The most difficult part of making video programs is writing the script. It’s at this very early stage that the finished production has the potential to become great, good enough or downright awful.
Writing is a creative pursuit — not a technical one. A video creator might be accomplished with all the technical chops required to make excellent video programming, but does not have the creative skills to tell a compelling story on paper. Having a good story — well told — is the key to whether a script will attract audiences.
Knowing the story in advance is critical to writing it well. Don’t begin writing until you have a very good idea of what you are writing about. This may sound like common sense, but far too many people begin writing without knowing where they are going to end up.
To truly understand a story, it is essential to create a logline — or “elevator pitch” — before you begin writing it. This is very difficult because it disciplines the mind to focus on the essence of the story. A ton of facts tend to be muddled and unclear at first. The logline clarifies the narrative in a succinct two or three sentences.
I once took an eight-week class at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles on how to pitch a story in 15 seconds. It was an eye opener. I had no idea how hard it would be to sort through a huge body of factual research and nail down the story. From that class, I learned that if someone can’t pitch their story in the length of an elevator ride, they are not ready.
From this class, I whittled down the story that became the film, Cradle Will Rock. The logline was: “It’s the story of the only time in American history that the military was sent out to shut down a Broadway play.”
Those words not only sold the project to Disney Studios, but became the slogan on a movie poster and a line for a character in the film.
Once you have that succinct sentence or two about what the story is about, it is best to write a list of actions or scenes for the story. Many writers use index cards — creating a card for each element. It is also at this stage that the characters are set and a backstory is created for each.
One of the advantages of index cards is to build a list of beats, the structural elements that mark an intentional shift in the story. Beats are used to structure narratives and control emotional arcs of the characters.
The index cards can be rearranged to create a non-linear narrative, which is a very popular style of storytelling. It keeps the audience more engaged. The cards are also useful to describe the most cinematic of the scenes, which gives a better sense of how the production will look and feel.
For characters, give them each a backstory; describe what each wants in the context of the story; and state the challenge each character needs to achieve it. Decide on the protagonist and the antagonists who try to prevent him or her from achieving the goal.
Once this is finished, it is time to outline the story. Put the scenes in order from the index cards. Make sure of a solid story structure and dramatic arc. Determine the mood and pace of the production. Will it be a standard three-act structure or something different?
Obviously, there is a lot to know about how to do these stages well and there are entire books written on each aspect of the process. We are offering only the general steps here. It is up to the individual writer to make the story sizzle off the page.
From the outline comes a treatment. There are no hard and fast rules about treatments. Some are very short and concise, while others are almost the length of the entire finished script. Some contain important snippets of dialog, while others don’t.
Finally, comes the script, which springs from the writer’s preparation. This is the most difficult part of the process and one that few beginners do well. It is important in the script to show the action, not describe it. Scripts should be proactive to propel the action. It differs from prose writing.
Once the draft is finished, place the script aside for a few days. Then revisit it. It’s funny how things will look different after a break. Problems always appear and it best to have a fresh take on how to solve them. I often dream of fixes in my sleep. Revise, revise and revise some more.
When the script is finally finished and has been edited, many productions create a storyboard. Roughly sketch each scene and place the drawings in order. Storyboards can be loosely drawn or very precise.
Alfred Hitchcock was such a storyboard fanatic he left no detail to chance before the actual making of a film. He knew exactly what he wanted in each scene before production began. Other directors are the opposite and interpret the script as they go. There is no right or wrong way.
Script writing is a thorny, demanding process for every writer. Even the masters of the craft often miss. The chances are always better with a story the writer knows well and is compelled to write. Never do a script because you think it will sell. That’s a formula for disaster.