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Writing a Script – a new skill set

Writing a Script is an article originally part of a presentation I made years ago at Stevenson College: most of it holds true today, when I do writing projects of any kind.

Introduction

Every programme needs a script, even if it is a simple animation with no speech at all. The script is the basic foundation upon which a programme is made – be it audio, video or film. It is a guide to the sequence of events that transpire during the programme – without this the production would quickly fall apart.

Writing a script is one of the most undervalued abilities in the audio-visual industry, yet it is probably one of the most vital. Many of the large-budget Hollywood films of today utilise scriptwriters to a greater or lesser extent. It is important to define the roles of the writer and director from each other.

  • The writer is the creator of the idea, the one who forms the characters and the environment. It is he who originally formulates the plot, and forms of speech. He also has to deal with any rewrites of the script that might be necessary.
  • The director, on the other hand, is responsible for transferring the written text into the chosen media i.e. Film, video tape, audio etc.

It should be pointed out at this stage that many Hollywood directors write their own films (For example, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino). Compared to this, many TV productions have a separate writer who collaborates with the director. Many first-time directors will find themselves in this situation.

What this presentation is intended to illustrate is the best – and easiest – way to write a script, from its inspiration, to it’s final rendering onto paper.

What is a script?

Script writing can be a nightmare for some people. They find the interaction of characters, scene details and plot construction to be incredibly daunting. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction considering that the script for a ninety minute production runs to between 100-130 pages. To create a script of this length requires a great deal of creative thought and a careful attention to detail. It is of little surprise that even proven scriptwriters occasionally suffer the famous, “Writers block,” while creating two hour programmes.

As mentioned previously, a production needs a script. The script is in essence a guide to events, speech and the characters. A poorly thought out script can lead to a poorly produced programme.

In the following pages, visual dramatic programmes will be used as the subject medium. However, the presentation can easily be used for other subject medium such as audio-only, animation, and documentary-style programmes.

A script should consist of the following components:

Plots and Sub-plots

Theme

Mood

Characters

Action

Scene

Dialogue

Interest

It should also follow a rule known as the, “Three C rule.” This specifies that a good script incorporates the following:

CLARITY – CONTINUITY – CONSISTENCY

It is important to understand that it is the variations of characters and, Ingredients,” within a script that make such scripts individual. However, before a script can be written, the idea for a plot is needed. This takes us neatly into the first item on our list of script components, “Plots and sub-plots.”

Plots and sub-plots

Plot is essentially the story line, defining occurrences, character movements, and events that happen within the programme. Although it seems unbelievable, there are in fact only 36 known plots with attempts to find a 37th having failed so far. The 36 known plots are beyond the scope of this presentation, and will not be entered into in any great detail here. These plot archetypes (as they are known) consist of some of the following: mystery, hunt, escape, rescue, attack, defence, siege, guard, betrayal, jealousy, conspiracy, love and injustice. All of these 36 plot archetypes include some or all of the following aspects, to a greater or lesser extent:

  • Emotional premise: Basically, this is what the programme is about tying in with the theme, which will be mentioned later. The key word here is emotion, if you can affect the viewer’s emotions in some way, you are halfway to success.
  • Key situation: Early on, establish a problem, dilemma or challenge for the characters to face and overcome.
  • Motivation & Threat/Intention: The key situation must be able to motivate the leading characters to take action, to have a target, aim or goal.
  • Conflict: Without this there is no story. It does not necessarily mean violence, it could simply mean a man’s struggle with his own conscience. or even a personality clash.
  • Reversal: Something happens to make the character’s situation worse. They have to change and adapt to new circumstances.
  • Narrative question: In essence, “What will happen next?” The audience must be kept in doubt about the outcome of the story until the very end.

A script has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Think of the plot as a kind of W-shape, with the points of the W representing climatic events. The strokes of the W are the build-up, or slackening of pace.

Paradoxical though it sounds, every plot starts with a conclusion. What do you intend for the script to say? Is it something you want to say to the world? i.e. do you have strong feelings about the subject? Will it be of interest? And finally, most importantly of all: Does it entertain and/or inform?

Plotting is a craft in itself, and getting the idea for a plot can be a struggle in itself. Carry a small notebook around with you, for you never know when you might get further inspiration for a scene may occur.

Setting is also a basic problem. Think about the time period or the place, since working the plot in with the setting could be prove to be a battle. For example, a plot that involves a battle in space between star ships would be difficult to create if the setting is Georgian England.

At the core of any plot is the idea of believability, or at least the suspension of disbelief. People shouldn’t be able to fly unless there is some evidence in the script to suggest otherwise, such as through levitation, wings, or some kind of high-tech gizmo, for example. There is an old saying, “Write what you know,” that still holds true today. If you don’t know anything about a subject, research it and then write about it. Observation of real life can sometimes be the source of many plots, as the success of programmes such as “Neighbours,” and, “Coronation street,” can prove.

Sub-plots are an ideal way to sustain viewer interest, and again, soap operas are a good example of this procedure. Sub-plots are minor story lines within the plot that could range from a character’s car being fixed at great expense, to several characters hating the sight of each other. Sub-plots enable a greater depth to be added to the programme, without affecting the conclusion in any great way.

Script planning

Before you start writing the script, consider the medium that you are writing for. An audio programme, no matter how good the script, will sound terrible if there are a lot of moments when characters are silent.

Many people find it helpful if they write a resume of the script. This normally consists of an outline of the plot, describing the course of events.

As previously mentioned, setting is highly important. Think about when and where you want to set the script and why. Define this early on, as it could cause a great deal of problems later. In certain cases, setting your script in certain time periods or area can prejudice the viewer. Write a script about Vietnam and most people will immediately think of the Vietnam war. Write a script set 1945, and most people will think of the end of the World War Two. Also, as in any drama, there is a summary of the characters, in order of importance. Their roles, personalities, appearance, and motivations can also be incorporated, as this can be a useful reference when writing the script.

Having done this, it is now possible to introduce the themes. The theme is a word or phrase that sums up what the entire story is about. Examples of themes are love, hate, chaos, morality, leadership, society, and so on. For instance, take Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth’s themes are ambition, power and corruption. On the other hand, the ones in Hamlet are those of revenge and tragedy.

When incorporating the themes, remember that they should be subtle, rather than blatant. A viewer dislikes getting preached to.

Having considered the theme, the mood of the script is also important. The mood is a surface feature. It is the prevailing emotions that are going to be running through the script. It is the feeling you want to create, e.g. madness, eerie, romantic, mysterious, excitement, upbeat. Taking Macbeth as an example again, the mood running through this particular drama is one that is brooding and somber.

A sample script resume follows.

Sample script resume

Title:The Pick-up

Setting: 1970’s New York

Theme(s):Corruption and Treachery

Mood: Gritty & Depressing

Characters:

CURTIS: A clumsy, but shrewd bruiser. A rough diamond who is liked by everyone.

MANSFIELD: A neurotic Mafioso crime boss, paranoid about his underlings trying to undermine his position.

LUPINI: An assassin with a liking for sharp suits. An old friend of Curtis.

Plot Outline:

Curtis receives a telephone call from Mansfield, his boss, telling him to pick up a package from the airport. However, unknown to Curtis, Mansfield has decided that Curtis has become too popular with his men. He has decided to have him killed, and sends an assassin, Lupini, to shoot him on the way to the airport. Fate intervenes however, when the assassin realises who his target is his old friend. Lupini reveals Mansfield’s motives to Curtis, who immediately reports the treachery of his boss to Mansfield’s superiors. In the ensuing fire fight both Lupini and Mansfield are killed. The film ends with attending Lupini’s funeral, and the promotion of Curtis to Mansfield’s former position.

Characters & Characterisation

Characterisation is a major stumbling block to script writing. Without well defined characters, even the most well written script can be brought low by stereotypical cardboard cut outs.

Characters bring the script to life, they are in effect, “Story guides.” Although a plot needs at least one central character, they need not be human e.g. Lassie, Bambi etc. As long as they are somehow affected to a greater extent by events, and have an identifiable personality, their shape or form does not matter.

A character’s biography and personality is important, when creating a character. Ask yourself these questions:

What does he look like?

What has he done?

What does the character want out of life?

Where has he been ?

What is his lifestyle?

What is his function in the scheme of things?

Does he have any distinguishing actions or expressions?

What are his likes and dislikes?

What does he do when he’s angry or happy?

What are his talents and abilities?

Next, think about the following points:

Is he necessary to the plot?

How often does he appear in the plot?

How involved will he become?

How does get on with the other characters?

Is he likeable or not?

And finally, most importantly of all, consider this:

Are they believable?

Action

Action is central to plot. It says what happens in a given space of time, for example, a gun firing. Action can be defined as physical movement on the part of the characters, or the facial expressions, moods and vocal delivery and moods. When creating action it is important to remember about continuity. Characters shouldn’t suddenly appear from nowhere, when the viewer knows that they are supposed to be dead, without good reason.

Another important aspect is that camera shots and movements are rarely mentioned. Zooms, tracks, and dollies have no place in the script at this stage. At the formulation of the script, you are doing only slightly more than writing a story, creating guidelines for the director and production crew.

Scenes

A scene can be defined as any environment in which action takes place, be it a busy street,  the control room of a spacecraft, or a sprawling ranch in Texas. A scene change allows editing to become much easier. It also helps prevent visual fatigue on the part of the viewer, who can quickly become bored with the same scene.

When constructing a scene for the action, consider the following points. They all help to enrich the script.

What time of day is it? This can be used to heighten the mood – most horror movies take place at night, for example, playing on the fear of darkness.

What sorts of props are to be inserted? A busy street is all very well, but if you add burnt-out cars, graffiti on the walls, gangs of youths, and the sound of police sirens in the distance, many people will immediately equate it with Los Angeles, or the Bronx in New York. Perhaps before any action is taken place.

When in a room, what sort of furniture does it have? Is it opulent, moth-eaten, or non-existent? Are the walls painted or are they cracked, with water running down them? They can help to enhance the mood, and enforce the themes. But remember it is possible to create a cluttered and claustrophobic room if it’s appearance is such that the characters can barely move.

Think about the weather next, and how it relates to the characters. Is it pouring with rain outside? Or is it incredibly sunny? The weather can be used to reflect the moods of the characters. When angry, perhaps there is a thunderstorm crashing around. Depressed? The sky is leaden, dull, or cloudy.

Next, consider the positioning of the characters. Do they suddenly stand out in a crowd of people walking along a street? Do they enter the room, or are they already inside? Are they sitting or standing? What are they wearing? This is especially important for the first impression of a character.

Dialogue

Dialogue, or speech, is yet another script stumbling block. A poor use of dialogue can make a film, using the best actors in the world, die a death. Use of the voice and dialogue help put a character’s status and personality across, so when writing speech remember that dialogue has four simultaneous functions:

  • Establish characters.
  • Provide information.
  • Reveal emotion.
  • Advance the plot.

These functions should be concealed in such a way that they influence another character’s behaviour or intentions. It is important to avoid a great deal of  nowhere talk without good reason, but try to incorporate a little. Most character’s are human and tend not to talk about the same thing all of the time.

It is very important to try and vary the speech – try and make the vocal qualities of each character different. Think about the character’s social class and status. Is he an upper class Victorian gentlemen? Or a cockney fruit-seller from the East end of London? Both would have far different methods of speech. Attempt to imagine your characters speaking, and remember dialect can be easily incorporated in to a script.

Setting is again highly important where dialogue is concerned, so it is wise to fit the speech around the setting e.g. New York, Victorian England, Ireland  etc.

Try and avoid repetition wherever possible, most people do not use the same words over and over again. It makes them sound like a stuck record, while poor punctuation can cause them to sound like they have let their mouths run away with them. Finally remember that, ungrammatical construction, cliches, and slang are habit to everyone and as such should be contained where human speech is used e.g. Try and use, “I don’t know about that.”, rather than, “I did not know about that”. Again, remember the setting.

Interest

Is your script interesting? Well, think about it. Now that you’re writing it, is the script really going the way you want it to? Do you have enough plot hooks to make the viewer follow the story line? Be critical of your plot outline and your characters. Are there any glaring errors in continuity? Do you have enough challenging situations for the characters? Check your script for the plot aspects, mentioned earlier under, “Plots and Sub-plots”.

Finally, would YOU want to see the final version of your script on your chosen medium? If not, and you find the script boring…Well, back to work you go.

Format when writing a script

There are certain ways to writing a script that is unrelated to any creative ability. Two of the simplest ways of setting out a script are as follows, again using a famous scene from Macbeth as an example:

Act one

Scene 1

An open place. Thunder and lightning. Enter the THREE WITCHES.

FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again? n thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH: When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

THIRD WITCH: That will be ere the set of the sun.

FIRST WITCH: Where the place?

SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH: here to meet with Macbeth.

FIRST WITCH: I come, Graymalkin.

SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.

THIRD WITCH: Anon!

ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

The witches vanish.

Act one

Scene 1

An open place. Thunder and lightning. Enter the THREE WITCHES

FIRST WITCH:

When shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH:

When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.

THIRD WITCH:

That will be ere the set of the sun.

FIRST WITCH:

Where the place?

SECOND WITCH:

Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH:

There to meet with Macbeth.

FIRST WITCH:

I come, Graymalkin.

SECOND WITCH:

Paddock calls.

THIRD WITCH:

Anon!

ALL:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.

The witches vanish.

If you manage to set your script out in these kinds of formats you are well on your way to getting a clear and ultimately readable script. Always check your spelling, using a spell checker if need be. When you’ve finished writing your script go through to check for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and the like.

Conclusion

Although you may be happy with your script, it may not be of much interest to any one else. Get some one to read over it for you, as they may spot continuity errors, spelling mistakes and other errors. If they have any suggestions, don’t explode – they’re only trying to help. They may not know you’ve spent the last three days and nights constructing your script. As a final note, compare the following two scripts. Which of these would you prefer to read?

Script 1

A man sits in a room. It is dark. Suddenly the telephone rings. The man picks it up.

Mansfield: Good. You are finally in your home. I have been trying to reach you on the telephone all day, asshole.

Curtis: Sorry, boss it was because I had some things to do. I have been collecting a few gambling debts for you.

Mansfield: Oh right. Now then, I have a job for you. I want you to pick up a package for me from the airport.

Script 2

Scene 1

CURTIS sits at a desk, in a darkened room with peeling wallpaper. He sits illuminated in a dim pool of light coming from a naked light bulb, and we can see he is wearing a rumpled shirt, tie, and trousers. An unmade bed lies in a corner of the room. Through the cracked window, we can see it is raining.

A telephone, an ashtray, and a packet of cigarettes lie on the table. CURTIS reaches for the cigarettes and fumbles in his pocket for a lighter. He struggles for a while, before producing it with a smile. He lights the cigarette and then the telephone rings. CURTIS picks it up. It is MANSFIELD, CURTIS’ boss.

MANSFIELD:

[Speaking on telephone, sarcastically]

Good. You’re finally in. I’ve been trying to reach you all day, asshole!

CURTIS:

[Scowling]

Sorry, boss. I had things to do. I been collecting a few gamblin’ debts for ya.

CURTIS puts the cigarette out, and leans back in the chair.

MANSFIELD:

[Mollified]

Oh. Right. Now then, I’ve a job for you. I want you to pick up a package for me from the airport…

Bibliography

  • “Scripting for video and audio-visual media.” by Dwight V Swain. ISBN 0240510755.
  • “Film script writing: A practical manual.” by Dwight V Swain. ISBN 0240509684.
  • “On camera: How to produce film and video.” by Harris Watts. ISBN 0563202688.
  • “Drama structures: A practical handbook for teachers.” by Cecily O’Neill & Alan Lambert. ISBN 0091478111.
  • “Video production in education and training.” by Geoff Elliott. ISBN 0709909306.
  • “Understanding movies: 5th Edition.”  by Louis Gianetti. ISBN 013945585X.
  • “The practical director.” by Mike Crisp. ISBN 024051341X.
  • “Studio scripts: Communities.” by David Self (Editor). ISBN 0091410711.
  • “The Storyteller’s Guide.” by Rob Hatch & Andrew Greenberg (Editors).ISBN 1565040844.
  • “Hatching a plot.” ‘Camcorder user’ magazine article: March 1993 issue.
  • “Scripted stories.” ‘Camcorder user’ magazine article: September 1992 issue.
  • “Secrets of the masters revealed!” ‘Dragon’ magazine article: January 1992.
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