Writing for Video

If you want to know about writing for capital-T-V-television, go to the "Small Screen" section of my Writing for Film page. But before you go -- since most video and film scripts specify video and audio, you're strongly urged to look at the Writing for Audio page. Your narrators and actors will thank you! Now, on to the business of writing for video in general.

Introduction. Let's be honest: video is a derivative medium. The idea of moving images within a two-dimensional rectangular frame began with film. Eisenstein and others explored the concept of "writing visually" long before television was invented. "Three-D" animation? Also invented by filmmakers. So what is there to know about writing for television specifically? The answers lie in production methods, program structures, and applications. I could write a book (hmm, there's an idea!) but for now, here's a capsule summary.

Production Methods. The original "TV" script was used only in a studio, and one of its purposes was to help a director work his/her way through a live, multi-camera switched production. It was convenient to split the page into two columns, unlike the full-page screenplay format used in movies. In some quarters it was called the "A/V format" (Audio/Video), which is a little confusing, since the video is more often to the left of the audio on the page.

Recent versions of all major word processors will probably handle two-column scripts fine in WYSIWYG mode, and I advise most people to go that route. For a variety of reasons (slow computer, personal taste, whatever) you might prefer AVScripter, an older but well-done DOS-based shareware program that you can download here (82K, Zip format). ((New!) This very slightly updated file includes instructions for Win95/98. Please Note: If you already have this program, and already use it under Windows, you don't need to download this file!)

Program Structure. In Hollywood, script formats are relatively formalized, and specific to the delivery method. The major types are feature screenplay, episodic TV, and sitcom. For now, the point to recognize is that program structure makes a difference in more than just the appearance of the script. For example, the "act breaks" in a commercial TV show -- which are dictated by the need for commercial time -- also affect the way the writer has to pace the story. Meanwhile, for other types of programs that run without such arbitrary interruptions, pacing may be handled quite differently. Again, you can find more about writing in these entertainment formats by visiting the Writing for Film page and following links from there.

Applications. One still sees a lot of nature shows and other programs that start out on film, but video is gradually becoming the dominant origination medium for non-fiction programming. This is somewhat true for broadcast news and documentary, and almost universally true in educational and business media. What does this mean for the writer?

Not that much. The script should serve the production process, and the production process should be based on how much control the producer has over the content. In a totally staged fictional story, the producer has virtually total control. In news or documentary, control over the shooting circumstances can occasionally be non-existent.

So, the choice of script format largely reflects the extent to which the production and editing process can be anticipated. A two-column script can be handy for assembling bits and pieces of interview footage, and cutaways, and sound effects, and narration, which means it is well-suited for many non-fiction purposes.

By contrast, I believe that all dramatizations -- things meant to be shot "film-style" (single camera, etc.) -- should be written in screenplay format, simply because it concentrates the writer's attention on story, scene and character, not on camera angles and editing. Character motivation, plot development, and dialogue are identical, regardless of whether the image originates electronically or chemically. And if the script is long enough, a screenplay format is easier for a production manager to "break down," to make the shooting schedule and budget as efficient as possible.

Unlike some people, I do not feel there is any such thing as a "corporate dramatic style" of writing. Drama is drama. It still requires a central conflict, it still requires a character arc, and it still requires a beginning, middle, and end. It can be adapted (and often, but not always, weakened) by the imposition of non-dramatic informational goals, but only if the writer fails (or the client meddles).

The challenge for the writer is to deliver that information without impeding the delivery of plot and character development. I've seen it done, and I've done it myself. But it's not easy. If the writer fails, the result can be characters that the audience doesn't really care about, or "dramatic" moments that do not really excite anybody, or dialogue that sounds completely unrealistic. A good writer will recognize these risks, and avoid loading up a scene with too much non-dramatic content, to the point that the audience rejects it.

Drama in the service of commerce will probably never be as compelling as the drama in the service of art. But it is possible to "blend" business information and other communication goals into an otherwise normal dramatic story. The real challenge is to find a client, and a producer, who understand the challenges as well as the scriptwriter does, and who have the will and the ability to make such a script into a completed program.

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