The Mechanics of Writing Commentary

You might think that, if you want to write words to fit pictures, you just sit down with a video copy of your rough cut and a pencil and paper and start.

It can be done but, for anything longer than a minute or so, it’s too slow. Writing to a shot-list means you don’t start writing the actual commentary straight away. It sounds slower, but it’s much, much faster.

Basically, you write down a description of each shot; you transfer your film to paper. Then you write words to match the paper pictures.

Paper is Cheap and Easy

The basis of all good commentary writing is the shot list.

Use shorthand descriptions which remind you immediately of the exact picture – what it means to you. Starting at the beginning, write down the timing of every relevant shot, or specific event in a shot. Set the counter to zero on the first frame, note down the first shot (unless it’s the title or something which doesn’t require any commentary), and carry on to the very end of the piece, noting anything in the action or shot you might need to refer to.

Have a look at one way of laying out a shot list

Now go off somewhere quiet with your notes, shot list, reference books and telephone numbers of contributors, interviewees, etc., and start writing. You’ll have had a good idea what you were going to say over each picture when you shot it. You might well have altered that idea to a greater or lesser extent during editing, but the basics of the piece are there. Now you’re just crafting the words.

But not just yet. There’s one small thing you should do first; jot down on your shot list headings for what you’re going to talk about over each sequence. This is largely dictated by the shape of the editing; if the pictures show cheese being sold, you can talk about the prices, about export possibilities, even about storage of the stuff. But you can’t really talk about how the cows are reared. And, presumably, if you wanted to discuss the care and grooming of Jerseys at this point in your masterpiece you’d have a sequence of them sitting under dryers at the hairdresser. But write down your headings now – it’s a good reminder later on when you get lost in a mire of words.

Okay. Now you can start writing. There’s a full example of a real script in part three. But before you get there, a few pointers about layout


Layout Is very important. Surprisingly so. The main thing is to keep it simple and uncluttered. The reader should be in no doubt about when he waits for a cue (when there is a number) and when he stops (at a paragraph break).

  • There should be nothing on the page except for times (on the left) and commentary (on the right). That’s all.
  • Double space your text. That allows room to write in changes, and there will certainly be some of those in the dubbing theatre.
  • Include the studio intro (if there is one) in the package so that the reader can understand the first few lines.
  • Don’t go over the page with a paragraph unless you really need to. You might well get a page turning rustle, or even a pause as the pages stick together.
  • Leave room to breathe. If a paragraph finishes at forty three and a half seconds, don’t cue again at forty four.

Have a look at the layout of a typical page of a dubbing script

The Four Golden Rules of Commentary Writing

  • The words and pictures must go together.
  • Do not describe what the viewer can see for himself.
  • Do not describe (in detail) what the viewer cannot see.
  • Do not overwrite. The best script is often the one with the fewest words.