Can a contractor build an office building without being able to understand the architect's blueprints?
In the somewhat the same way key production personnel must be able to understand scripts, especially the nuances in good dramatic scripts, before they can translate them into productions.
A comprehensive guide to scriptwriting is beyond the scope of this course. However, when you complete this module, you should understand the basic elements of scripts and even have a good start on writing one. (Remember: the most traveled route to producing is through writing.)
"Excuse Me, Mr. Brinkley..."
Many years ago, while dining in a Miami restaurant, a TV production student of mine saw David Brinkley, one of the most experienced and respected network anchorpersons of all time.*
Although you can learn the basics of writing here or in a good book, you can become a good writer only by writing.
Doing lots of writing.
Most successful writers spend years writing before they start "getting it right" -- at least right enough to start making money consistently.
In a sense, initial failures aren't failures at all; they're a prerequisite for success.
Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
By another definition, a genius is a talented person who has done all his or her homework. These modules constitute the prerequisite homework involved in success.
Keep in mind that writing for the electronic media is not the same as writing for print. Those who write for print enjoy some advantages their broadcast counterparts don't have.
For example, a reader can go back and reread a sentence. If a sentence isn't understood in a TV production, however, the meaning is lost -- or worse, the listener is distracted while figuring out what was said.
With the written word, such things as chapter divisions, paragraphs, subheadings, italics, and boldface type guide the reader. And the spelling of sound-alike words can indicate their meaning.
Things are different when you write for the ear.
In order to deliver narration in a conversational style, you don't always follow standard rules of punctuation.
Ellipses...three dots...are commonly used to designate pauses. Often, complete sentences aren't used, just as they aren't used in normal conversation. In broadcast writing an extra helping of commas provides clues to phrasing.
Although this may be inconsistent with proper written form and your English 101 teacher may not approve, the overriding consideration in writing narration is clarity. This entails making it easy for an announcer to read, and making it easy for an audience to understand.
The way we perceive verbal information also complicates things.
When we read, we see words in groups or thought patterns. This helps us grasp the meaning.
But, when we listen, information is delivered one word at a time.
To make sense out of a sentence we must retain the first words in memory while adding all subsequent words, until the sentence or thought is complete.
If the sentence is too complex or takes too long to unfold, meaning is missed or confused.
Of course, through proper phrasing and word emphasis a narrator can go a long way toward ensuring understanding. This gives the spoken word a major advantage over the written word.
Writers write video scripts in broadcast style. With allowance for sentence variety, video scripts use short, concise, direct sentences.
You should also be aware of ▲some common mistakes, such as the difference between further and farther and less than and fewer than.
Of course, the English language is constantly changing.
Things which were deemed "wrong" at one point can eventually come into regular use and become accepted. (For example, in the preceding sentence "which" should actually be "that," but this is another case where things have been changing.)
"Close proximity" is becoming accepted, even though proximity means close, so it's actually redundant.
"There are less concerns about good grammar in
advertising" should be "fewer concerns." Fewer relates to
things you can count;
less to things you can't.
The Use of Whom, Etc.
There are some situations, especially in broadcasting, where proper usage can sound stilted and off-putting.
One of these is with whom. Although we have detected a move to using the proper whom in publications, this doesn't seem to have been widely adopted in broadcasting.
In these modules we have stuck to who in all cases. However, in broadcasting proper usage is often dictated by common usage, so we reserve the right to change our minds.
Even so, we should point out that there are clear transgressions of proper grammar in broadcasting that aren't as forgivable. For example, in a recent Fox News report on a lost dog a reporter stated, "Her dog had ran away."
Many viewers are quick to pick up on such errors (and bring them to the attention of management). On a resume reel, this kind of thing should get anyone dropped from consideration.
In writing your scripts, remember that the active voice is preferred over the inactive or passive voice. Nouns and verbs are preferred over adjectives, and specific words over general ones.
Avoid dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences. Attribution should come at the beginning of sentences ("According to the Surgeon General...") rather than at the end, which is common in newspaper writing.
In broadcast style, we want to know from the beginning who's doing the "saying."
The classic reference on writing clarity and simplicity is a little 70-page book called Elements of Style. Even many seasoned journalists keep it handy.
A recent book on punctuation is Lynne Truss' and Bonnie Timmons' Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Who would believe an instructional book on a mundane subject like punctuation could make the New York Times best-seller list? But as the saying goes, "It's not what you say but how you say it" -- something that's especially important in writing scripts.
Ten Newswriting Guidelines
With a bit of help from Ms. Debrah Potter of RTNDF, the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, here are ten guidelines for writing news:
Correlate Audio and Video
Keep in mind the basic guideline of correlating (relating) audio and video because viewers are accustomed to having what they see on the screen relate to what they hear -- generally in the form of dialogue or narration. (Note that the intentionally long and complex sentence you just read is not appropriate for broadcast style.)
If viewers see one thing and hear another, things get confusing.
Even though you want audio and video to relate, watch out for the "see Dick run" approach where the audio states the obvious. If you can clearly see what's happening on the screen, this can get downright annoying.
Although radio drama had to slip many things into the dialogue to tip off the listeners to what they couldn't see ("Emma, why are you staring out the window?"), this is hardly the case with TV, where you can see what's taking place.
The trick is to write slightly off the pictures. This means that, while you don't describe the pictures, your words aren't so far removed from what is being seen that you split viewer attention. This technique involves a delicate balancing act.
With more than one hundred TV channels available to viewers in some areas and millions of pages of information available on the Internet, to name just two sources of information, one of today's biggest problems is information overload.
In TV production the goal is not just to unload information on viewers.
To be successful you must engage your audience and clearly communicate selected information in a manner that will both enlighten and possibly even entertain.
We can absorb only a limited amount of information at a time. The average viewer has preconceptions and internal and external distractions that get in the way.
If a script is packed with too many facts, or if the information is not clearly presented, the viewer will become confused, lost, and frustrated.
Lost vs. Bored
Not only is the amount of information you communicate important, but also the rate at which it's presented.
In information-centered productions, give the viewer a chance to process each idea before moving on to the next.
If you move too rapidly, you'll lose your audience; too slowly, and you'll bore them.
The best approach in presenting crucial information in an instructional production is first to signal the viewer that something important is coming.
Next, present the information as simply and clearly as possible.
Then reinforce the key points by repeating them in a different way -- or with an illustration or two.
Here are seven general rules to remember in writing for television. Some of these apply to instructional productions, some to dramatic productions, and some to both.
Some people say that, unlike writing, video and film production don't have standardized grammar (e.g., conventions or structure).
Although video has abandoned much of the grammar established by early filmmaking, even in this MTV, YouTube era we can use various techniques to add structure to formal productions.
In dramatic productions, lap-dissolves (when two video sources overlap for a few seconds during the transition from one to the other) often signal a change in time or place.
Fade-ins and fade-outs, which apply to both audio and video, can be likened to the beginning and end of book chapters. A fade-out consists of a two- or three-second transition from a full signal to black and silence. A fade-in is the reverse.
Fade-ins and fade-outs often signal a major change or division in a production, such as a major passage of time. (But "often" is a long way from "always.")
▲Traditionally, teleplays (television plays) and screenplays (film scripts) start with a fade-in and close with a fade-out.
Script Terms and Abbreviations
A number of terms and abbreviations are used in scriptwriting. Some describe camera movements.
When the entire camera is moved toward or away from the subject, it's referred to as a dolly.
A zoom, which is an optical version of a dolly, achieves somewhat the same effect. A script notation might say, "Camera zooms in for close-up of John" or "Camera zooms out to show John is not alone."
A lateral move is a truck. Note the illustration above.
Some terms designate shots.
Cuts or takes are instant transitions from one video source to another. In grammatical terms, shots can be likened to sentences where each shot is a visual statement.
The cover shot and establishing shot are designated on a script by "wide-shot" (WS) or "long shot" (LS).
Occasionally, the abbreviations XLS for extreme long shot or VLS for very long shot are used.
These all can give the audience a basic orientation to the geography of a scene (i.e., who is standing where) after which you'll cut to closer shots.
On small screen devices or in the relatively low-resolution medium of standard-definition television (SDTV), this type of shot is visually weak because important details aren't easy to see.
Film and HDTV (high-definition television -- often just stated in production as hi-def) don't have quite the same problem.
Cover or establishing shots should be held only long enough to orient viewers to the relationship between major scene elements. (How close is the burning shed to the house?)
they can be momentarily used as reminders or
updates on scene changes as reestablishing shots.
TV scripts are usually divided into audio and
video columns, with shot designations in the left video column.
Television and film scripts are available on the Internet for study. (See the section on Internet Resources at the end of this module.)
You'll find the following shot designations relating to people:
An LS (long shot) or FS (full shot) is a shot from the top of the head to the feet.
An MS (medium shot) is normally a shot from the waist up. (To save space, we've used a vertical rather than a horizontal format in this illustration.)
An MCU (medium
close-up) is a shot that includes the head and shoulders.
A relatively straight-on CU (close-up) is the most desirable for interviews. Changing facial expressions, which are important to understanding a conversation, can easily be seen.
XCUs are extreme close-ups. This type of shot is reserved for dramatic impact. The XCU may show just the eyes of an individual. With objects, an XCU is often necessary to reveal important detail.
A two-shot or three-shot (2-S or 3-S) designates a shot of two or three people in one scene.
The term subjective shot indicates that the audience (camera) will see what the character sees. It often indicates a handheld camera that follows a subject by walking or running. Subjective camera shots can add drama and frenzy to chase scenes.
We sometimes indicate camera angles, such as bird's eye view, high angle, eye level, and low angle on scripts.
A canted shot or Dutch angle shot (note photo on left) is tilted 25 to 45 degrees to one side, causing horizontal lines to run up or down hill.
Although scriptwriters occasionally feel it necessary to indicate camera shots and angles on a script, this is an area that's best left to the director to decide.
Even so, in dramatic scripts you may see the
Scripts also use a number of other abbreviations:
With this basic background, we'll turn to some "bottom line" considerations in the next module.
A free, comprehensive computer scriptwriting program is available here. You can also find free demo programs of scriptwriting and general production software on the Internet at bcsoftware and screenplay, among other places.
The site offering the widely used Final Draft scriptwriting software also has a forum where scriptwriters and aspiring scriptwriters can register and exchange ideas and information.
You can find many writing tools for both professional and aspiring writers at The Writers' Store in Los Angeles.
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