A scriptwriter is like an architect, using talent and skill to produce a blueprint for a finished product.
A good scriptwriter can think broadly and imaginatively and still not lose sight ofthe tiniest detail. Few people are born scriptwriters. Yet the craft can be learned with a little study and sufficient application.
The first qualification for a scriptwriter is an understanding of the video medium. Know what you can and cannot do. In these days of cornputer-generated special effects, there really isnt much you cant do; but theres a lot you shouldnt do if you want to come in on time and under budget.
When writing a science fiction novel I find it easy to destroy a star system. When writing a script, however, I think twice before considering such a budget-busting cataclysm.
A scriptwriter must know the language of video, understand the purpose and effect of various shots. Actually working with a camcorder to attain this knowledge is superior to merely watching films or reading scripts.
You must also learn the language of scriptwriting. A script is prepared in one of several specialized formats. You should know them all, and be able to choose the format most appropriate to your project.
Finally, a scriptwriter must be a consummate team player. In this medium, the written word is subject to constant and massive change, and the writer, alas, is not God.
Show Not Tell
Video is a medium for showing, not telling. If you can substitute action for dialogue, do it. On video, a one-minute ramble seems endless. Keep your speeches and voiceovers as brief as possible.
Video is an action medium. Things that move are more interesting than things that stand still. “Talking heads”-bodies sitting blabbing-are deadly. If you must use a lot of talk, liven it up by running scenes of action beneath the wordy voiceover.
Split the slow and static sections of your script into short scenes and intersperse them with more active moments. This will pick up the pace and keep the audience awake.
Dont show everything. Leave a little something to the imagination. Weve been conditioned by generations of TV shows and movies to fill in the gaps ourselves. This is why a TV commercial can present an entire romantic playlet in 30 seconds and still sell the sponsors product.
Action can be implied. A famous example is the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho. We think we see a naked Janet Leigh stabbed repeatedly; in fact, we see very little. But thanks to Hitchcocks masterful imagery and editing, we think weve seen everything.
This is a useful technique with material too strong for the audience or too costly to shoot. Or where youve missed an important shot.
Ideally, each bit of tape is carefully composed to heighten a desired effect. Every frame is deliberate. Everything youre meant to see is on the screen; nothing is superfluous.
If you are going to work on a major production that ideal may be achieved. There will be time and money enough to approach perfection.
In more mundane circumstances youll have to compromise. Things wont be perfect. Accept it.
Video is a “hot,” emotionally involving medium. Use that fact to your advantage. Threepages ofstatistics on hunger wont have the impact of a single shot of a homeless mother rooting through a dumpster.
Video, like movies, tends to exaggerate emotions. Acting for video must run to underacting to avoid portraying pathos as bathos. As a scriptwriter you need to understand when to zero in on someone to build emotional impact, and when to pull back.
Consider Laurence Oliviers Henry V. This film contains the St. Crispins Day speech, which starts out slow and builds to a thunderous climax. Its one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English theater, but on film it tends to overwhelm.
Oliviers solution was to begin shooting in closeup, pulling back as the speech intensified. By the end, the camera shows Henry standing on a cart amidst a sea of cheering men. Distance makes the words grow stronger.
Plan on a Plan
Planning is one of the most important and neglected facets of scriptwriting. Everybody wants to just sit down at the ol typewriter and start ripping out scenes, or grab a camera and go shooting.
Resist the temptation. Decide what youre shooting and why. Even a TV news crew racing to the scene of disaster will spend a few seconds working out how and what theyll shoot.
Planning applies even to a babys birthday video. Why youre shooting will have an effect on what you shoot.
If you intend to send the tape to Grandma youll want to concentrate on the birthday babe. The event would be taped from the childs viewpoint, with loving attention directed to the opening of Grandmas gift.
If the tape is meant for the family album, youll include more ofthe surroundings, the guests, the parents.
For a professional project your planning will be more elaborate. It will start with meetings with the client and director to bash out purpose and tone, length and budget. Ideas will be kicked and flogged until a rough approach begins to emerge.
The next step is yours: producing a “treatment” for perusal and approval. This script outline, broken down into acts and scenes, lets everyone see where the scripts headed before the writer begins the actual laborious work.
Act I, Scene 1
Treatment approved, its time for acts and scenes.
Acts are major divisions, used only in movie and TV scripts. Scenes are basic dramatic units, like sentences in a paragraph.
A script must be a unified whole, whether commercial, industrial video, LA Law, or Godfather III. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It builds to a satisfying climax. All parts work together to achieve the desired effect.
When using acts, each act must build to a climax. Each climax must be progressively more intense until the final, shuddering climax ending the show.
Many writers start taking notes at this point, breaking the flow into scenes, creating a storyboard to track what goes where. Others simply make a list of proposed scenes. Either way, your first job is to establish order.
Each scene must contribute to the overall story. If a scene cant be justified, yank it, no matter how clever and wondrous it may be.
A scene typically starts with an establishing shot, followed by the action. In dramatic or comedy scriptwriting the usual sequence is establishing shot, scene action, and finish. This last is often a reaction shot-someone reacting to the preceding events.
In especially dramatic scenes the closing shot can be an inanimate object-such as a spinning bicycle wheel after a young mans been hit by a car.
At this point you neednt know evsuberything about a scene, but you should know what it means and where it fits.
Details come next, in the actual writing.
As a scriptwriter you need to “see” every scene. You must have a clear idea of not just what will happen but how it should look. The director will of course have an alternate vision, the one which most often prevails.
One writer advises leaving out camera directions, because, he says, it may offend the director. I disagree, at least in the beginning. Visualizing scenes and choosing camera angles and depths is good practice.
Besides, I really cant write a scene without seeing the whole thing in my head. As long as its there, I may as well put it down.
Script formats are strict and unforgiving. A professional script-especially one for sale-must follow the appropriate format exactly.
There are perhaps a dozen different formats used in production work, but unless you tackle something like ani- mation you need know but one or two.
The most common is the full-page format used for movies, TV productions, and many industrial videos.
The act number appears at the top of the first page of the act and the scenes are numbered in the upper left corner. Camera and scene directions are in all capitals; dialogue and action in upper/lower case under the actors name, which is all caps and centered.
There are extremely wide margins. Dialogue runs from space 30 to 68, directions from 20 to 75, leaving lots of space for the inevitable annotations and revisions.
The version used in live television has double-spaced text and extra-wide margins so changes can be penciled in when there isnt time to create new pages. Live-action scripts for variety shows have copy offset to the right, so the page can be fed through a teleprompter.
The double column or side-by-side format is used for works where matching picture with sound is especially important-like commercials or slide shows. Its also handy for small video productions where pictures are valued over dialogue and you wish to give quite specific camera directions.
In the two-column format the video instructions are in all caps on the left, the audio on the right. Dialogue is in upper/lower. The dialogue is matched to the shot by placement on the same line. This gives precise control over video/audio match, especially useful for voiceovers.
on a large project like a feature film or network commercial you must follow the format exactly. It exists to make it perfectly clear to your fellow professionals just whats happening.
On a smaller production, format rigidity is less important. Still, its a good idea to learn the right format and stick to it.
There are two rules to remember in planning a scene: Dont write yourself into a corner, and keep it simple.
While writing, ask yourself, “How easy is this to shoot?””Can I make it easier to shoot?” And, most important, “What can go wrong?”
Keep your shots short. Remember that the difficulty in getting a good take increases four times as fast as the length of the shot. A 10-second shot poses few problems; a three-minute shot could take a day-or a week. The shot becomes even more difficult if it involves camera or actor movement.
Beware of tricky lighting or contorted camera angles. A scene specifying a dawn shoot will take days because of the limited time available.
Any production involving machinery, animals, or children should be considered a nightmare until the principals prove otherwise.
The stupidest things can and will go wrong. While filming a segment for a company news show I had to capture an establishing shot on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Since we wanted a wilderness effect, I found a spot on the rim away from the main lookout points, one with a spectacular backdrop.
I wasnt the only one who thought it spectacular. So did the sightseeing planes. Four times I tried to read my drop.
I wasnt the only one who thought it spectacular. So did the sightseeing planes. Four times I tried to read my script and four times we were drowned out by the roar of the planes. Finally we gave up and did most of the sequence as a voiceover recorded in the studio.
Keep in mind that real people are going to have to do and say what youve written, and that what takes seconds to pass on the screen can take weeks or months to film.
Say your script calls for a car crash and rollover. In the next shot the actors exchange lines of snappy dialogue while hanging from their seat belts. Unless the director and camera operator are magical beings, those actors will have to hang for hours while the scene is shot. They will not be your friends.
Remember Mr. Spocks Star Trek ears? Nice bit, huh? Leonard Nimoy underwent two hours a day in makeup on the ears alone.
Obviously, sometimes you must be tricky. After all, what would Spock be without his ears? And maybe those actors deserve to hang. Just be aware of potential problems and dont create them without very good reason.
Learning to Write Good
In scriptwriting theres no substitute for knowing what youre doing-not even raw talent.
If you just want to shoot successful wedding videos all you need learn are some basics, enough to break an event into scenes and arrange them for dramatic effect. If you wish to write for network television you best learn everything you possibly can.
Begin by reading. Many libraries offer literature on the subject of scriptwriting; other sources are available in bookstores. Explore other elements of video production as well.
Experience teaches best. Writing scripts and having them shot will teach you more about the process than all the books ever written.
Observation is second best. Thats why film students avidly collect scripts and watch movies over and over and over.
Tape television programs and watch them with the sound off. Examine how shots are set up, how long theyre held, how camera angles are used, how the story is told though pictures. With a stopwatch, time each scene and scene segment. See how long establishing and reaction shots are held.
Right Is Wrong
Video production is a world of compromise. Just because you know youre right doesnt make you right. Learn to win a few, lose a few. Be a part of the team.
I learned this very early. Back when I was still in college, a local high school kid showed me the script for a movie he was filming. It was pretty good for a 15-year-old, but there were a few serious problems I helpfully corrected.
He was livid. The revisions would not do, he said. I knew I was right. Making the changes would make it a better picture, I told him. I went over the film scene by scene, patiently trying to show him the light.
He was adamant. He would and did shoot the movie his way.
I didnt see him much after that, but I hear he eventually entered the industry and made quite a name for himself.
His name is Steven Spielberg.
Rick Cook writes science fiction novels for fun and computer-related magazine articles for money. In his free time he enjoys animation and videomaking.