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How to Write a Script: Putting Words to Work in Your Videos

Even if you're just taping your family outings to the Grand Canyon, your video projects could benefit from a script of some sort. In this article, we'll take a look at four popular methods for getting your video ideas on paper.

As creative individuals, we videomakers must wage a constant war between our artistic instincts and our need for order and direction. While it would certainly be nice if we could just splash paint across the canvas like Jackson Pollack, the video medium doesn't allow for such raw creative courage. Instead, we must filter the primal power of our artistic senses through well-chosen rules and guidelines.

One of the most important filters of creativity is the script--the written document that defines your video's sequence of sights and sounds. Scripting isn't difficult; in fact, it makes your work easier and more effective in the long run. A good script lends seamless continuity to your video. It also acts as a precision-ground lens, just like the one on the front of your camera. It allows you to focus your creative energies into a video presentation that's both smooth and understandable.

If you're still unconvinced about the value of learning how to write a script, look at the pros. They wouldn't touch even the simplest video idea without a script. Even if your project is nothing more than a video record of your family's vacation in the Grand Canyon, you can at least scribble a list of shots on a pocket-sized pad. The act of jotting them down will help you think through your shot sequences and visualize the way they'll fit together--and your finished tape will be more interesting.

So go ahead--fling your paint. Just remember that your videos will be easier to watch if you plan ahead exactly where you're going to fling it, what color it's going to be, how much to fling...

Whatever Works Is Right

Before your teeth clench with anxiety over the prospect of learning somebody else's system of scripting, just relax. There is only one correct way to script your video: the way that works for you. If the abbreviation "CU" for "close-up" doesn't look right to you, change it. If two columns distract you from the overall feel of your script, go to a different format--and feel free to make adjustments to that format if it makes the script easier for you to understand. Use what works. This is your project and the script is simply a mechanism to make your job easier, so experiment with it until it feels right.

As we look at the four basic script formats, think of them as starting points. Every video project has unique requirements, so keep the parts that apply to yours, and throw away the parts that don't — without a moment's remorse. These are the tools, not the rules.

How to Write a Script: Four Handy Formats

  1. The treatment format. This technique works well with testimonial, documentary and any other kind of impromptu productions you're likely to come up against.
    The only script you'll need is a general set of guidelines describing the tone of your project, and the techniques you'll use to achieve it. After shooting your footage, you can write the "filler" narration in the way that best compliments the visual element. This script is actually nothing more than a general description of your video's content, direction and style. (See the December 1994 issue of Videomaker for more suggestions on writing a treatment).
  2. The center-column format. This scripting style works well for any project that has to follow precisely planned dialogue or narrative, but needs to remain open to creative interpretation by the actors, camera operators and director. It uses a narrow center portion of the page for scripting and leaves plenty of room on either side for later notations by the rest of your creative team. This type of script is designed to etch the general ideas in stone, while leaving the specific methods of presentation open to the actors and crew.
    Notice in the example shown that this type of script presents character names in all caps and stage directions in parentheses. The margins are wide to allow handwritten notes by the crew. The version shown here is a director's copy.
    If your production team is highly creative and experienced, you may want to try some variation of this one.
  3. The full-page format. This format moves the project completely from one scene to the next, painting a descriptive chronological picture of the video's sights and sounds. Each scene has a number and each one usually begins with a description of the setting, then follows with descriptions of the action and dialogue. This format is the one most often used for television production because it works well with dramatic (as opposed to instructional or documentary) projects.
  4. The two-column or split-page format. This is the most common approach for producers of television commercials and training videos. The page consists of two columns; the video description is on the left side and the audio description is on the right side. It's easy to read and makes perfect sense at a glance.

Take Your Pick

There are good arguments in favor of each of these formats.

Some videomakers swear by the two-column format because it clearly specifies which components of the work are visual and which are auditory. Others maintain that single-column formats force the writer to create audio and video simultaneously. The contention is that two-column scripting creates a temptation to write all of the audio first, then come back and write all of the video. There is some truth to this, and the problem with writing all the audio first is that you tend to make the audio do too much work. The power of video is in color and motion, so it's important to visually demonstrate concepts whenever possible rather than describing them with narration or dialogue.

How to Write a Script: The Process

The steps involved in the writing of a script vary widely from one project to the next and from writer to writer, but a few truths are common to the creation of most scripts.

For example, no matter how complicated or simple the script, it's difficult to write down every good idea on the first draft. A good start is to go at it with broad brush strokes. Write down a rough sequence of scenes, including any specific ideas that come to mind for each one. Don't worry about it making sense to anyone else; you'll probably do a lot of fine tuning before you show it off.

This approach has a couple of advantages. For one thing, it gets you started, which is usually the hardest part. Also, by working from the very beginning to the very end on this and successive drafts, you'll maintain a big-picture image of the script, rather than bogging down in isolated pockets of detail. The little things will fill out during later drafts, after the script has taken on an overall shape with a solid framework.

As you work your way from one scene to the next, keep asking yourself these two questions: What will this look like? What will this sound like?

This constant attention to both audio and video will ensure a finished product that weaves the two components into a single creation. A real headache many videomakers face after the cameras start rolling is the discovery of "dead spots" in their scripts. These are areas where the narrative and music push majestically ahead for long periods while the video just lays there. When you're writing audio, constantly ask yourself, "What's happening on-screen now?" When making video notes, ask yourself, "What's the sound doing here?" In this way, you can eliminate those awkward stretches of sleepy video.

I saw a painful example of this in a marketing video for a new plumbing product. The viewer had to watch a two-minute close-up of an actor holding a piece of pipe he had just unthreaded, while the narrative droned on and on about the merits of the pipe-thread lubricant that the tape advertised. It wasn't the fault of the actor or director. The script simply failed to match the duration of the narrative to the duration of the video.

How to Write a Script: Make a Good One Great

Any script is better than no script, but a few simple tricks can help this valuable document do its job better than ever:

  • Make the script fit your production level. A good script for your home video might be a simple shot list with some strategically placed lines of voice-over. At the other end of the spectrum, a good script for a Hollywood feature film would define every camera move, transition and facial expression on a minute-by-minute basis. So where does your project fit in?
    The answer depends on your needs. Will this be a solo production, just you and your camcorder? If so, how much written direction will you need? If someone else will direct it, how much creative license will he or she need to do good work? What about camera operators? Truly spine-tingling shots and camera moves are often created on the spot by the camera operators themselves.
    If your project will involve other professionals, try to let them make decisions on matters where their expertise is greater than yours. Don't write a script that inhibits the talents of your crew. If you're working with good people, use them well by going light on specific directives.
    On the other hand, if you'll be working with less experienced people or if you're doing all the work yourself, it's a good idea to identify exactly what each shot should look like.
  • Show, don't tell. This is an important axiom for writers of all kinds, and scriptwriters are no exception. As you think through the content of your video, think visually. Don't write a line of dialogue where Mary says, "I'm so angry!" Instead, write an acting cue, such as "MARY'S EYES NARROW, HER JAW CLENCHES, HER HANDS SLOWLY WAD THE INVOICE INTO A TIGHT BALL." Or, if the actress playing Mary has some talent and you trust her to do it well, simply MARY LOOKS ANGRY." Another example: rather than scripting a narrative line, such as "These mighty machines cut through cylinder walls of the biggest engines on Earth, throwing sparks the size of pencil erasers," describe the same scene for shooting from a strategic angle that graphically and dramatically shows those details.
  • Be a good reporter. Journalists write around a framework of the famous "five W's." As a scriptwriter, you should do the same (well, sort of). Your description of each scene should include some or all of the following components, depending on which ones are relevant: who is in it, what scene it is, when it takes place and where it takes place. In lieu of the classical why, we're more concerned with which props and costumes you'll need. Ask yourself which of the five scriptwriting W's apply each time you begin setting a scene.
  • Fill in the gaps. Complete your knowledge of the kind of scripts you want to write. If your work will be primarily dramatic in nature, read everything you can find about screenplays, plotting, dialogue and general storytelling. Pick up a writers' magazine at the newsstand to learn about some of the excellent computer programs available to help you create the plots of your stories.

If your niche will be instructional videos, read about technical writing. If television production is your game, read everything you can find on the type of work you want to become involved with.

Many books are available on general writing skills and will improve any scriptwriter's work. One of the best (and shortest) is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. You should be able to read it cover-to-cover in an evening, which will immediately improve the overall effectiveness of anyone's writing.

But again, don't get caught up in being a great writer; your job is to communicate ideas, not to pen immortal poetry.

How to Write a Script: Make it Easy

A typewriter or even a note pad will work fine as a scripting medium, but if have your druthers, invest in some software. Most word processors now have excellent drawing and table-making capabilities to accommodate single- or multiple-column scripting formats. Many even have built-in templates that work great for any of the formats shown here.

Another option is a low-cost desktop publishing program, but this may have some limitations in text manipulation and spell checking. Don't spend a lot of money on high-end publishing programs; not only would it be massive overkill, but you would spend weeks or months learning how to perform even basic operations.

As a final note: remember to have fun with scripting. If you don't enjoy your initial writing experiences, try doing it a different way. With a little practice, you'll get more comfortable with the process--you'll even begin to look forward to this important step in the preproduction of your video.

And the results will show.

Glossary of Scriptwriting Terms

(These are just examples; if other versions work better for you, use them!)

Close up (CU)
A close view of an actor or object.
Cut
An instant transition from one scene to the next.
Dialogue
Phrases spoken among actors.
Dissolve
A transition in which one scene fades into another.
Documentary
An essay-style video that provides commentary on its subject matter.
Establishing shot
An opening, wide-angle view that shows the overall setting of a scene.
Music Bed or Music Under
Low-volume music that accompanies voice over or dialogue.
Narrative
Spoken information that sets up the mood or context of a scene.
Needle-drop Sound
Same as sound effects.
Pan
The left-to-right or right-to-left rotation of a stationary camera.
Scene
A video event which takes place in one location or accomplishes a single dramatic purpose.
Script
A piece of writing designed to guide actors and technical staff through the video production process.
Setting
The time and place in which a scene occurs.
Shot
A single, continuous run of recorded footage from a single camera.
Sound Effects (SFX)
Special sound enhancements to the audio track which do not occur in the live recording.
Talent
The people who appear on the screen or in the narrative voice-over of your production.
Tilt
The up-and-down rotation of a stationary camera.
Truck
The sideways movement of a camera, usually accomplished with a dolly.
Voice Over (VO)
Voice heard without the speaker appearing on screen.
Wide Angle
A shot that makes the main subject a small part of a larger setting.
Zoom In
To move the camera's viewpoint from a wide-angle to a close-up shot.
Zoom Out
To move the camera's viewpoint from a close-up to a wide-angle shot.

--S.W.P.

Tags:  September 1995
Wynn
Ponder
Fri, 09/01/1995 - 12:00am

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