Short Script Writing
Finally. Script writing! Your treatment has gone over well and you’ve been given the go ahead to develop a concept into a script. Congratulations.
First, you need to decide on the script’s format. The traditional film script format is less useful than the A/V script, which is two parallel columns that detail the audio and video portions side by side. It can be a bit of a pain to read, as the fantastic linear flow of a regular script is destroyed, but it emphasises what is happening in each area at each moment, so it’s actually quite a good format to keep you honest. Alternatively, you can begin with the traditional format to get your ideas down and then convert it into the A/V format.
If you’ve written out a synopsis, then it should reformat nicely into the script as you’ve already indicated all of the key action, sound and dialogue. Otherwise, now is the time to make sure you’re conveying all of the key visual and audio elements that convey this concept.
Flow and Structure
If appropriate, consider the acts or movements within your script. Should it move between an ordered sequence of ideas and progress to a conclusion? How does the subtext relate to the text? Does it break down in a classic format like the following:
Breaking the script down into these different movements can help tremendously with clarifying your pacing and story progression. They won’t be overtly identified within the script, but their presence will provide a tangible structure and form.
If you’re doing multiple videos in a campaign, consider if any elements should be similar — and just how similar. These similarities are important structural elements to making a campaign feel cohesive and on–brand.
Define every moment in the audio and visual columns that is relevant. If you can, leave nothing to be figured out later. Is there a blurry background under the end GFX? Or do the graphics go full screen on a colour backdrop? Is there space left in the frame for the call to action? Is there music underneath the spot throughout? This stuff needs to be in there to get a feel for the timing and clarify to each department how long something should be on screen, what size, &c. It’s far better to flag in the script that a shot will have graphics with an arrow to a certain part of an object in frame — so that the director and camera team frame it in a way that is helpful to the graphics team — rather than have the editor fight with an image that “looks great” but is entirely inappropriate for the film you’re making.
Check your dialogue for say-ability. Does it come off the tongue okay, or is it a tongue twister? Is there some bizarre alliteration? Any damagingly distracting dialogue that deviously diverts from your flow? Or is a conspicuous word repeating in concurrent sentences? These things will catch on the ear on set (or worse, in post) and are better cleaned up now. Also, when writing copy that refers to the product, be mindful that the client may have preferred terminology. It may seem like semantics, but it’s incredibly important to them and they’ll need to show your script to internal colleagues. The wrong use of “shaver” instead of “groomer” can be a massive distraction and result in a distorted view of the work.
Writing for Non–Professional Actors
Writing a script for non–actors or models means that you should be adjusting the concept to depend as little as possible on a specific reaction or dialogue, and as much as possible on a look or juxtaposition of images. Voice–over is a great way of dealing with any specific messages that need to be conveyed. This strategy also works well if you’re dealing with a foreign–language video for which you don’t speak the language.
Interviews and Voice–Over
In an interview or voice-over driven video, try to write what b-roll would be appropriate and what it should convey as subtext. Just writing “montage” is like putting “the actor says something funny”. Not very helpful, is it? But be careful of writing sequences that are too on the nose as they invariably come off as funny, so subtext is best played as an idea that has the same big–picture meaning as the audio but is not literally the same.
After you’ve written out your first draft of the script, you need to consider the duration. Are you writing to time? If not, don’t worry about it. If so, crack out that stopwatch. Read through the script, making your best judgement of which visual elements require extra time to happen or where to skip description and allow for dialogue. Are you at time? Running long or short is okay if you think the script reads correspondingly slow or fast. Generally speaking for commercials or branded content, the last 5–8 seconds will be eaten up by a product or logo shot and messaging, which may by an ugly load of marketing gobbledygook that needs to be reined in, so keep in mind this back end may well end up squeezing time away from the front end.
Scripting After The Fact
Some jobs involve writing a script from pre–existing material that was shot at an event, or maybe a series of interviews. Unless it’s a lengthy conference or interview, it’s usually better to spend some time putting together a proper written script to identify the flow of the piece than to just sit down and edit without a strategy. The old method of printing out transcriptions, using scissors to cut out sections and grouping them together works beautifully if you have the time and the space. A digital version of this can be done in a word processor with two documents open simultaneously, a working document and a “donor” document. This first pass is just reorganising the material into logical groups, and then you can select the best bits and do a refinement process.
We’ll delve further into these in a later post, but expect plenty of revisions. If possible, try to establish a close relationship with your client so that they can understand the importance of working out the details of the script as early as possible. Last second changes can be quite dangerous, as crew members may be caught unprepared and demand cost overruns, cast may have issues, and you may make a change in a rush that is ultimately damaging to the film.
As a final pass, I recommend reading carefully through your script’s description to clarify any poetic phrases so that it’s clear what is meant to happen. Remember, the audience will never see this, so it is better that it is clear and functional than pretty. Save that for the dialogue!