It was a dark and stormy night. The panicked scriptwriter stared blankly at his battered manual Royal, its hulking mute indifference a sort of physical torture, like needles in his thumbs, taunting, tormenting, an unforgettable reminder of the fast approaching deadline, of the Berlin Wall of writer’s block that refused to topple, wouldn’t be shattered, guarded relentlessly by mental soldiers who stopped every glimmery, shimmery idea from escaping to freedom, to his blank sheets, to silence the artless laughing demon screaming in his skull.
Informing, motivating, instructing, and enlightening. It’s challenging.
Scriptwriting begins the integration of the assorted techniques and crafts of videomaking-camera, sound, lighting, set design, graphics, editing.
Be it for a family reunion, an industrial training tape, or an investigation of schoolyard pollution, a script that’s overwritten, unclear, disorganized, or unfocused will yield videomaking with similar qualities-or worse.
For these reasons, a good scriptwriter is a strange hybrid, able to combine a thorough understanding of the process of videomaking with the skills of an effective writer.
In the Beginning
Working like a journalist, the scriptwriter begins with research. What’s the project? Who’s it for? What’s it about? What do I need to know? How do I find it out? Like a gatherer of herbs, the scriptwriter roves the fields assembling the necessary elements, knowing the properties of each.
The scriptwriter must understand the material in depth, and determine how best to translate and package it for audience consumption. The steps are three: Analyze. Simplify. Visualize.
Once material is assembled, analyzed, and simplified, it’s time to turn off the monkey and open the mind. Lie down, breathe deep, look inside, roll tape. What do you see? What seems most important? What struggles to stay in focus? What occurs, reoccurs?
Sit up. Remember. Write it down. Rank information-interviews, locations, characters, props, effects-in order of importance. Group according to video format.
Focus clearly on the beginning, middle, and end. From your outline write a treatment, or summary of the outline. This summary should provide a program description that gives a sense of color as well as content.
The structure of the video will depend on the subject and audience. Scenes shot at the alligator farm may be kept in sequence. Or you may choose to intercut hospital shots with the Moment of Truth.
Once you decide how to present your information, keep it simple. A straightforward script will streamline your production. Short, simple scripts are cost-effective, easy to shoot, and audience-effective.
Your subject and audience should tango like Fred and Ginger; he leads her around the dance floor with flawless four-four timing. Stopping to discuss the theory of dance or history of the tango would throw a pitcher of ice water on that romance.
Thirty seconds or 30 minutes: You’ll always have more information than your audience has time. So make each word, each frame, each scene count-and know when to shut up.
Respect the needs of your audience. People expect to be entertained as well as informed, and their attention span runs about 14.8 seconds.
Only by ruthlessly paring down information to its essence do you have a chance of capturing an audience and holding its attention. Impress people not with the quantity of your information but with the quality of your presentation.
Oh Say Can You See
Anyone can write circles, rectangles, and squares around Jackie Collins and Stephen King, but your video production might as well be just another trashy novel without good pictures.
Videomakers need to connect optically with the audience. Pictures, music, and sound will not only inform, they’ll shape feelings and attitudes. Baryshnikov glides through the Nutcracker Suite without a word but speaks volumes to Clara. Pacing, rhythm, and movement can sometimes tell the story better than dialogue or voiceover.
In many scripts you’ll be trying to breathe new life into boring, moribund concepts and facts. Images will help. Effective, startling images can take on a life of their own, transforming a tired treatment into a dynamic, organic creation.
Excitement and energy can be attained through the juxtaposition of shots and images, scene transitions, in the push and pull of the rising action.
He Said, She Said
Scriptwrifing demands more than a command of basic writing skills. Good grammar, an active voice, and sensitive ears are also required. Most scripts are concise, punchy, and specific. Sentence fragments have their place. Each word counts and must be chosen for both content and tone.
Jargon, cliches, buzzwords, and unnecessary technical language burden a script. “Read my lips”: Nothing dates a program more than yesterday’s catchphrase. Parallelism, symmetry, and in some cases repetition in some cases are successful structural devices.
A narrator can lend authority to presentations written for specific audiences. A narrator who brings a personality to your production is more believable than a faceless, disembodied voice.
The right narrator can lend credibility: While Freddie Krueger wouldn’t work in Masterpiece Theatre he’d be outstanding in a video about how to butcher a calf.
Cut and Save
As your scriptwritings come to life, committed to magnetic media, work closely with the video editor.
A good editor appreciates well written transitions and understands how a judicious explanation can save valuable minutes of screen time. Likewise, writers need to appreciate the power of a wordless montage, the utility of visual symbols, and the tools and craft of editing.
Be flexible and keep your sense of humor and you’ll survive the sometimes brutal rewrites inherent in post-production.
An accomplished screenwriter is able to “write to picture.” Language must sometimes conform to a particular pictorial order and importance. Writing must oft be made to measure. Careful honing and pruning usually turns the trick.
Elaine Dale is an Oklahoma-based screenwriter and novelist.