Even the best videomakers often balk at writing scripts.

Take my friend Mike Axelrod. A computer programmer since graduating from college, Mike recently quit work to return to school.

As a film buff who’s created a few videos with friends, he decided to combine his two interests and major in computer animation. He signed up for a required screenwriting course and experienced no difficulty in writing individual scenes three to five pages long.

Then he learned the second half of the course required completion of a screenplay for a fifteen-minute film, fifteen to twenty pages in length. The news left him pale.


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“Fifteen to twenty pages! I’ll never write something that long,” he howled. “I’m not a writer!”

Well, maybe not. But good video begins with good writing. In this piece I hope to show how even non-writers like Mike can put together a serviceable screenplay.

Videomakers as Storytellers

Some people think writing is a talent reserved for those lucky enough to be born with it. This is not necessarily so. Writers who seem to have come from the womb pen in hand are the exception, not the rule. Most have to work at it

In many ways, writers are no different than videomakers. Both are people trying to communicate specific information, a story, a particular point of view.

When you pick up that camcorder and press the little red button, you start to tell a story. Whether you’re shooting the science fiction epic of your dreams, documenting a wedding for the 300th time or producing a thirty-second public service announcement for the local Red Cross, you’re still telling a story.

So before you begin you should first consider what message you are trying to convey, and to what sort don’t know what you’re trying to say or whom you’re trying to reach, you’ll have a hard time getting your message across.

You may begin with the goal of writing a screenplay for an introductory videotape on washing machine maintenance; suddenly you find yourself showing the viewer how to make a washing machine from scratch. Or you write something for an experienced group of professionals, then find yourself explaining the basics.

In fiction, the routine Hollywood script features an easily identifiable protagonist, the hero; and an equally transparent antagonist, the villain. The hero confronts a problem and spends much of the film working toward a solution. The antagonist seeks to block this progress. Along the way the hero inevitably undergoes a change in character.

Some films slightly alter this formula. Director Barry Levinson has said his Rain Man was a real challenge because the protagonist of the story, the autistic Raymond, by definition couldn’t experience a change in character. It’s his brother who must change.

Outline And Outpouring

For some people, outlining is extremely beneficial. Others find it gets in the way of the actual writing, another little task aiding and abetting procrastination.

Some projects are more conducive to outlining than others. The larger the project, the more likely it will benefit from some pre-scribble structuring.

Beginners should definitely outline. It helps you understand where the story’s heading. Does outlining mean the formal, Roman numeral structuring they taught you in elementary school? No. Think of it as simply jotting down a temporary table of contents.

Once that’s complete, you’re ready to start writing.

As a videomaker, you try to avoid situations where you must edit in-camera. You know the more footage you shoot, the more you repeat shots and obtain different angles, the more you’ll have to work with during editing.

It’s not unusual to read about professional film directors with raw footage ratios of 20 to 1.

As a writer, you should give yourself the same freedom. Begin by throwing anything and everything down on paper. This isn’t always easy to do. But if you criticize every sentence as you write it, you may not finish the first paragraph. Let it all out first; you can edit and revise later.

Show, Don’t Tell

Writing for video is different from other types of writing in two important ways:

1) The lengthy description and dialogue that distinguish some writing is notably absent here. When writing for video, you need to show things, not talk about them. So skip those long passages of narration.

Instead, use different camera angles and shots of the same scene to highlight the features of the landscape you wish to emphasize. Don’t use long sections of dialogue to explain anything. Show it.

2) Screenplays happen in the here and now. They describe the action as the viewer will see it unrolling across the screen. Use active voice and present tense.

For example, write.. John looks into the mirror, then does a doubletake. There’s a second head growing out of his neck. He screams in terror and blacks out…

Don’t write… John looked in the mirror, then did a doubletake. He saw a second head growing out of his neck. He screamed in tenor and blacked out…

Or… we see our John look into the mirror and do a doubletake. His reflection shows a second head growing out of his neck. We hear him scream and see him slump to the floor. He s blacked out….

Note: These examples are based on an actual film, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, in which the main character does indeed wakeup one morning to find a second head growing out from the side of his neck.

As they say in Hollywood, you can make a movie about darn near anything.

Relevant Questions

As your script nears completion, ask yourself the following important questions:

Does every single scene in the script a) advance the action and/or b) develop the character?

Do all scenes, dialogue and narration serve a legitimate purpose?

Does the third scene featuring John arguing with his new head show us anything new about them, or did you just like the dialogue?

If you’ve shown the viewer how to remove the left front tire of a ’58 Thunderbird, do you really need to show removal of the right front?

Where else can you cut?

Where should you expand?

Remember: you want your dialogue or narration to sound natural. That’s a hard one. A good way to check your writing for a natural feel is to put it away for a few days, then reread it. Does it still sound right?

Read it aloud. Do you stumble, fumble, fall? Then your actors or narrators will as well.

Finally, ask a few trustworthy and literate friends to read your work with a kind and constructive critical eye.

You don’t have to take their advice, but you should at least consider it, especially when the same problem is identified by more than one critic.

Writing is rewriting. Put your ego aside and polish your work. Ouce you’re satisfied that it’s as good as you can make it, it’s probably ready to go.

Script Requirements

It’s not enough to write a good script, you also have to format it according to screenwriting conventions.

There are two main scriptwriting formats.

Fictional scripts, or scripts with a lot of dialogue, use a format that evolved from the theater.

Documentaries, industrials and other productions which match narration to the visuals typically use a split page or two-column format.

There are a number of variations within these two categories, but all will fall under one type or another.

In the theatrical format, scenes are numbered; it’s best not to number your scenes until you complete your final draft. Manually renumbering scenes can grow tiresome.

Number the pages in the upper right hand corner.

When a scene crosses over from one page one to the next, place the notation -continued- at the bottom right corner of the first page.

Mark the top of the second page with the scene number and a -continued- notation.

It’s important the finished screenplay follow the general visual format, allowing for simple identification of scene location, direction and dialogue.

For example, the first time Dan’s name appeared in the script his name was capitalized. The second time it wasn’t.

This makes it easy for the reader to keep track of new characters. When indicating dialogue, character names always appear in caps.

Technically, each time the camera moves it inaugurates a new scene; we have three scenes now, rather than just the one.

Some screenwriters also capitalize all audio cues-TYPING, TICKING-for easy identification.

With documentary and industrial video, you are frequently more interested in matching certain visual information with spoken work audio.

That’s why it’s easier to format this type of script into two columns.

The description of the visual information goes in the left column and the audio information goes on the right.

As with the dramatic screenplay, these types of formats vary slightly from script to script.

In some, a thin third column to the left indicates shot numbers. Other variations use an abbreviation for the shot as part of the description.

Its a Wrap

Yes, learning to write can pose a challenge, but take a look at Mike.

He gritted his teeth, put his stuff down on paper, and found he actually enjoyed himself

The fifteen-minute film he was assigned to write turned into three five- minute sections for a feature film script he vows someday to complete.

Scored himself an “A” in the course.

Most important, he engaged in work he felt good about, and gained a new perspective on his capabilities.

Now it’s your turn.

Stephen Jacobs, a Videomaker contributing editor, teaches English and data processing.

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


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