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How to Write a Compelling Video Script

Larry Madill
How to Write a Compelling Video Script

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is a video worth? Ten thousand? A million? Video is one of the most exciting parts of digital marketing today. YouTube draws the kind of daily viewership that makes network television look tiny by comparison. Instagram and Vine have birthed their own celebrities, and Hollywood Talent agencies are signing new directors based on Vimeo shorts.

Video has also become an essential tool in the smart content marketer’s toolkit. Whether you are competing on the playing field of SEO or social media, you are going to need to be in video at some point. The good news is that thanks to the march of technology it is relatively easy to produce a great looking video on a small budget. The challenge is that content managers, content writers, or SEO specialists are often thrust into writing a video script for the very first time.

If you have Robert McKee’s “Story” sitting on your bookshelf and spend your spare time reading David Mamet plays, you no doubt relish this opportunity. But what if you have never written for a visual medium before? Don’t stress. Writing compelling video scripts are easy if you follow these simple steps.

1. Nail Down Your Story First

Whether you are scripting a whiteboard video detailing the ins and outs of keyword research, or an interview with a naturopathic doctor about allergy testing, you are telling a story. Before you begin writing script, you are going to need a story to base that script around. A script without a story is like a sports car without an engine.

Start by writing a single line synopsis. Something as simple as, “A plumber demonstrates how to unclog a toilet using simple household tools.”

Then expand that single line into a two or three sentence synopsis; add in more detail and expand your content. An example might be:

“Toilet overflows are a common every day occurrence. In this video from Bob’s plumbing, Sam, our dashing spokes-plumber will demonstrate how almost anyone can unclog a toilet using simple tools such as a plunger.”

Your story is starting to take shape. You have introduced a problem (toilet clogs) and your main character (Sam, the Dashing Spokesplumber). You also have your solution to the dramatic problem (common household tools) and you ending (an unclogged toilet).

At this point it is time to start seeking input from the key decision makers involved with this video. You will also want to take off your screenwriter hat and put on your content marketing hat.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • “Does this video fulfill my content content marketing goals?”
  • “Who is my target audience?”
  • “How will my target audience use and share this video?”
  • “What is the message of this video, and is that message consistent with my client’s brand identity?”

Eventually, you will get to a tight, refined story concept that will fill about one to two paragraphs (some projects may require longer treatments that span several pages). An example of a final story synopsis might be something that looks like this:

“Toilet overflows are a common problem. This video is designed to teach people how to unclog a toilet and prevent overflows. Sam the Dashing-Spokesplumber, will demonstrate several methods for unclogging a toilet. This video will serve to educate potential customers and drive referral traffic to via YouTube and Facebook video.”

Once you have a story synopsis that is tight, contains all the required elements and is approved by key decision makers and your client, it is time to move onto writing the actual script.

2. Focus on Elements Going On Screen

The first rule of screenwriting is to use plain, simple English. While the video script has its roots in the plays of Shakespeare and Chekov, you are not writing the next edition of “Hamlet.” At its heart, a script is a blueprint a team of video or film professionals are going to use to create a video. Approach video scripts with a clear, workman-like focus.

Pick and choose where you apply your content writing skills. Descriptions of rooms or sets? They may be useful but ultimately your audience will never read your awesome two paragraph description of a doctor’s office. Neither will the cameraman or sound guy.

Skip long, flowery descriptions when descriptions like “Interior Doctor Office. Larry walks into a modern doctor’s and sits down” work just as well.

Put effort into the content that is going to make it onto camera. Most of the time that means dialogue, either in the form of voice over narration or an exchange between characters on screen. Writing great dialogue is tricky. Even the best screenwriters in Hollywood will spend six months wrestling with dialogue.

Want to write great dialogue? Start paying attention to the way people talk in normal conversation. Become a great listener and pay attention to the way people form a sentence and interact in a normal conversation. Then strip away the excesses and reconstruct those conversations with a lean, dramatic tone.

3. Think In Visuals

Think of your favorite film or your favorite TV show. What do you remember? What is the first thing that pops into your head? For me its “Star Wars” and Luke Skywalker’s iconic rope swing across the Death Star’s drawbridge. For you it may be Marlon Brando’s death in “Godfather” or Humphrey Bogart walking into the fog in “Casablanca.”

Videos are a visual medium that have the potential to create iconic snapshots in your mind. To create those moments you need to write for a visual medium.

Make sure you incorporate cutaways like graphics and B-roll (this could be elements like stock footage, or inexpensive CGI) into your script to enhance the visual appeal of your video content.

Skip long expositional narration or dialogue, and focus on creating visual moments that will stick in your viewer’s brain for weeks to come.

4. Use Table Reads to Refine Your Script

Once you have completed the first draft of your video script, call a table read. Get three to four people in your office to sit down and read your script out loud while you take notes.

You will get to hear your script come to life for the first time and you will also be able to hear the flaws in your dialogue. A table read is a great tool for clearing out the awkward bits of dialogue in your script. It is also a great tool for finding and filling any plot or logic holes in your script.

I would recommend doing a quick table read after each script draft. After each table read, you can use notes and observations to further refine your script. Do a final table read about one week before production with the cast and crew to make any final adjustments.

Rinse, repeat and refine this process to make great web videos every time.

How do you script your videos? Tell me in the comments section.

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Larry Madill is a freelance writer and content marketing consultant, based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Twitter @larrymadill.
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