Writing a video script is an unusually taxing, but incredibly important, part of the video process. In a very real sense, the shape and form of your animated or live-action content is dictated by the quality of what you’ve got on paper. A high quality script won’t guarantee a high quality video – but a crap one is an assurance of failure. The masterly directorial powers of Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, and Werner Herzog combined couldn’t have saved the unintentionally comedic dialogue of The Room.
So when it comes to writing a video script (particularly one heavy on voice-over) your first priority is to make sure it isn’t a total disaster. Now, you don’t want to include anything that’s awkward to say, or won’t translate well to a visual medium, but neither did the guys behind Troll 2 and Manos: The Hands of Fate, so you won’t always be able to tell. However, if you keep the following bits of advice in mind, you’ll be able to make sure that, should it turn out awfully, they won’t be able to blame you – and if it turns out well, you’ll be able to take your share of the credit.
1. Set your goals
Before you start writing your video script, you need to work out exactly what you’re trying to accomplish – and exactly what you’re trying to accomplish with this project.
Should it make them laugh? Cry? Jump for joy? Scream in fear? Gesticulate wildly? Fill out a form? Visit other parts of your website? Dance like nobody’s watching? Sing like nobody’s listening? Act on your coded message to assassinate a visiting foreign dignitary?
Whatever it is, you’ll want to work it out before you get to writing.
Pick ONE reaction you’re looking to provoke. This isn’t the director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America: you don’t need multiple concurrent plot threads.
2. Kill your darlings
As you sit down to start writing your video script, isolate the pertinent information you need to provoke that reaction. Note what you want to include, and then whittle it down to what you HAVE to include.
Maybe you’ve got an excellent “how we met” story about you and your business partner. Maybe the idea for your product came to you in a fit of Archimedean bathtub inspiration. Maybe you have an irresistible compulsion to itemise every feature of your product in list form. Your target audience doesn’t care.
Desperately trying to cram stuff in: it’s the first sign of bad writing.
Short and sweet > long and dull.
4. Identify key stakeholders
…and then tell them to go away. When it comes to writing a video script, everyone from CEO to the dinner lady wants to have their say. This is a one-way-ticket to Bad Video Town, population: you (and all the other people who have made crap videos).
Have you seen “Too Many Cooks”? It’s a short black comedy film produced by Adult Swim, wherein a family sitcom is infested with a gross excess of character types – eventually including serial killers. The whole thing eventually devolves into a nightmare carnival of depravity, murder, and bad ideas.
Expect similar if you try to make EVERYONE in your company happy.
5. Make it timeless
A dull video is one thing, but a cringeworthy video is quite another. There’s nothing so tragic as stale humour. If, when writing your script, you populate it with references to “Gangnam Style” and “Chocolate Rain”, you’re immediately dating yourself.
These things may have been funny once upon a time, but it’s not 2007 anymore. Don’t be the desperate English teacher drawing tenuous parallels between Shakespeare and gangsta rap. You’re better than that.
Also, don’t say things like “we’ve been doing this for ten years” when you can say things like “we were founded in [Year X]” instead. It’s just common sense: you don’t want your video to have a 12-month shelf life.
6. Visualise it
The relationship between the words and the visuals is naturally one of the most important things to get right. While you’re writing your script, think about how you’re communicating your information. Could any be rendered via on-screen graphics or text? If so, then do that: it’ll result in cleaner, tighter, and generally non-clunky voice-over, and a shorter video overall.
The classic example is the terms and conditions in a TV ad. While you might be able to have your narrator say “tiny umbrella sold separately” really quickly in a cocktail promo, the boring legal stuff can’t really be read aloud without spoiling the momentum of the clip. The easy way around is to just display this information in small, non-invasive, but readable text at the end of the ad.
It also applies to the creative side of things: check out this video we did for carfused.com, which provides a quick and visually digestible example of some typical automotive costs.
7. Watch your language
On the subject of non-clunky voice-over, it’s always important to remember that an actual human being will have to read these words. Harrison Ford, on reading the script for Star Wars, famously remarked: “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.” George Lucas got away with it. You probably won’t be so lucky.
Avoid specialist jargon. Avoid long words where short ones will do. Make sure whatever you write is comprehensible to your target audience. Finally, don’t be married to awkward phrasing. What reads well on paper won’t always translate to video; if you can’t make it work, come up with something else.
8. Make your final draft…final.
It’s happened more times than I can count: the script has been sent off, the storyboards have been drawn, the voice over has been recorded…and you want to change something – a sentence, a word. This is a phenomenon I’ve come to call “Scripter’s Remorse”, and it’s harder to deal with than you might think.
Changing a word here or there isn’t a simple proposition: you have to rebook the V/O artist, which costs time and money. This is even more of a problem when it comes to the actual imagery of the video. Before you hit send, be damn sure that your script contains exactly what you want.