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Writing Scripts for a Living—How to Begin

The writing I contract the most is scriptwriting. I love the combination of writing with moving images and sound. Film and video expands what I am able to do on the page. Besides it’s fun to collaborate with a production team.

The challenge with writing scripts is that it requires a different approach than writing for the page. Sometimes formal grammar has to go out the window. This is writing for the ear, not the eye, which means you can get away with more. There are also challenges working with footage and designing a script that can be filmed in budget.

While this blog addresses writing scripts, the tips work for screenplays too, even though writing fiction for the screen is a bit more involved because the cameras do not roll until everything has been captured on the page. This is not always the case in scriptwriting.

When I write a script, I begin with a treatment, which is a detailed summary or outline of my approach for the film/video. It includes the style, tone and concept for the visuals and message. I do this to make sure I have understood what the client or director wants to see on the screen before I write the script. It guides me as I write.

Once I have an approved treatment, I move onto either a shooting script or a full script, depending on the project. If we are doing a documentary, I draft a shooting script with interview questions in place of soundbites. This helps the producer and director know what to capture the keep the story intact. The shooting script also lists all the shots I want and the B-roll needed to fill out the story.

In order to write a shooting script, I must have a clear story in mind and know what it will look like. This means research and a scouting trip. Some people include pre-interviews where they talk to everyone before the camera starts rolling. I don’t like to do this because I find it makes people less talkative on camera and because they tend to overthink their responses and try to memorize them, which only makes them look stiff and unnatural in the footage.

A shooting script is flexible. I always allow for diversions in the story because I never know exactly what people will say during an on-camera interview. Sometimes it takes me in a different direction. The challenge then is what to show to complement the new story angle that was not included in the shooting script. Sometimes I get lucky and there is footage available. Other times I have to get creative, because there is now way to include a voiceover when there’s nothing on the screen.

I write a full script when the director/client doesn’t want to take chances with interviews or if the piece is going to be narrated throughout. In those cases, I do my research, interviews, scouting trip and then turn that into a workable script the director/producer can take into the field. The script includes shots needed and directions, like exterior: night. If the project is personal, I jump in as a content producer on the project to protect the story aspects of the job. This means going into the field and conducting the interviews myself. This is my preferred method of writing.

When it comes to formatting the scripts, there are a few approaches. I use a combination depending on the project. For shorter video projects, I use the traditional three-column documentary format. Longer projects that use a film approach with a narrator, actors and multiple locations need a traditional screenplay format. If the project is a training or instructional video that will use skits or vignettes to show proper behavior (or any other type of video that shifts from scene format to soundbite/narration), I pull out a hybrid model where the main format is three-column with sections that include screenplay format. The first two format types are available in Final Draft and Scrivener. I use both programs depending on my client.

Writing scripts is a fun way to earn a living writing. In my next blog, I will share my top tips for writing a successful script.