Writing script

Mindy McAdams pointed me to a great post by Colin Mulvany at The Spokesman-Review. He comments on his latest bit of video, about an EPA cleanup at a old womans garage on his patch. It’s a great video. A solid report from the scene and lots of variety in the shots. It’s a great example of benefit of shooting lots of details shots.

In his comments Colin reveals that this is a bit of a milestone for him:

It is one where I did it all on deadline. I shot the video, wrote and voiced the narration and finally I edited it all together in an interesting and informative (hopefully) package.

And he makes the point that narration is playing an increasingly important part of what he does. He makes the great point that script delivered in voice-over is something different to the piece to camera stuff on TV.

Recently, I have been using more and more of my voice in my videos because I felt that the objective narration helps move the story along. When I first started producing videos, my mantra was “let the subject tell the story.” There was such a desire on my part to not be like “TV,” that I felt adding my voice would take away from the story. As I have experimented along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that narration is not such a bad thing. Local TV news seems to fall down by relying on stand-ups to disseminate a story’s information. It is all about the on-air talent now, not the subject they are reporting on.

That got me thinking about scripting in general and I’d thought I would share a bit more of the stuff I do on my video courses.

The first and often surprising one that I tell people is script last.

In broadcast we always write to the pictures. You can have a basic idea of what you want to say but you will only know what works when you have seen all the pictures and how they work together. So once you have a made a rough cut (a basic cut of the pictures) you can start reading script to the pictures to see if they work. Its a process of refining things.

Once you get to that stage then here are some of the basic principles for scripting.

Short Sentences
Short sentences work best in broadcast so watch out for words and phrases like following, after and due to. Words and phrases like but, which and after may be better replaced with a full stop. But be careful not to cut your sentence length too far back. This can often result in a very staccato delivery.

Active voice
Write your script as though you are having a conversation. If you work in print you’d be suprised how far your writing differes from the way you speak. That may sound daft but try reading one of your stories out loud. So imagine you are telling the story to a group of people in a bar or round the dinner table

An active voice can help create that conversational tone. Try wrtiting as if you are offering an immediate answer to a question.

Who has passed the bill?
“The Commons passed the bill…”
not “The bill was passed by the Commons…”

An exception to this may be when when someone or something is on the receiving end.

“A guard dog attacked a man…” would be okay unless it was your the president or your editor. Then it would be “A newspaper editor was attacked by a dog…”.

Be concise
A major difference people notice, particularly when they make the move from print to broadcast writing, is word count. As a rule of thumb we work on a reading speed of three to four words a second. That means a package of around a minute may contain less than 100 words of script; a fraction of the word count for a standard print story. And given that 1:00 to 1:30 is around the norm at the moment that’s going to be a good benchmark.

With word counts so tight everything has to earn it’s place in the story. Only the absolutely relevant should be considered.

Redundant language
What may be a turn of phrase that looks good in print, or one that you would use in everyday speech, is often one word too many when writing a script so it needs to go. That may seem at odds with the idea of a conversational tone but we would usually think about redundant language when refining the script. When we have written it out and now need to cut it down.

So when looking for edits in your script, keep an eye out for words that don’t need to be there. E.g. It was something we thought we should check out or They will be judged on the end result.

Look out for ambiguous terms like ‘very’, ‘quite’ and ‘almost’.

Attribution and quotes
Unlike print the attribution tends to come at the start of a statement.

The Chief Inspector said there will be 250 new police on the street by this time next year.

Remember, we can’t use quotation marks so try to avoid direct quotes. In broadcast news a direct quote is often sign-posted with a visual trick, like looking down at a script or a pause, but you will have little time for this.

Key content first
Like print, broadcast writing tries to catch the attention of its audience from the start. A tight intro, outlining all the key facts in the story is vital to hooking your viewer.

Even though we try to load the start of a package with information, don’t load the start of the intro with key content.
Place key content towards the end of your intro rather than the beginning so that people are listening and ready for the facts. The following print intro:

Man’s body found in river
The body of a man has been discovered in the River Lune near Lancaster.
Police received a call about the discovery at around 10.20am today (Sunday).

Might be scripted as:

The Police and coastguard were called out this morning after the body of a man was discovered in the River Lune near lancaster

This is particularly important when working on the web. It takes a viewer a few moments just to get over the shock of actually seeing any video let alone get their heads round seeing pictures and audio working together. This doesn’t take long but its worth saving the key stuff till last.

But if I had to give you one cast iron piece of advice when writing scripts it would be Read it out loud.

When you are writing your script stop and read the lines out loud. Not just a mumble but a full on delivery to the crowd. Feel how the words sound in your mouth. There may be words that you struggle with in a sentence or a sentence may need to be shorter to let you catch your breath. You will only know this is you read it out loud.

So get used to funny looks from your work mates.

So there you go. Let me know what you think or what should be added.

Extra: These books for reference :

Television News Handbook Broadcast Journalist by Vin Ray

Writing-Broadcast-Journalists-Media-Skills by Rick Thompson

The broadcast voice by Jenni Mills

11 Replies to “Writing script”

  1. Great points Andy.

    For me the first rule of video storytelling is “show don’t tell”. The more successful the shoot and edit the less detail you need in the script. Not central to your theme perhaps but something every scriptwriter should bear in mind.

  2. good day sir/madam
    i am a young and up coming script writer and i need some pieces of advice from the professionals. i have passion for writing and your company will do me a great favour by rendering me the necessary assistance. Thanks for your anticipated favour.

  3. I have passion for writing. People I know, encouraged me to utilize my talent more creatively. I would like to try my hand in script writing. I need advice from professionals as I am an absolute novice in this line but I find it challenging. Please render me the necessary assistance.

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