N Script 1

Non-Fiction Scriptwriting

A collection of Dos and Don'ts

Pen

When you sit down to write you'll probably be surrounded by bits of research. Try not to lift bits here and bits there and stick them all together. Even the most distracted listener will hear the joins between the different styles.

Read through your handouts, notes, etc., then put them to one side and write or dictate the story in your own words; as if you were telling it to a friend.

As well as avoiding a clash of styles, this forces you to construct the overall shape of the thing in your head before you put down the opening phrase.

Don't try to get in too many Facts

Above all, simplicity is the keynote - one thought, one sentence. We're all used to complicated sentences - books are full of them. They're fine when they're on the paper in front of us. But when we speak we're (generally) voicing our thoughts as soon as we think them. That way each sentence automatically contains one, and only one, thought. Our brains are used to this, but they become confused when they hear rather than read complex sentences.

Be Careful with Facts

I've been told recently that a certain piece of music was by 'ANON' - one of his best-known melodies! Another was described as having been written by Johan Strauss especially for the film '2001'! Along similar thoughts, no disease should be described as 'incurable'. A cure has not been discovered yet.

Problems with Numbers

Be wary of numbers. They aren't friendly things. Don't include any more than you have to - unless it's a very simple number or memorable in some way (e.g. 1066, the fourth of July), it will be forgotten as soon as it's heard. If you must have a number, make it friendly if you possibly can. Two thirds is better than 64 per cent; nearly a thousand preferable to 983; one person in four clearer than 23 percent of the population.

Spell out numbers to make them easier for your presenter to read. Standards differ here - some people can read '97' better than 'ninety seven', but all agree that 'one' is better than '1', and any writer who expects a presenter to lift '$3,693,224.88' off the page without a stumble had better think again. 'Three million, six hundred and ninety three thousand, two hundred and twenty four dollars (and eighty eight cents)' is one thousand, two hundred and twenty four times easier!

Dates

They're written for print as 2nd September; but spoken as 'the second of September'. So for broadcasting they should be written as the second example.

Verbs are Good

Verbs are the chief tool in spoken word writing. Just listen to people talking. Conversely, adjectives are seldom good news. They tend to slow the pace and obstruct good delivery. This is particularly so of the more vague adjectives - colourful, traditional, drastic, etc.

N.B. If your interest is in writing for radio then reverse that rule! Adjectives are fine things when you can't see the subject under discussion. But this is mainly a film and television site, so I'll bash on in that direction.

What the Listener Hears isn't always what you Meant

Reportedly seen in a set of instructions to volunteer workers in India; 'If the baby doesn't thrive on fresh milk, boil it'! Not all examples are that obvious, but try to make sure you've said what you intended to say.

Be Careful with Grammar

The grammar must be correct, of course; that goes without saying. But it's curious how many mistakes creep into scripts. There are at least three good reasons for being ultra-careful if your grammar is below average:

  • Not very important but worth mentioning: Broadcasters in any country are the repository of the nation's culture. You are responsible in large measure for how the next generation speaks and writes. Do you want a country full of semi-literates?
  • More important: Careless grammar implies careless research. Should the viewer believe what you're telling him, or are you as shoddy with your facts as you are with your words?
  • Most important: A mistake on paper will make the reader pause, re-read some parts, then go on from where he stopped. A mistake on air causes the viewer to stop in the same way, but the programme won't wait for him. He'll be trying to comprehend your words, if only to think 'what on earth was that?' And while he's thinking for himself he's not following your line of argument. He'll miss the next sentence or so and when he begins to listen again he won't know what it is you're on about.

Warming Tricks

There are so many little tricks you can use to encourage the viewer to warm to your piece - the rule of three, visual puns, alliteration, etc. But please use them only in moderation. And then only if it's the way you'd speak. If a warming device isn't comfortably integrated with the rest of the script, it'll stick out like a Proton Saga with Kangaroo bars.

The Rule of Three

I don't know why we like things in threes. But we do. The long and the short and the tall. The good, the bad and the ugly. Three wise men. Pawnbrokers. Eh! I'm going too far here . . . but why is it we like threes so much? Whatever, use them - especially for examples. As I just did! Then there's the father, the son and the holy ghost. And three-in-one oil.

Visual Puns

Visual puns are also attractive. I've got a spectacularly bad piece of writing I show to classes now and again. (Well I believe you can learn much more from studying bad films than from staring open-mouthed at something wonderful). Anyway, the tape is part of a business programme. The words go in one direction and the pictures in an entirely different one. The pictures, of course, win. Nobody listens to the words. Except now and again, when there's a visual pun. (The words and pictures have to coincide then, otherwise there wouldn't be a pun, of course). After I've shown them the tape I ask what it was about. They usually remember the headline, but almost nothing after that. But the whole class remembers the puns very clearly, including the exact picture that went with it. Including my favourite; a shot of a steaming pot over a camp fire, plus the line " . . . the directors will be in pretty hot water if the share price doesn't . . . ". The story is, of course, nothing to do with food, camping, water supplies, or anything in the picture. But people like visual puns. So use them - sparingly.

Alliteration

Another warming trick. Sea, sun and sand. That's another 'rule of three' as well as alliteration. I always remember a headline in a California newspaper over a story about the latest doings of the British royal family; 'Liz Quiz Biz'. Oh woe! Another three. Going really down-market there's the "green, green grass of home". 'Buy Blogg's Best Beer'. No, maybe not!

The Seven Rules for Perfect Scriptwriting

  1. First decide what it is you want to say. This sounds silly, but so many people embark on a script without knowing where they're going.
  2. Make a list of points you want to make. Put the list in a logical order.
  3. Decide who your listener is - a six year old, a businessman, or a busy housewife. Think of just one listener, and visualise him or her as you formulate your thoughts.
  4. Then say it. Try and listen to yourself say it. Get someone else to listen to you. When the viewer or listener receives your script, he will be listening, not reading. If it sounds like the kind of ordinary everyday language that people normally use, it will be easy to understand.
  5. Only now should you write it. But try to remember to speak to just one person, to use ordinary conversational language, and keep the sentences short. But don't give them all the same rhythm - variety is the spice of life.
  6. Remember the presenter as well as the listener. He doesn't have your background knowledge of the subject, and you may have to put in extra punctuation or other hints so he reads it correctly.
  7. The most important rule of all: Good luck!

Now you've mastered the basics, you'll probably want to look at the sections on writing drama or commentary for documentaries.