Making the Most of Your Radio Script’s SFX

Write Label
5 min readFeb 5, 2024


Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

By: Jon Marc Valentini-McDonald

A few years ago, my first play somehow found its way to the New York Theater Festival, where it had an incredible run thanks to a relentless producer and a brilliant director. However, along the way, my script presented a few challenges, including an errant sound effect that prompted the confused director to call me a few days into rehearsals.

“I thought maybe it was just me, but I asked the actors and the stage manager, and even my friend, and they’re all equally confused,” he said. “There’s a sound effect just before the closing scene that says ‘bright sunlight.’ What does ‘bright sunlight’ sound like?”

I hadn’t closely reviewed the script for a few months, and by the time he called, I had forgotten what I even meant. Such is the conundrum of sound effects. At the time of writing, we may know exactly what we have in mind, but others are less likely to know our inner thoughts.

What does ‘bright sunlight’ sound like?

Sound effects play a crucial role in advertising. They can evoke emotions, establish brand identity, set the scene, and even shape a consumer’s perception of a product.

Before your ad reaches the audience, it goes through an editor, and then it’s off to a production team. They rely on clear audio instructions to conceptualize and produce the ad. If your sound effects are too vague or too specific (more on this shortly), the editor and production team may struggle to understand your intent.

The production team often operates on a tight schedule, so the less guesswork they have to do, the better. What can we do to make our sound effects more effective?


Write Label receives a lot of briefs from auto repair businesses. Let’s use a fictional one as an example. Let’s say there’s a company called “Wacky Wally’s Car Hospital.” The client didn’t provide a lot of copy points, so you have to get a little creative. You decide to set the ad within the garage of Wacky Wally’s, and to create an atmosphere to signal to the listener that car repairs are taking place.

Here are three examples of sound effects you might use:

  1. SFX — A mysterious blend of ethereal whispers and echoing riddles.
  2. SFX — The distinctive sound of a 1957 Chevy Bel Air revving.
  3. SFX — The satisfying clank of tools ( think wrench tightening, drill drilling, etc.).

In the first example, you might know precisely what is meant by “ethereal whispers and echoing riddles”. However, the production team is less likely to grasp what you meant. They’ll likely be left wondering what, in Wacky Wally’s name, you meant. Since they’re likely on a tight deadline, they may be forced to go with whatever interpretation they come up with, and that could alter the atmosphere you were trying to build.

In the second example, we are faced with the opposite issue. Whereas the first SFX description cue was too abstract, this one is too specific. If your sound effect is so esoteric that only an initiated few will understand it, it probably is too specific for the production team to replicate. Though the sound of a 1957 Chevy Bel Air revving might be a familiar sound to you as a car buff, you can’t assume the same for anyone else. Write Label’s production team pulls sound effects from a licensed sound effects library, so specific sounds like this one may not be available. There could also be trademark/copyright issues with using specific sound effects (e.g. the Pillsbury Doughboy giggle), so it’s best to stick with SFX that are easy to find.

This brings us to the third example, which—like our girl Goldilocks discovered—is just right. The description is specific enough for the production team to replicate but not so specific that it can’t be found in a licensed audio library, or special permissions are needed to use it (i.e. trademarked/copyrighted material).


What did I do when the director of my play called? His question was a good one: What does bright sunlight sound like? We all know that sunlight doesn’t make a sound, so including “bright sunlight” as an SFX description provided no guidance.

After considering the mood I was trying to convey, I changed the sound effect to “Bright sunlight: high-pitched notes, perhaps crisp and clear like a wind chime.” When I saw my play on the stage a few weeks later, that’s precisely the sound that was produced.

So, with all elements you write for production — not just sound effects — consider how it will read and sound to others.


Incorporating ‘just right’ sound effects isn’t difficult. As you develop your copy, you’ll know the sounds needed to enhance the tone. Follow these basic tips:

  • Don’t overthink it. Stick to identifiable, clear sound effect descriptions.
  • Consider production. Think about whether someone reading your script for the first time would be able to decipher your word choices, and, during production, would they be able to easily replicate or search for the sound you’re describing?
  • Stick to sounds you can hear. Unless you have superpowers, most people can’t hear sunlight. So, what are some sounds that may convey that mood/feeling instead?
  • Turn on the subtitles. Try turning on the subtitles while watching TV. Notice how certain sounds are described.
  • Use your senses. Another way to consider effective sound effects is to modify a writing exercise I used to do with my students:

At the beginning of class, I would tell them to put their phones in their pockets and follow me. We’d walk somewhere familiar (often the school’s main reading room in the library), and I would instruct them to observe everything they see, hear, and smell. When we returned to class, I would tell them to write for ten minutes about all they observed with one caveat: they couldn’t use any visual descriptors and instead had to rely only on what they heard. Since they were deprived of all but one of their most potent senses, they were forced to rely exclusively on sound descriptions to convey their experience.

As an editor, one of our jobs is to strengthen copy. Beyond looking for grammatical issues, flow, and copy points, editors aim to assess the entirety of the copy. The best submissions will have a nice flow and be clear and producible to the production team as well. From your script’s voice directions to the sound effects, always strive for that perfect description that’s just right.

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