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Video Script Writing Basics For Freelance Writers

Writing video scriptsA guest post by Eleni Poulakou who blogs at Writers WritingWords

Being an excellent writer doesn’t necessarily make you a good scriptwriter. Video is a completely different medium: it addresses directly the viewers’ senses, engaging their attention, manipulating their feelings with image and sound… conveying some of the magic that made the silver screen ever so popular.

Ultimately, whatever you’re trying to promote – whether it’s ideas, products, services or plain ole entertainment – video sells. That is, if you know how to use its language.

1. Release yourself from the logic of the written page. Stop thinking literary masterpieces, academic papers and eloquent narratives. An image tells 1,000 words – thus offering you the opportunity of skipping voiced words altogether, if this suits your purpose best.

Two or three images of green, blooming nature and the singing of a robin render perfectly the freshness of a spring morning in much less time than a lengthy flowery description.

Meanwhile, a few opportune words spelled by a narrator or an actor can add a whole new dimension to the sequence, attaching a second layer of meaning. Actually, video employs a “syntax” particular to it; to be a successful scriptwriter you have to think along the lines of a quite different paradigm.

2. Say what you have to say – but make it fast. A script must convey its message(s) within a limited time frame. A TV commercial may range from 30 to 90 seconds, while a typical infomercial can run from two to five minutes or even more, and runtime for instructional videos really depends on the subject matter to be demonstrated.

The average attention span for promotional videos, such as movie/book trailers or lead generation videos, is estimated at no more than 2.5-3 minutes. Economy of words and careful selection of necessary information are paramount in a script, and the message must be as tight as it can get.  

3. Be realistic, think budget. One thing to know about video is that minor changes in the script may reflect enormous variations in the costs of production. Even if you have come up with an ingenious scene that binds together all the disparate messages and brings your point safely home, your client may not be able to afford the money for a shoot in Venice or the Niagara Falls – would you settle for Carmel Beach? Remember, one stroke of the pen can make a huge difference.

4. Familiarize yourself with the techniques and jargon. Do you know what a wide shot is? A close-up? An objective or subjective viewpoint? A knowledge of the techniques involved in shooting will help you give precise instructions for the visual part of the video script – and it will open up your imagination to the various possibilities of presentation of your theme.

5. Read aloud. Over and over again. You have to know precisely the time of the whole video, as well as of each separate scene in order to orchestrate the co-incidence of the various elements (words, images, music, etc. For continuous narration, estimate about 150 words per minute; I have counted as many as 180 words, but that was quite fast indeed. Remember that video is made to be heard, not read. Assume a conversational tone; use shorter sentences; avoid passive constructions; be sure you’re addressing your audience.

6. Different parts have different functions. The opening of a video is the most important part, your chance to grab the audience’s attention. A good idea is including a clear benefit, something that will answer in their minds the question of “what’s in it for me?” or “why would I want to watch, anyway?”

The body must flow effortlessly and this can be accomplished when you have a solid structure in place. You can lead the viewer through a logical sequence, such as problem-analysis-solution-benefit-action, or divide into sections (especially for longer videos), each corresponding to one of the key messages.

Finally, a call to action is the most appropriate closing in most instances. Again, be clear – you are always writing your script with a purpose.

7. Use proper script formatting. Divide the page into two columns. The right one is for the actual words to be delivered. On the left, you will describe all the supporting materials – images, camera angles, sounds that are heard, music, graphics, written words that may appear on the screen, timings, etc.

Not all video directors need the same amount of information: some will require everything laid out to a “t”; others want more general instructions allowing their imagination a more free rein. As a general rule though, you’d rather include more than less.

To get a better idea on script writing, watch successful videos and try to figure out how their elements interconnect and what functions they fulfill. Don’t be afraid to imitate (up to a certain point) at the beginning – it may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery; nevertheless, it’s walking safely on tested ground and taking up some good habits.

What’s been your experience writing scripts for videos?

Eleni Poulakou is a professional translator in English, Greek and French languages. She writes both commercial and creative pieces, and blogs at Writers WritingWords while she’s currently working on her first novel inspired by her native culture.

Two newsletters:
Abundant Freelance Writing – a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
Writing With Vision – for those who want to get a book written.

Image: Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • I have learn a few excellent stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting.
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    Etuseteli recently posted..EtuseteliMy Profile

  • This is a great introduction to an area that I would love to get into. Any idea how to start from the ground up? I write sketches but am aware that this is completely different. Thanks for the article.

    • Not sure, Sarah… I have some notion that a couple of my clients could use video and that I could write a script for them… mostly talking heads… beyond that is well, beyond me. Others may have ideas about marketing video script writing.

    • I’m thinking about creating an amateur self-promotional little video for my blog and writing a couple of pieces about the process, especially the writing part. If this interests you, I’ll keep you posted. 🙂
      WritersWritingWords (Eleni) recently posted..Parthenon wasn’t built in a dayMy Profile

  • Great article! I’m noticing clients, especially production companies, wanting more and more from their writers…not only the writing, but some of the “production” duties as well. I’m currently learning Avid, so I can write a stringout of a show right on Avid and email it from there….easier for the editor and producer…not always easier for the writer.
    But good skills to know!

  • And remember — video script formatting is VERY different from screenplay formatting!
    Devon Ellington recently posted..Fri. March 9, 2012: Surgery a SuccessMy Profile

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