Script Writing 101: Tips on How to Get Started Writing for Video
A blank page is to a script writer what a blank canvas is to an artist.
Each key stroke might compare to a brush stroke. Like a painter who pulls from his imagination, you might draft a script drawn from what you already have in mind before you ever head out into the field to shoot and grab the elements.
The downside to that approach is you run the risk of tunnel vision – keeping your eyes peeled for only those “scripted scenes” and overlooking more natural, fun moments you never could have anticipated.
Whatever your strategy, creativity starts with writing. The last thing you want to leave your viewer with is a video so dull it’s like watching paint dry.
Formatting: Divide Your Script
Generally, a simple video script is divided into two columns: the left side for video, the right side for audio.On the left side, you also create notes for the editor. This will include shot selection, text that should appear on screen, and special effect instructions or transitions.The right side is where your script appears. It includes everything that your voice-over talent will eventually record into a microphone.
The more detailed and precise your script, the better for everyone involved. See the first part of a sample script below:
Identify a Likable Character and Open with a Good Lead
Give your audience someone with whom they might identify. The character should be likable. Let your imagination run wild here. Your character doesn’t have to be a person.
In a world where viewers can skip your video after the first five-seconds, you want to make sure you snag their attention. Talk to your shooter (or if you shot it yourself, think back). What was the most visually-appealing shot the crew gathered? What about sound? Did one of your interviews provide a soundbite so profound it made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end? Use it!
Write to Your Soundbites, Touch Your Video and Let It Go
You interviewed people for a reason. Choose the best soundbites, much as you would quotes for a print article, and write around those selections.
A quick word of caution: I suggest you limit the soundbite to eight seconds. Recall that attention spans are limited. It’s a good idea to keep your finished product short. Holding soundbites equally accountable will leave room for additional voices.
Writing for video is different than drafting a piece of content. You don’t have to describe every last piece of footage. Instead, let a shot establish a scene. Use your words to describe it. Then let your video breathe and allow your viewers time to take in the rich images. Your narration should help advance the story while your video maintains the overall storyline.
Don’t Drown Your Audio
At times, silence is golden. Otherwise, if we’re talking about something, we generally like to hear it. Music can help drive a piece, but to blare it at the expense of your natural sound does the story no justice. Also, I suggest people shy away from taking one music track and laying it throughout the entire video. Instead, break it up. Cue music where you need it. Kill it where you don’t.
For example, yours truly produced a radio script a few years ago when Meow Mix released a new version of its iconic cat food jingle. We didn’t have access to the soundtrack until I asked the client to provide it. Had I not, the radio spot would have only featured my voice tossing to a soundbite. #Boring. Take a look at what we were able to produce instead and click here to listen to the audio:
Keep It Simple
You want to keep your words short, direct, and on-point. A sentence that contains 44 words is no longer a sentence. It has burgeoned into a paragraph.
As a general rule, I challenge folks to limit sentences in their scripts to no more than 15 words. That’s generous too. I worked in a newsroom where the executive producer banned sentences longer than 12 words.
Use an active voice as opposed to a passive voice. The best example is one we may all remember from the third grade. Instead of saying, “The ball was thrown by John,” you would say, “John threw the ball.”
Finally, don’t try to cram all of your messaging into a short video. Instead, use your call to action to entice your audience to learn more. That’s what we did for Match.com. Pasted below is the video (if it sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because you got a good look at the script pictured toward the beginning of this post):
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Wes Benter is a senior online community services specialist at ProfNet, a service that connects journalists with expert sources. He previously worked as a creative producer for PR Newswire’s MultiVu. Prior to that, Wes worked on-air as a reporter and weather anchor for network affiliates in the Midwest. Learn more by following him on Twitter @WBenter.