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Five Tips For Writing or Evaluating Better Video Scripts

Sep 10, 2008
Video scriptwriting provides the action plan for video production, Particularly in the corporate world, where words need to be approved before production.

I have developed five steps to making sure my scripts help production people create best videos possible-- ones that work as multimedia devices, take advantage of the medium, and motivate much the same way as a great movie or TV show.

1. You're not on TV. And you are not the star. The least impressive form or video communications is the talking stand-up reporter approach. The writer or producer decides it would be fun to pretend they're on 60 Minutes or CNN, hires a good voice or a pretty face to wear a trench-coat and business suit, and then proceeds to put words in their mouth telling us how great the product or company is.

How would THEY know?

Authority is important in any sale or marketing video, but authority comes from product features, end users, or company experts-- not a can of hair spray. He or she might be cute, and might be the next Deborah Norville. They just don't belong in your video.

In addition, it's cheating. For every second they're standing there telling us about something, we could be seeing it, hearing it, experiencing it. And the production dollars saved? Enormous. But you're cheating the audience and the audience knows it.

2. Words only when necessary. It's easy to write a script. Go to Word, or Pages, or some other software and create two parallel columns. At the top of one type "Audio". On the top of the other type "Video."

See? Two elements-- what's seen and what's heard.

Most often, we will begin writing with what's heard, because that's how we think it through. But why start with words? Why not start with a visual? Music? Sound Effect?

I remember a piece we did years and years ago.

It started with a sunrise, the chirping of birds, the sounds of turbines starting, and a loading dock door being opened. That took about 15 seconds. If we had used words to paint that picture, it would have taken perhaps a minute.

But now, all the announcer had to say was.....

"Dawn. At Leeson Motors."

And the audience knew that this company takes the workday seriously, they have a large plant (exterior shot of the sunrise had the plant in the foreground, a fleet of trucks, and a zest for life.

Contrast that with just showing the logo and hearing an announcer say,

"Every Morning at Leeson Motors in Waukeegee, Ohio, we get to work early and appreciate the sunrise, see the dew on the grass, hear the birds, fire up the engines, open our doors, begin the shipping process, and thank the almighty that it didn't rain today."

In short, words only when necessary.

3. Write for the Ear. When words ARE necessary, write like you talk. No not those words. What I mean is, write conversationally. As we pointed out, words take time. And people don't speak in complete sentences.

I remember writing a commercial that was a take off on the old cop show "Dragnet".

My first draft began....

Offscreen VOICE OF FRANK: This is the city, Los Angeles, California. A nice place, at least most of the time. But on this day, on a routine patrol, my partner Frank and I spotted a suspicious character, his arms filled with loot. Books, records, painting... it had to be a break in.

We got out of the car and I said....

FRANK (ONSCREEN): Hold it Mister, what have you got?"

There was just one problem with all this-- the commercial was thirty seconds, and I had just eaten up all thirty seconds uses words to paint the scene.

After a short confab with one of my business partners, also a writer, we revised it thusly:

OFFSCREEN VOICE OF FRANK: The city. We spotted him. Books, records.... Had to be a break-in."

FRANK, now on screen: Hold it Mister, What have you got?"

The visuals, clearly called out in the VIDEO column, told the rest of the story nicely:

Establishing Shot City

Frank and Partner in police car

Suspicious person walking down what might be a brick alley with arms loaded with Library items

Cut to Joe and Frank (head and shoulders) , with red light pulsing in background

FRANK, now on screen: Hold it Mister, What have you got?"

If you'd like to see a sample of the (ancient) Dragnet TV spot to see how sounds and visuals painted the picture, go to http://vimeo.com/1627426

4. Give the audience a break. Every so often, take a breather. Run a short sequence of music and pictures, so they can catch up and absorb what you've thrown at them. This gets more complicated, but audiences can only handle so much, and if you distract them or wear them down, they won;t retain what your asking them to, or they might even rebel and turn their minds off.

5. End Big. This doesn't mean World War II with the original cast, but it does mean to give your audience signposts so they know where they're at in your video. I always use music to change the pace, but toward the ending, you need a finale, and finales don't fade, they echo. A recap tells them its over, and a musical crescendo tells them it's over. Music that ends in "threes"-- restating the musical theme line three times-- is pretty much a ta-da! Never leave them hanging, but always finish big, and finish before they're bored. A good example is this opener produced for Underwriters' Laboratories 100th Anniversary. Note the ending of the music-- it uses a "triple"-- this builds emotion and sends the signal to anticipate what comes next, while indicating the this part of the meeting-- the opening video-- is over. To view this sample, go to http://vimeo.com/452012

Scriptwriting is the backbone of the successful multimedia project. Knowing that words are only part of the equation will help you write or review scripts on a much higher level.
About the Author
Brien Lee is an award-winning producer / director / writer of business to business video and multimedia project for the web, meetings, DVD, and more. He is President of Brien Lee VideoStory, Inc., a New Jersey based consulting and production company. His clients include Walgreens, The American Cancer Society, and others. His professional homesite is at www.videostory.com
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