Published: Blue Pencil
February 1997, Volume 33, Number 8
Society for Technical Communication
Technical Communicating as a Video Scriptwriter
Writing for video is a challenging endeavor and a complex subject. My main purpose with this article is to bring some video scriptwriting guidelines, concepts, and resources to your attention. I hope this material will be of some benefit to you. According to 1996 Writer's Market, scriptwriting is a matter of "learning how to refine your writing so that the work reads as a journey, not as a technical manual."
Can you, a technical communicator, become a good video scriptwriter? I believe the answer is yes. As a technical communicator, you can make the changeover from writing manuals, procedures, and brochures to writing video scripts used in training, recruiting, and marketing.
But for a technical communicator, making the changeover from a print medium to a visual one can be a very bumpy ride. According to his article "Elements of the Video Script," Bruce Miller says, "Corporate writers accustomed to churning out newsletters and brochures often approach the video script the same way--as words illustrated by pictures. Unlike the two-dimensional print world, video offers a writer a dynamic, multi-dimensional palette--action, camera movement, point of view, sound effects, music, character, dialogue, narration--even silence."
This article discusses scriptwriting for industrial and corporate video, not for scriptwriting sequels to Twister or Independence Day. But according to 1996 Writer's Market, scripts used for "corporate training, business management, and education videos have become as sophisticated as those for TV and films, and they carry the additional requirement of conveying specific content.
"The educational and corporate video industry is an $18-25 billion business compared to theatrical films and TV, estimated at $5 billion. Good scriptwriters are in demand, and scriptwriting opportunities are widespread."
So how does a technical communicator become a scriptwriter? In a Technical Communication article on technical scriptwriting, Charles Kemnitz, a professor at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, states that you must first obtain a "basic knowledge of production techniques and terminology." You need to grasp an understanding of what you can and cannot do with a video camera and with editing equipment.
If you watch home videos, I believe you already are familiar with production techniques. Because of home video, we understand more today than ever before about the ways and means of the movie industry, its cultural influence, its art form, and its technology.
Not only are we movie buffs, but in a limited way, we are also students and critics of this medium. Our VCRs let us rewind for repeated viewings, slow the motion or stop the action to view specific scenes, study the editing and camera work, and even pick out production flubs.
This writing changeover from a print to a visual medium also requires your acquisition of some new skills. Kemnitz states that the technical communicator must become familiar with "visualization, dialogue, timing, and budget constraints."
As a video scriptwriter, I always strive to write a complete script that keeps costs below budget and maps out everything the producer needs to do during the actual production. As I write my script, I see every scene in my mind's eye. I know exactly how I want the video to look, and I know exactly how I want the video to sound. This skill is called visualization.
Kemnitz says, "For most technical communicators, visualization is one of the most difficult skills related to scriptwriting. The ability to see the pictures the words evoke and to see those pictures as dynamic, rather than static, is a skill that takes time to cultivate. The technical communicator has to learn to let the video speak instead of the words.
"Writing dialogue is a new skill for most technical communicators. The use of contractions and slang are just two ways in which video differs from other forms of technical writing. Written conversations must be realistic.
"Technical communicators must practice the skill of keeping a script within time constraints. The dialogue and narration must be compressed to fit the time frame of the action."
As a video scriptwriter, you try to tell a creative visual story with impact and style combining audio, video, music, and graphics. How you tell that story depends a lot on the money and resources available for production. Animation, special effects, multiple locations, and big-name talent will add power to your video only if you can afford it. Budget constraints must be dealt with, and you can't let budget constraints retard your creativity.
So, do you think you are fit to write a script? I know you are. Here are the required qualifications needed for a scriptwriter as listed in INFO-LINE's Write Successful Video Scripts:
Analytical ability. You must be able to pinpoint the needs of your target audience and separate essential from unnecessary information.
Interest in diverse topics. Good scripts require enthusiasm toward research.
Organizational skill. You must be able to organize information into logical sequences.
Empathy for your audience. You must be skilled to tune into their attitudes, motivations, learning styles, and interests.
Writing skill. You must be able to write clearly and concisely, and you must have a good command of grammar.
Ability to think visually. You must be able to present information and convey ideas with pictures, not just words.
Creativity. Creative thinking is required for successful scripts.
Presentation and selling skills. You must be able to present your ideas effectively to clients and sell them on your work.
Ability to work on a team. You will interact with several people with different functions and individual goals.
In his article "The Script: The Key Element in a Production," Ron Whittaker describes succinctly what a scriptwriter must accomplish. He says, "The most important parts of the script are the beginning and ending. To capture and hold attention, you must engage the audience quickly. And to leave an audience with a positive impression, your script must have an effective ending. In between, you must keep interest from drifting by varying pace, emotional content, and presentation style."
When I am asked to write a script, there are several basic questions that immediately come to mind that I need to ask the client:
What is this video supposed to accomplish?
Who is my target audience?
When and where will the video be shown?
What information do you want me to include, and how do you want me to present it?
What are the available resources and budget?
With whom will I work on this?
Who will approve the final draft?
I do my research and gather all the background information I think I will need. I try to understand my audience's perceptions and attitudes. If I have to get my hands greasy by working on an assembly line in order to understand a process that I have to write about, then I do it.
I have to choose what concepts I will utilize to grab (the hook) and hold my audience's attention. Here are some concepts to be used that are listed in INFO-LINES's Write Successful Video Scripts:
Talking head. One person on camera delivers a straightforward presentation. The camera occasionally cuts to simple visuals such as charts, lists, or graphs.
Spontaneous interview. One person equipped with points to cover or questions interviews an expert on the topic.
Staged interview. Both participants have scripted parts. The interviewer asks prepared questions, and the interviewee responds with prepared answers.
Documentary. A narrator, usually off camera, takes the audience on a visual tour, reporting on the program topic.
Voice-over narration. Visuals are accompanied by narration from someone off camera. The narrator may describe a job procedure being demonstrated or may comment on other types of visuals.
Demonstration. The person on camera describes while demonstrating.
Dramatization. Actors play roles in a scripted story.
Animation. Cartoon characters provide instruction.
I must be able to write my script logically step by step so my audience understands what is actually going on. I can't lose them. Smooth transitions are required when I cut from scene to scene. Important points will be hammered home by using both video and graphics. If I can, I will repeat those points before the ending of the script.
When I write, I prefer to use the two-column audio/video format that shows the shot-by-shot relationship between the video column on the left and the audio column on the right. For the visual aspect of the story, I need to have and maintain a dynamic flow involving composition and camera positions. Here are some basic camera positions to be used that are listed in INFO-LINES's Create Quality Videos:
Long shot. Provides a general view of subject and setting; establishes the scene by showing viewers all the visual elements in the scene; when applicable, shows how the size of the subject relates to other elements in the scene.
Medium shot. Provides a closer view of subject and eliminates unnecessary elements and background; covers about two-thirds of subject from head room to knees of subject standing.
Close-up. Concentrates on subject, excludes all other details of background.
Medium long shot. Closer than a long shot and includes more detail than a medium shot.
Medium close-up. Covers subject approximately from elbows to head room when sitting; shows good facial detail and some background; the preferred shot for newscasters, it is considered the most comfortable distance for viewers watching a subject who is talking directly to the camera.
Extreme long shot. Shows all background and details of a scene; more comprehensive than a basic long shot.
Extreme close-up. Limited to the subject's face; creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy and has great impact on the viewer.
Objective. Camera records images from the observer's viewpoint.
Subjective. Camera records what the subject sees; shots of equipment operations or processes may be taken from a high angle over the subject's shoulder.
So I write my first draft. I have a great hook that captures my audience's attention, and my closing nails down the story. I think I have kept one step ahead of my audience by answering every basic question I think they might ask themselves as they watch the video. My visual presentation seems to be dynamic, not static. I inject a little humor into the script to change the pace. I think the style I use will hold the audience's interest, and they will be satisfied at the end. Good stuff.
Did I tell you though that scriptwriting is a challenging endeavor? I think I did. Did you know that you can have the equivalent of a bad hair day in video production? It happens. You have the audio, you have the video, you mix it together, and it just doesn't jell. This doesn't happen often, but I have had to rewrite portions of some approved scripts down at the production studio as the videos were being produced.
Do you, a technical communicator, want to become a video scriptwriter? You will have to answer that question yourself. I do know that after writing my first draft, I will probably have to rewrite my script a few more times. But that's the only way to finish the business at hand. Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite! Until the video is in the can (done).
(no hyperlinks, just a list)
Bruce Miller, The Script Doctor, discusses seven elements that produce a video script--concept, structure, content, style, format, opening, and closing.
Bruce Miller, The Script Doctor, lists his ten-point scripting process--market overview, production overview, location overview, political overview, content, concept, outline, first draft, shooting script, and final draft script.
Ron Whittaker of CyberCollege discusses the key element in the video production process--the script. This is Module 5 from his TV production course.
Ron Whittaker discusses all the important structural elements of scripts. This is Module 6 from his CyberCollege TV production course.
Inventive Media Productions lists its video production titles for purchase such as Video Scriptwriting for Success and Profit.
Wilson from The Online Communicator has a short piece on writing for video--introduction, production methods, program structure, and applications.
This is Rich Wilson's companion piece on writing for audio--write for the ear, keep it simple, use correct punctuation, avoid the dreaded ellipsis, and make it legible.
Stephen Friedman from Brightlines Creative Communications Services/Franco Public Relations discusses the uses of video for training and orienting new employees.
It's "The World of Writing" site with several links to scriptwriting and technical writing resources.
The Writers' Computer Store sells materials for scriptwriters.
Screenwriter's Heaven lists software tools available for writing scripts.
Current Awareness Abstracts listing of Charles Kemnitz's abstract about his article "Technical Scriptwriting: A Seminar Approach to Learning."
American Society for Training and Development database of products and services, including INFO-LINE publications.
Rox Vanguard, 1997.
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