What do you get when you introduce a self-taught video scriptwriter to an experienced scriptwriter with a film and copywriting background?
A harsh dose of reality.
I joined a copywriting group a few months back and posted a video script for feedback. One person (now my mentor) tore my script apart. By the end, there wasn’t a single shred left standing.
The criticism was hard to take. I questioned whether I could actually cut it as a scriptwriter. But, after tending to my bruised ego, I reach out to this person for some idea on how to improve.
This post describes 3 hard truths I learned about script writing so you can avoid the same mistakes.
Let the show begin.
Truth #1. My Video Scripts Were Painfully Average
I began writing explainer video scripts 3 years ago because I was making Vyond videos. Someone told me to offer a script with the video as a packaged deal. So, I learned to write scripts.
After 3 years, I had the video script template down to a tee.
- Introduce a problem
- Introduce the solution and how it works
- End the video with a call to action
Nailing the formula didn’t make my video scripts great though.
My Video Scripts Were Formulaic, Not Emotive
I thought introducing a problem and solution was enough to establish an emotional reaction.
I was wrong.
If I wanted an emotional reaction, I needed to agitate the problem. And highlight the customer transformation.
Everyone wants to be a success story. Successful marketing shows customers how they can be the hero of their own story.
After learning that, I started investing time into my copywriting skills. Direct response copywriting to be exact.
I also began reading more about storytelling in marketing. Stories are how people make sense of the world and relate.
I Wasn’t Calling for Emotive Visuals in My Video Scripts
I did what any amateur scriptwriter would do. I used the most obvious visuals I could think of. It made sense to me at the time because you read about how the visuals have to match the audio.
If the audio said “save time”, I called for a clock. Original, I know. It’s a logical choice, but it’s not an emotive visual. To write compelling scripts, I needed something stronger.
Calling for more compelling visuals has been a struggle. This is because I consider my background to be more “words” than “images”.
What do I mean by that? I read a lot, I write, and I taught a language. I spent a lot of time with words.
I’m not a film buff and the occasional game of charades was the closest I got to visual communication.
Basically, I had to learn how to compel emotions without words. Easier said than done.
Here is an example of a scene description I wrote recently.
It’s ok. It’s not great though. I asked my mentor what score he’d give this out of 10. I got a whopping 2 (Side note: don’t aim to master script writing without a thick skin. You won’t make it if you can’t handle criticism because there is a lot coming your way).
The main issues with my scene action:
1. The visuals are vague. I should specify which room, and what kind of timer is in the scene.
Scripts must give enough direction for a production team or animator to understand what I envision.
2. There are more compelling ways to show the idea that “deadlines are consuming your whole life.” People might be intrigued by someone being chased by a timer. But, they won’t connect with it on a deeper emotional level.
Instead, I should call for visuals that show customers their own struggle with deadlines.
Truth #2. Good scriptwriters understand the entire video production process
“Film is a collaborative effort”. Another nugget of wisdom my mentor has imparted.
This was an important lesson for me to learn. Before, I had only written scripts for the videos I made. So, there was no need to think about the role of scriptwriting in the entire process.
When I decided I was going to master scriptwriting (or try anyway), I thought I could just learn how to write a better script. That would be my part in all this.
To master script writing though, you should understand the entire video production process. And there is a lot to take in. A LOT.
Each stage alone has several tasks that I know nothing about.
Stage 1: Pre-Production
This stage consists of:
Stage 2: Production
This is where you make the video.
Animated videos need animators and voice talents if you have a narration.
Live action videos involve:
- Camera crew
- Sound designers
Stage 3: Post Production
In this stage, you edit:
- The footage (this can be complex)
- Add music/narration
- Sound effects
Stage 4: Distribution
You add this video into your marketing strategy and distribute it.
The first time I heard all this, I thought I was in way over my head. I also assumed everyone doing video marketing (well) must have a film background. How else do you learn about everything involved in video production?
Each stage and substage is a rabbit hole of information and learning about everything is a huge task.
Digging into lighting and sound made me feel like I was walking into a forest without a map. These are straight up arts in their own right.
Why do scriptwriters need to understand the whole video process?
The scriptwriter sets the foundation for every other stage in the production process. I need to understand that I’m not just writing a story. I’m creating a guide for production.
Let’s say for example, I write an airplane into a live action video script.
That means the production team needs an airplane or a set that looks like an airplane. Unless the plane is absolutely necessary for the message, referencing a plane is a waste of time and finances.
I can write a better script when I understand possibilities and limitations.
The scriptwriter needs to take purpose, budget, location, timeline and resources into account when they write the story.
Video Scripts are Like a Map
A video script is like a roadmap for production and post-production. Now, an animator, production team and editor have some creative freedom, but they are working off of the script.
If the script is vague, everyone is shooting in the dark. So, as a writer, I need to write enough detail for everyone else to do their job without micromanaging their work.
Truth #3. It’s Hard to Master Scriptwriting Alone
Video is a maze of information. Just when you think you’re on the right track, concepts you didn’t even know about pop up and send you in a new direction.
Scriptwriting is no different when you don’t know where to look.
For the longest time, I didn’t write scene descriptions. That’s absurd because a script must have both audio and visual elements.
So, why wasn’t I writing scene descriptions in my script? Because I didn’t know I needed to.
Commercial Video Script Resources Gloss Over Visual Elements
There are two types of script writers for video:
- 1. Screenplay writers (who write feature films and TV series).
- 2. Copywriters and marketers who added scriptwriting as a skill.
When I first started writing explainer video scripts, I learned everything from the second group.
I read blog posts from video ad agencies. They made videos, so they must have reliable information, right?
Well, a lot of the information on how to write a script focuses on the core content.
Have a problem, a solution, and a call to action. Make it conversational and keep it concise (sounds like copywriting advice).
This is solid information. But, I never read anything about the visuals aspect of a video script. Nothing that discussed how to write good scene descriptions or craft a strong visual message.
I learned what I thought were the basics of scriptwriting. Then it was trial and error from there.
Trial and error gets you far, sure. Having the right resources makes things so much easier and quicker.
To date, StudioBinder is the only company that covers both visual and audio elements of a script (for free).
They explain how and why to use an AV script format (also called two-column script).
LinkedIn Learning has a 2-hour course on video script writing that’s free if you sign up for the trial month. I have never used it though because I was extremely inactive on LinkedIn until last July.
I did find this tutorial from their course on using the two-column script. I don’t like that the narrator uses different shots like “long shot” or “medium shot”.
I was taught the director calls the shots. Really. The director’s job is to choose which shots to use.
Knowing the Right Keyword Matters
I could have found the resources I needed if I had Googled “AV script format or Two-column script”. But, how can I Google a term I don’t know? I can’t.
So, I assumed all the advice I read applied to writing a narration and I planned the visuals separately. I thought the visual planning was part of the storyboard process. Because produced the videos I wrote scripts for, I could compensate for a bad script.
Without even knowing.
Regrettably, I spent around 3 years writing half of the script. Rookie error (talk about embarrassing).
If I were in the film industry or working with a production team, I would have learned what I was doing wrong a lot sooner.
Don’t be Fooled. Screenplay Writing Resources Are Relevant
I didn’t look at screenplay writing initially because I thought it wouldn’t be relevant.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
I wasn’t writing for entertainment purposes, so the thought didn’t actually cross my mind.
The content and purpose are different, but the same script writing principles apply.
You still need to tell a story, have a hero on a journey (your customer’s journey) and use visuals to invoke emotions.
There is a Gap in Awareness and Resources for Commercial Video Scriptwriting
When you need a persuasive message for your website, you hire a copywriter.
Blog content? Hire a content writer.
Website design? Web designer.
When it comes to video scripts, people hire copywriters, not scriptwriters. The term “scriptwriting” makes people think of film and TV series. I thought the same too when I started scriptwriting 3 years ago.
Copywriters write persuasive messages through words. Scripts are more than words though.
My mentor likes to tell me that scriptwriting is like learning a new language. You have to learn a visual language to write a great script.
I asked him if it were easier to go from scriptwriting to copywriting or the other way around.
To my surprise, it’s easier to transition into copywriting. This is because scriptwriters already have the visual language down.
Learning to write emotive, action-prompting scripts is basically a hero’s journey.
I am the hero in my story.
I have a problem I’m faced with (my scripts are average).
I meet a guide who will help me overcome my struggle.
Eventually, I’ll be victorious and my life will be transformed.
It is a journey filled with bumps though. And many revisions. So many revisions.
But! Before you drop everything and go to film school, know that you can learn to master script writing on your own. All you need is determination, a thick skin and healthy relationship with failure.
My best advice:
- Look at screenplay writing resources
- Focus on crafting an emotional story
- Get a mentor if you can