Top 10 Tips for Writing Scripts
Writing scripts is not like writing for the page. It takes a different set of skills. Here are my top tips if you want to write scripts for a living:
Supplement the Visual: This one is huge. There is nothing worse than watching a video where the narrator tells you what you are seeing the screen as you see it. Why bother with the video if you are going to do that? It’s not adding anything. You’d be better off skipping the time and expense of a Director of Photography (DP) and write a blog instead. (If you doubt that, watch any number of YouTube videos and you will see how condescending and irritating it can be, not to mention redundant.) Write to supplement what your audience is seeing. For example, if there’s a caracal on screen, don’t describe what it looks like, say where the cat is from and mention its ability to leap nearly 10 feet from the ground. The point is to offer information that cannot be gleaned from watching the footage. Put your details in the narration.
Write for the Ear: You have to let proper grammar go in some cases. Narration is about how it sounds. Yes, it should be grammatical in essence, but you have to be able to let go of your obsession with not ending a sentence in a preposition and other constraints that would make your narration sound stiff and formal. Writing for the ear requires a sense of rhythm, cadence and flow. Keep the viewer in mind and read whatever you write out loud to make sure it sounds right.
Watch Your Transitions: This is part of creating a good flow in the script. If your transitions are abrupt, your script will feel chunky. You have to write in a way that leads the viewer from one idea to another in a logical and seamless way. Think of it like taking a hike. You wouldn’t want someone to take you down one trail and then tell you to leap to another without a bridge, log or series of stones to step upon.
Have a Through-Line: You have to know what you are trying to say from beginning to end. This means having a clear intent and structure in mind before you begin. These should be developed during the treatment phase of your scriptwriting. Let your objective keep you on track. This will help you create those transitions and maintain a good flow from one section to another. This will also help you stay on track when your story starts to digress.
Think in Bites: Scripts are about ideas and information, but also about presenting them in a way that is accessible. This means small bites of information at a time. Don’t do an info-dump on your audience. You will lose them. You have to craft a story that lets them discover the subject much as you did during your research phase.
Pacing Matters: Let the story unfold naturally. Don’t rush it, but don’t let it lag either. Keep your time frame in mind and craft your script accordingly. Remember that for one hour of broadcast time, you need about 40-minutes of finished film. Your script has to be timed perfectly to allow for the narration, interviews, and space for visual transitions and music. You don’t want wall-to-wall words. There must be room for the piece to breathe.
Match the Mood/Tone/Pitch of the Subject: This is about style. You need to use a different tone for a historical project than you do for a wildlife one. Each type of story requires a different feel. The best way to learn the difference is to watch a variety of videos/documentaries/television shows paying close attention to the scripting and narration.
Story is King: There is nothing more important than story. It’s the point of any video, no matter what the subject, length or purpose. Whether it’s a training video or a documentary-style television show, you need a story that holds the piece together. Sometimes this takes a bit of creativity to find, but it’s always there. If you can’t find the story, you haven’t done enough research or haven’t tapped into your imagination enough. Step back and think about the project from a different perspective.
Stories Need Emotion: Don’t just rely on facts and figures. Tap into your audience’s emotions. If you want to inspire, move, motivate, educate, or entertain them, you need to make them feel.
Look for Holes: It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the through-line you miss the details. Step back from your script and look for holes. I admit this is one of my pet peeves. I hate when I’m watching a show and the narrator says something like, “This is the second most popular…” without telling me what the first is. I also don’t like when I watch something for an hour or two and am left with a ton of questions and loose ends. If you are going to write scripts, be sure to fill those holes so you don’t drive people like me insane.