Video and Film Script Writing

Is it a dream or a nightmare? You finally have it made–full production
facilities for your project. The crew is looking at you expectantly,
the talent is standing around waiting for direction, and behind
you is a producer looking at all these expensive people and demanding
to know what you are going to do. This is no time to be considering
your alternatives.

Perhaps your vision is less grand. You turn on your camcorder
in a room full of tenth-reunion college chums and realize that
you have no idea what you should shoot.

Whether you’re a professional working against a fast-running
meter or you make video for fun, everything goes a lot easier
when you figure out what you’re going to do ahead of time. The
two best tools for this are the script and the storyboard.
It’s true, some people can make videos with only a few notes written
on the back of an envelope; but the more detail you have, the
faster and easier production will go.

There are good reasons why successful videographers use these
tools. First, they help you to organize and clarify your thoughts.
Then they allow you to transmit your ideas to the other people
who will be involved with the production. If you’re going to edit
in-camera, you’ll know exactly what to shoot and how much. Finally,
when you’re on the set and everybody is looking at you, it allows
you to take charge and look good.

A good script describes everything that the viewer will see and
hear in the order it will be seen and heard. A script consists
of words; videos consist of pictures. To visualize what they will
shoot, many people use a storyboard. A storyboard consists of
a picture that shows what the camera will see along with words
that describe the shot.

Types of Scripts

The script is the primary document that the videographer uses
to create all the video and audio raw material and keep it organized.
This last point is important, since it is sometimes not possible
to shoot a video in the order in which the viewer will see it.
For instance, it is easier to shoot everything that takes place
in one location at the same time. You then put all the shots in
their proper sequence when you edit–again, using the script to
help you keep everything straight.

For our purposes, we can break videos down into two general categories:
dramatic and informational. The purposes and techniques of each
are different, and so are the script formats that have developed
for them. See the accompanying sample scripts for a look at how
these simple rules can help you create effective documents.

The Dramatic Video

Dramatic videos are stories told by action and dialog for the
audience’s entertainment, such as feature films and television
shows. The film format script is preferred in Hollywood
for dramatic film and television productions. In this format,
the writer sets the location of each scene, describes the actions
and interactions that take place, and writes out the dialog. This
kind of script does not indicate individual camera shots or moves.
The basic format is as follows:

  • Type scene descriptions, camera directions, stage directions,
    etc. from margin to margin.
  • Place dialog and narration in a three-inch wide column down
    the center of the page.
  • Type the name of the speaker in all-caps and center it just
    above his or her speech. Place delivery instructions in parentheses,
    on a separate line, and indented within the column of the speech.
  • Single-space material such as: dialog, scene descriptions,
    camera directions and stage directions.
  • Separate blocks of material with a blank line between. For
    example, separate:
  • Lines by different characters.
  • Dialog and scene descriptions or stage directions.
  • Location information and scene descriptions.
  • Adjacent shot descriptions.
  • Transitions (such as "DISSOLVE TO").
  • Type everything in upper and lower case except the following,
    which are all-caps:
  • Transitions.
  • Location descriptions.
  • Camera directions.
  • Character’s names (when indicating their lines and the first
    time they appear in scene descriptions).

The Informational Video

Documentaries and other informational videos, such as the college
reunion memorial, consist of scenes that may or may not include
actors. Such shows usually have little or no dialog and often
have a voice-over narration. The camcorder documentarian frequently
performs double duty as the narrator. The two-column video
script serves the informational video production.
The left (video) column contains descriptions of the shots and
the right (audio) column contains the words spoken by actors or
narrator as well as descriptions of music and sound effects.

While you can use it for dramatic material, this format is especially
well adapted for videos and television shows that consist of a
variety of shots with narration overlaid. It’s easy to see the
relationship of words and pictures; the words come at the same
time that you see the pictures that are immediately to their left.
Create this format as follows:

  • Place video descriptions in the left column, single-spaced.
  • Place accompanying audio descriptions in the right column,
  • Type video descriptions and spoken lines in upper- and lower-case.
  • Type the following in all-caps:
  • Location descriptions.
  • Transitions.
  • Camera directions (i.e., PAN, ZOOM).
  • Music and sound effects.
  • Type the speaker identification in all-caps and underline.
    Place directions for delivery in parentheses.

There is one other script format that you may want to consider.
The corporate teleplay format combines elements of the
two preceding formats. Most of the script is written in film format,
but any off-screen narration goes into a narrow column on the
right side of the page.


To visualize scenes, you might consider making a storyboard in
which a drawing of the expected visual represents each shot. Written
remarks amplify the drawings: dialog or narration, camera moves
and so forth. The storyboard helps make it cheaper
and easier to solve your visual problems on paper before you ever
break out the camera.

Some storyboards are works of art in themselves, with beautiful
watercolor or computer-art pictures. But this is not necessary
(unless you have an ample budget or budding artist in the family).
Simple sketches with stick figures or nose-on-an-egg faces are
fine. Feel free to include arrows to indicate movement. A long
pan may consist of two pictures, showing the beginning and end
of the pan, with an arrow connecting them, showing the direction
of the pan.

Since each shot requires one or more drawings, you don’t usually
see storyboards for long projects. They are common in the development
of high-end commercials but are too time-consuming and expensive
for lengthy productions. However, you might want to use a few
storyboard scenes to work out something that is difficult to envision
or to explain to another crew member.

The time you spend creating a script or a storyboard is recaptured
when you’re under the pressure of shooting. You have already solved
your creative problems and can concentrate on technical details.
So next time you’re on the set or at an event and everybody is
looking to you to tell them what will happen next, you can whip
out your trusty script or storyboard and take charge.

Gene Bjerke is a professional scriptwriter and author of the
Writing for Video


Writing Video Scripts on Your Computer

There are many computer programs that can ease your scriptwriting
chores. These range from about $150 to $900 and have a variety
of features. See the March, 1997, issue of Videomaker for
a comparison.

But for basic scriptwriting in either film or video format, a
good word processor will do the job if you know how to go about
it. For example:

  • Film format scripts. If you have a basic familiarity with
    your word processor, you should be able to create film format
    scripts with no trouble. You will quickly be able to create a
    handful of macros or styles (depending on your word processor)
    that will speed the process considerably.
  • Video format scripts. Writing scripts in two columns and
    keeping everything together is a bit trickier, but you can do
    it. Just follow these guidelines:
  • WordPerfect. The secret to writing video scripts in
    WordPerfect is to use its Parallel Columns with Block Protect
    feature. This keeps the video and its associated audio together
    through any number of changes and edits. Just make sure that you
    place only one shot and its accompanying audio in each block.
    You can even create simple macros to automate the formatting as
    you change from one column to the other.
  • Microsoft Word for Windows. Writing video scripts in
    Word is easy if you use the Table feature. Create a table
    that consists of one row and two columns. You can set the spacing
    for the Video column to single-space and the Audio column to double-space.
    Then start writing.

To move from the Video column to the Audio column, just hit [Tab].
When you have written the accompanying audio, hit [Tab] again
and the program adds a new row beneath the first one. Continue
like this to the end of the script. Put just one shot and its
audio segment in each row.

In either of these programs, you can add automatic scene numbering
if you wish. Check your manual for details. In Word, make sure
you set it up to insert only one number per row.

With a little practice, you can be knocking out scripts with
either of these common programs as easily as writing a letter

Breakhead Sidebar:

Script Abbreviations

  • BG Background
  • CU Closeup
  • ECU Extreme closeup
  • EXT Exterior scene
  • type=box>FG Foreground
  • FS Follow shot (pan)
  • >INT Interior scene
  • LS Long shot
  • MCU Medium closeup
  • SFX Sound effects

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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