meaning of the text and the attendant sounds, may evoke further, perhaps conflicting meanings, providing renewed stimulus to the imagination. The mind may begin to form new ideas as the sound and sense of the written text react with evoked memories.

A crucial measure of exciting writing, then, is its power to stimulate the imagination. The effect may be particularly enhanced by removing all extraneous information in order to concentrate the reader's mind on the sounds, words and phrases that provide the greatest imaginative stimulus. Arguably this is not only a primary reason for the reverence in which poetry is held, but also serves to explain why poetry works so well on radio:

  • its sounds and sense are concentrated;
  • its imagery is deliberately heightened;
  • its evoked images are truly personal, even unique;
  • the relative paucity of its words enable it to give way quickly to the world of the mind, having first set the imagination in full flight;
  • its pleasing effects on the mind, often coupled with its satisfying rhythms and rhymes, make it both memorable and worth remembering.



Our previous discussion of sound gave perhaps insufficient emphasis to the use of spoken sounds as a stimulus to the imagination. Plainly attributes such as accent make the listener imagine visual appearance, place and social situation. But the imaginative processes can run much deeper if one focuses on the poetic potential of spoken sounds.

The evocative power of the spoken word is subjective, of course, and accordingly imponderable. But surely every writer can relate to at least some of the techniques used by poets and speech-makers to enhance the evocative qualities of speech. For example:

  • Written words evoke remembered sounds, whether of individual consonants or syllables, or of non-spoken sounds (such as the sound of the sea in the word "sea", or the onomatopoeic sound of a word like "pop").
  • Sound patterns engage the ear, assist understanding, and make writing more memorable. Metre, rhyme, assonance and alliteration can all play a part in the creation of evocative sound patterns.
  • Music provides a useful reminder of the inscrutable power of sound at the level of the subconscious.



One of the defining features of truly evocative writing is its ability to stimulate the intellect, such that the reader's/listener's response does not end with the moment of reading/listening, but continues to reverberate within the mind for seconds, minutes or even years afterwards.

When sound causes memories, perhaps previously unrelated, to come together in the forefront of the mind, the intellect, becomes engaged and acts upon the assembled information to create new associations and ideas. The reader or listener gains satisfaction from the process, such as solving the puzzle presented by the writer/speaker, stumbling upon a new line of thinking, etc.

These processes are made still more exciting by the uniqueness of the mind, in the sense that each person's mind encapsulates a unique portfolio of personal memories and a complex matrix of associations formed through unique personal experience.

Even the simplest words may trigger an idiosyncratic series of responses that would not all be familiar to others. For example, the word "seaside" might conjure up thoughts of happy childhood days in one person, while causing someone else to shudder at the memory of a near-death experience.

From a writer's perspective, the evocative and imaginative power of a piece is increased by choosing words (and phrases) that are likely to trigger complex responses - for example, words that:

  • are open to many different interpretations (e.g. senseless, flat, land);
  • represent grand or otherwise challenging ideas (ineffable, eternity, loving);
  • have emotive or otherwise strong associations in the minds of many people (flower power, slimy, bayonet);
  • cause the reader to stop and think, perhaps by virtue of their relative unfamiliarity or unexpected context (ineluctable, iron tapestry).



When the imagination and the intellect become engaged, the listener is likely to perceive meanings that are not explicitly stated in the text. Such thoughts may be nothing more than irrelevant interference, caused by the evocation of memories that have no immediate relevance. Importantly from a writer's perspective, however, many such thoughts are a logical outcome of the interpretative process, and may be premeditated accordingly.

Specifically, the listener works to construct a coherent mental "picture" (whether truly visual or not) of what is meant by the text. If the mind perceives that important details are missing from the text, it may call on memories to fill the gaps. The picture changes as further information is provided explicitly by the text. The sub-text is the part of the picture that is never explicitly stated, but is nevertheless crucial to the reader's/listener's interpretation of the text.

It is virtually impossible, of course, to provide a truly complete picture using words alone. Characters in books, for example, are differently perceived by different readers, however carefully the author describes them. Indeed there are few writers who would seriously want to eliminate ambiguity, with all its potential for richness and evocation, from their work. On the contrary, since radio, like poetry, is deliberately concentrated, it may be worth striving to make the sub-text may as powerful as the text itself. Part of the wonder of sub-text is that, whilst it may be largely intended, different readers/listeners may perceive meaningful sub-text that the writer had not foreseen.

Sub-text may be used to mirror any or all of the functions of text. The key question for the writer seeking to develop sub-text is "How do I get across the idea that ... (e.g. the girl is about to have a nervous breakdown; A is out to rob B; etc) without actually saying it?"

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