Organizations of all kinds are using video in their marketing and communications, and that means writing for video is becoming an essential skill for communicators. But most have either never written a video script and don’t know where to start, or they’ve tried it and discovered how much there is to learn about the craft.
A video script is different from most other communications documents – it’s a blueprint for a video, and that means it has unique challenges. As a professional scriptwriter and producer, I have six tips to consider when tackling this surprisingly nuanced writing challenge.
1. Separate the Audio from the Visual
It’s helpful to remember that a video communicates information in two streams: audio and visual. Of course, the viewer experiences both streams simultaneously, so it’s important for these streams to work together. If you’ve ever created a PowerPoint presentation, then you are familiar with this principle. But video takes it to a whole new level.
Scriptwriters use a format called the “Audio/Visual Script”. The idea is simple: you separate the audio and visual narratives into two columns. On the left side, you describe what the viewer is seeing, and on the right side you write the dialogue.
It also makes sense to separate the columns into discrete rows. This helps to pace out the script, and ensure that the images align with the dialogue.
This format isn’t necessary, but it is certainly advisable. Even if you’re the only person who ever sees the script, it’s useful to outline the content for pace and flow – elements that are more important in scriptwriting than in most other forms of writing.
2. Script For The Edit
You might be wondering how scripting relates to editing. For example, will the editor look to the script when determining when and where to cut the footage? There is no general rule for how this is done, but it’s helpful to think of editing as a tool in your scriptwriter’s tool belt.
Here’s a short video that demonstrates how different kinds of editing can actually be consciously scripted in a simple video.
3. Beware Abstract Language
Language ranges in abstraction. Some words describe ideas that are highly abstract like “efficiency”, “gratitude”, or “growth”. Other words describe ideas that are much more concrete – things like “truck”, “dog” or “windmill”. You can always tell which ideas are more concrete because you can easily picture them. If you were playing Pictionary, you’d have an easier time drawing a “dog” than you would drawing “gratitude”.
This is important, because language in the “visual” column of a script cannot be abstract; it must describe images in literal detail. If your “audio” column reads “This year we improved efficiency by 15%”, your visual column should not read something like “image of efficiency”. It must read “bar graph of last year’s increase in efficiency” – or maybe “green arrow grows and trends upward along a horizontal axis”. In both of these examples, you can close your eyes and see the image clearly. Writing with concrete language will reduce ambiguity among the various people involved in the project. Don’t leave your script up to interpretation.
4. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
As an experiment, try reading this sentence out loud:
This year was one of our best (it was very profitable) because we improved our processes.
Using parentheses in this way is tolerable in writing, but can be problematic if written as dialogue. The problem is that nobody hears parentheses. If you read this sentence aloud, that small parenthetical remark confuses the grammar of the sentence, and thus confuses the listener.
That is why you must be very precise with punctuation when writing dialogue. Try to avoid complex clause structures, and use periods more than you use commas. Often, you won’t see the problem in the punctuation until you’ve actually uttered the words.
And while you’re at it, look for natural emphases in your dialogue. If a word is important, SHOW IT to your reader in capital letters. This not only helps your speaker’s voice to be more dynamic; it can also affect the meaning of the words in subtle ways. Consider the difference between: “We’re eating dinner at HOME at seven o’clock,” and “We’re eating dinner at home at SEVEN o’clock”. In each case, the speaker’s dialogue has two distinct meanings whose effect derives from the intonation of one word. If you read your dialogue out loud, you will likely discover that you naturally emphasize certain words and phrases. If you do, re-write them in caps-lock; otherwise, your speaker might intone incorrectly, and change the meaning of your script.
5. Use Storytelling, Even If “There’s No Story”
One important point about videos is that they all strive for engagement. Simply put, if you have a boring video, nobody will watch it, and then it won’t matter how ‘on message’ it is. That message simply won’t be heard. So how can you win the battle against boredom?
As you can imagine, there are many different creative ways to make a video interesting, but the tried-tested-and-true principle that underlies all good scriptwriting is storytelling. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need characters, a plot, and a moral; it only means you need to write with narrative logic.
The primary distinction here is that the writing flows – each new piece of information builds on the last, and all of the information is bound together, link by link, in a sequential chain of cause and effect. This way of presenting information is easier for our brains to process. It helps people to understand and remember. And best of all, it keeps people asking “what’s next?”
Further Reading: Why Storytelling Matters
6. Consider Your Objective
Before you even sit down to write a script, you should imagine what the video will look like. But you should also imagine how, where, and why your viewer is watching. Are they scrolling through Facebook? Are they sitting in a conference? Are they considering buying the product? Have they even heard of the product?
Even basic questions like How long is the video? and What is the call to action? are important strategic questions. As a scriptwriter, you are not necessarily responsible for developing that strategy, but you certainly need to know it in order to write an effective script. Your job, after all, is not only to engage, but also to produce results. If you’re not perfectly clear on what that result is, get clarification from your collaborators before you write a single line of dialogue.
Ironically, there is no script for how to write a script. Each video is different, and your writing will have to adapt to meet the unique demands of each video project. But the principles outlined here are excellent standards by which to proceed. Just remember this wise scriptwriter’s aphorism: “Scripts are not meant to be read; they are meant to be watched.”