Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Maybe, but your video image alone may not convey your ideas in as much depth as you would like.

Enter the narrator. The right words, effectively read, will round out your production in ways you may not have believed possible. But before James Earl Goldenthroat can work his magic, he needs a script. And as videomaker, it’s your job to provide it. (Narrators seldom show up with their own.)

If you’ve never done it before, scriptwriting might seem like a daunting task. But by the time you ve finished with this article, you will be well on your way to writing effective narration.

The Purpose

Before we can pen a good script, we need to know the purpose of video narration. Good narration, or voice over (VO) as the pros often call it, will guide your viewers into seeing important features of your video and help them understand the action.

Narration can introduce the image. It can serve as the verbal equivalent of an establishing shot. For example, the narrator says, “April in the Bahamas is the perfect setting for treasure hunter Davy Jones to ply his trade,” while we see an image of Jones and his crew anchored several miles offshore, preparing for a dive.

The speaker continues: “The sixteenth century Spanish galleons that perished in these waters carried untold treasure. But divers have located only a fraction of it. Davy Jones is sure that persistence and modern technology will make him successful where others have failed.” This additional bit of narration supplies background information to bring things into focus. The narrator can go into more depth than the video image can. Sometimes, why an event is happening is as interesting as the event itself.

We can use VO to clarify details that are not immediately obvious to the viewer. If we see a shot of a crew member peering through binoculars at the horizon, the narrator might say, “Sven keeps a sharp lookout for intruders. Even today, modern pirates lurk in these waters.” The picture shows us what Sven is doing; the narrator tells us why.

The announcer also can draw attention to specific details in a complex picture. Our treasure hunters examine the results of their early dives; the narrator says, “Elated by their discoveries, the crew sets out to identify each piece. Davy is especially interested in the coral-encrusted cross. Could this be the legendary Cross of Isabella? If it is, it could be the find of a lifetime.”

Narration can foreshadow coming events. “Davy and Emily only have a few more minutes before they must return to the surface,” warns the narrator. “As they brush the sand from around the old cannon, they’re about to unearth the most startling discovery of the expedition.” Here, the announcer is warning the audience to watch for an upcoming event. In effect, he is telling the viewer, “Pay attention. You don’t want to miss this.”

Finally, the narrator can deliver a summary or an epilogue to give a rounded edge to the final images.

Now that we know what VO can do for us, let’s examine the basic elements of good narration.

Hook ‘Em

First, we must capture the audience. The hook, as it is called, should grab the viewers and convince them to stick around for the rest of the show. Of course, an exciting picture can capture your audience, but even the most tranquil image can become compelling with the right narration.

Picture a sleepy tropical lagoon, a sandy beach and palm trees swaying in the breeze. Not much to grab the audience here (unless it’s February in Caribou, Maine). Then the narrator says, “This scene looks peaceful now, but four hundred years ago, it was a bloody battleground for two rival pirates. Many people still believe priceless treasures remain buried here.”

Most of us enjoy a good adventure. And who hasn’t dreamed of discovering a chest of Captain Kidd’s treasure? The hook is one of writing’s most common devices. You’ll see it in everything from detective novels to newspaper stories to junk mail advertising. Why? Because it works. By the same token, you can use it in almost any video you can imagine, whether it’s a documentary about bush pilots in northern Maine or a training video about filling out the IRS 1040 form.

You just need to play upon something compelling about the subject. In the bush pilot video, the narrator could point out the dangers of flying a small airplane through wild country far from civilization.

Hooking someone on the tax form video might be a bit more challenging. Perhaps your announcer could say, “What you’ll learn in this video course will prevent you from making costly tax filing errors. No one enjoys an IRS audit. We’ll show you how to avoid it.” Fear is a wonderful motivator.

Write Tight

Now that you have your audience’s attention, how do you keep it? (Electric current running through the seat cushions is not an option.) An interesting subject helps. But poor narration can turn even a fascinating topic into a yawner. Proper balance and good pacing will go a long way toward holding your viewers interest.

It’s important to maintain the right balance between narration and image. You must know when to speak and when to keep quiet. Follow this simple rule of thumb: as much as possible, let the picture carry the action. The shot of three-year-old John Kennedy saluting his father’s funeral caisson needed no elaboration.

When the narrator does speak, make every word count. Try to think of the narrator as a news reporter. And, as we all learned in school, a good news story tells us who, what, when, where and why. Be sure that anything the narrator says addresses one or more of those questions. Anything else is probably unnecessary. And try to avoid wall-to-wall chatter. It’s distracting and annoying.

Sometimes, though, a great amount of narration is appropriate, especially in historical documentaries where the VO supplies many facts, and in training videos where the narrator acts as an instructor. It s still possible, however, to keep your VO from becoming a droning monologue.

One way is to break up the narration into discrete ideas, using short words and sentences which are easier for the audience to hear and understand. Not that your viewers are simpletons, but you should make it easy for them to glean the maximum amount of information from your video with a minimum of effort.

Don’t be afraid of silence. It’s a good idea to pause between thoughts and let the picture fill the gaps. This is one major difference between VO and other types of writing. If you were writing a book or a magazine article, your prose would bear the burden of providing descriptions of action and locale. In a video, the image supplies the audience with graphic input, while words augment the experience with background, depth and insight. Discipline yourself to insert narration only when it adds value to your production. Needless babble will detract from your work.

One way to add variety to your work is to use what I’ll call unintentional narration. To explain what this is, let s look at an example: in an interview for a documentary, an expert is delivering an answer to the interviewer s question. While he s responding, the video cuts to an illustration of what he s talking about. He didn’t intend this to be VO when he recorded it, but through the magic of editing, he becomes a narrator.

This technique provides a refreshing break from the sameness of the “official” narrator’s voice. It adds a stamp of validity to the work by showcasing one or more experts. And you can use it as a highly effective transition between scenes.


The Right Time

Another important difference between scripts and other writing forms is the attention you must pay to timing. Timing issues are present in every phase of the process.

Very often, your overall production must fit into a predetermined time frame. This might be several hours for a documentary, thirty minutes for a training video or as short as fifteen to thirty seconds for a TV commercial. In these situations, you must time the dialogue so it matches the video. Let’s examine how to do this.

First, when should the narration begin? Wait at least four or five seconds into each scene before beginning the VO. This gives the audience a chance to get its bearings. It also gives you some elbow room when it s time to edit.

When scripting actual narration, try to end your VO a bit short of the time limit. A good narrator can always stretch out the part, if necessary. It’s much more difficult for the editor to cut narration that runs long.

This brings up the problem of determining how long the narration will run. Of course, you can’t be precise (another reason why you should cut yourself a little slack), but at a normal speaking rate, the following approximations apply:

  • 20 words = 10 seconds;
  • 45 words = 20 seconds;
  • 65 words = 30 seconds;
  • 130 words = 60 seconds.

Of course, if you’re scripting a commercial where the actor speaks at a breakneck pace (remember the old Fedex ad?), you’ll need to adjust these times. In these situations, it’s best to rehearse the speaker with a stopwatch.

Finally, give your viewer a breather by planning an additional four or five second cushion at the end of the scene.

Sounds Good

The most crucial difference between writing narration and writing for a print medium is that a script is meant to be read aloud and heard. Choose your words carefully, not only for meaning and rhythm, but also for how they sound.

You want your narrator to sound as good as possible, so try not to throw a lot of long words and tongue twisters at him or her. And keep your sentences short. Even VO artists have to breathe once in a while.

It helps to read your script aloud to someone or dictate into a tape recorder. This way, you can hear what the audience will hear, and you can test the script’s readability and timing.

Shoot for sentences that don’t ramble. Choose language that the narrator can read in a natural, conversational style. You’re not writing a doctoral dissertation. Use contractions liberally. This is how most people speak. Pick words that flow easily from one to the next.

Test for word combinations that promote slurring and change them. Avoid phrases that require the narrator’s tongue to have the agility of an Olympic gymnast. Remember, if you’re having trouble making the words flow naturally, chances are your VO artist will too. True, he may be a pro, but the easier you make his job, the better the reading will be.

Formats

Now let’s consider the mechanics of putting your ideas down on paper. While there are several variations, there are two basic video script formats.

The first divides the page into two columns. The left hand column contains a description of the video action. Text is single-spaced, upper-lower case. The VO appears in the right-hand column. You or your director might want to make notes or write additional instructions, so the text is double-spaced.

Corresponding numbers placed to the left of each column coordinate specific video footage with its audio counterpart.

At the bottom of each page are two numbers. They’re actually two time codes expressed as a fraction, one above the other. The upper number indicates the elapsed time for that page. The lower shows the total time up to that point in the script.

This format is commonly used for training videos, brief documentaries and other short productions.

The second format uses only one column with alternating descriptions of video and audio. Depending on the application, the column may run from margin to margin, or it may be skewed to the right side of the page, leaving the left side blank. A teleplay script, for example, might be arranged this way to give the director room for notes and changes.

Video descriptions, sound effects and directions are all upper-case and single spaced. Dialogue is double spaced in upper-lower case.

Many directors prefer the single column format because it provides more room for notations.

A variation is to use a storyboard, where sketches of the action replace much of the video description. You can run the sketches left to right across the page with the corresponding VO under each drawing. Or you can set up two columns with the sketches on the left and the VO on the right. This method is common in TV commercials and other short videos. However, it s becoming increasingly popular in feature-length movies, especially for scripting special effects.

In any format, the script not only tells the narrator what to say, but how to say it. Type the instructions in upper-case, in parentheses and underlined, such as (PAUSE) or (LAUGHING). To emphasize a word in a script, underline it.


Give it a Try

Now it’s time to test your wings. If you’re new to scriptwriting, begin with a simple project. The “How-to” or training video is a good starter. Food preparation and simple household repairs are possible topics. Keep it to 30 minutes or less.

For a more challenging exercise, write a documentary script showcasing someone with an interesting hobby or occupation. Include sequences of the subject speaking both on and off camera. (OC) after the speaker’s name indicates that the speaker is on camera. (VO) indicates a voice over or off-camera speaker (e.g., FRED (OC) or ANNOUNCER (VO)).

Now for the real test. Write a 60-second TV ad promoting anything you like. Use a storyboard. If you have a flair for comedy, use it, but remember to keep the pace brisk. You only have a minute, so sell, sell, sell.

With some practice, you’ll be going after those corporate training and marketing scripts. And maybe even National Geographic will be hearing footsteps. They could be yours.


[Sidebar: Scriptwriting Software]

If you’d rather spend your time creating than worrying about script formats and page layouts, several script formatting programs are available. Here are a few.

  • Scriptware: Cinovation, Inc., MS-DOS/Windows, $300.

    Scriptware is very flexible. It automatically creates industry-standard formats for audio-visual, documentary, commercial or screenplay scripts. It has its own word processor and thesaurus.
  • SideBySide: Simon Skill Systems, Mac/Windows, $80.

    SideBySide uses Microsoft Word to develop multi-column scripts for commercials, documentaries, audio-visuals and presentations. It provides a word count and even calculates reading time.
  • Scriptwriting Tools: Morley and Associates, Mac, $80.

    Scriptwriting Tools uses Microsoft Word to produce a wide variety of script formats, including storyboards.

Script formatting software can rescue you from a world of frustration. It will give you more time to do what you really do: make videos.

–J.G.

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