Week 3: Writing + Scripting

posted Apr 25, 2012, 6:50 PM by Priya Nayar
This week, we look at writing, which is the basis for everything that we do as producers. Herein, we look at narrative scripting, dramatic structure, and non-fiction scripting. Please review the lecture notes, accompanying PowerPoint, video of the class lecture, and then attend to this week's assignment. Also provided are links to various scripting templates and software (some free) that you might find helpful in your endeavors. 
  • Writing and Scripting for Producers

    Writing & Scripting

       I suppose if you weigh the pages that have been devoted to writing about scriptwriting, they would weigh far more than the pages that have actually been devoted to scripts. Everybody has an opinion and, being writers, they express them in as many words as possible. Not only does everyone have an opinion but, in the tradition of Talmudic scholarship that seems to be the foundation for writing about writing, they rarely agree with each other. And, even if they do, they take a long time getting around to it. So, we are entering the fray, with trepidation and fear, but we march stalwartly ahead into the smoke and mirrors of the world of writing for the screen.

       This week, we look at writing, which is the basis for everything that we do as producers. In addition to my contribution to the confusion that follows, I would like you to read an article by Marilyn Horowitz, a writing coach and teacher who was kind enough to address our class in the past. She has also provided a workbook for scriptwriters. Marilyn’s approach is aimed squarely at narrative scriptwriting; she does not discuss non-fiction writing.  However, there is a detailed look at approaches to the non-fiction script and treatment in the verbiage that follows.

       In addition to that, please find a PowerPoint presentation in which I review some other approaches to scriptwriting and storyboarding. There are no lecture notes for this presentation, which is pretty much self-explanatory. And, of course, we will post a video of this week’s class for reference and amusement.

       You can’t do much production planning until you have a strong sense of what you will need to shoot. So, regardless of the ultimate form of the script, it must first serve as the basis for the “breakdown” of the production into scenes, locations, subjects or actors, and other elements. The script or treatment must provide the producer the information necessary to estimate the number of shooting days, sets, studios or locations, crew and equipment, costumes and props, talent, transportation, etc.

       The script or treatment doesn’t need to be finalized in order for the producer to proceed with his or her job. But, before anything much can be accomplished, writing must be well underway so that you can figure out what resources are going to be required.

    The Elements of Storytelling

    As you are committing your story to paper, it may be useful to review classic dramatic structure. There are many variants, but, ultimately, almost any narrative project will follow this basic structure. Without sounding too obvious, a formal dramatic structure does not necessarily apply to documentaries, but many of these elements can be found (or should be found) in non-fiction endeavors.

    • SET-UP
      • establish the “world” of your story
      • identify your protagonist (who is he/she, what does the character want?
      • learn the protagonist’s “plan” (How will the character get what he/she wants?)
      • meet the antagonist (who and why)
      • see how the protagonist’s plan can be thwarted
      • protagonist’s response to obstacles
      • introduction of new plan
      • protagonist/antagonist confrontation
      • Outcome for protagonist (win or lose – what is learned?)
      • dénouement

    What is the Writer’s Palette?

    A producer need not be a writer but, at a minimum, a producer must be able to tell good writing from bad. You should understand the writer’s craft well enough to recognize the different stages that a script must go through before it is “finished.”  Your conceptual skills must include a nuanced vocabulary that will help you speak clearly to your writer(s). Think of the writer as a painter who has deft skills at mixing endless combinations of the primary colors he or she has squeezed onto the palette. What are those colors?

      • who is antagonist and who is protagonist?
      • what are most incisive elements of each character?
        • significant details:
          • costume & props
          • language or speaking voice
          • physical attributes & defects
        • character triangles can be useful
      • consider character “arc” – starts one place and ends in another
    • VOICE (of script, not of characters)
      • Is the story told by:
        • omniscient observer (story seen in now)
        • dramatic first person account (VO or sync-to-camera)
        • voice of filmmaker (narrator VO)
        • voice of reporter (or off-camera producer)
        • “unreliable” reporter (participant or actor)
        • conventions of TV news & docs (“ objective” POV in theory if not fact)
      • What is your native “ voice” as a producer?
      • comedy or drama?
      • reality or fantasy?
      • “art directed” or gritty realism?
      • theme driven or indirect/elliptical?
      • sympathetic or neutral or unsympathetic?
      • happy & optimistic or troubled & skeptical?
      • Your “voice” will reflect, in large part, your personality and approach to life.
    •  PLACE & LOOK
      • ambience gives overtones (menace, pastoral, edgy, modern, hip, cheesy)
      • How important will your cinematography be? Is there a look you are after?
      • Are you using visual symbols or motifs to communicate meaning?
    • THEME
      • underlying idea that audience can sense or consciously apprehend
      • extended metaphors (parables)
      • there can be big satisfaction via a “ take-away” insight/idea
      • in scripted narrative, every line should advance the action or the story
      • consider vocabulary and vernacular to express class, education, occupation, origins 
      • flash back
      • slow-motion/compressed time
      • period piece
      • “real” time (like 24)
      • linear narrative
      • unfolding action = watch; don’t tell.
    There are many styles of writing. At different times you may find that one of these is most appropriate:
    • academic
    • discursive
    • colloquial
    • technical
    • sales/advertising
    • bulleted, PowerPoint style

       It is perhaps ironic that academic writing, the style in which you have had the most training and experience, is the one writing style that you will rarely if ever use once you have departed these hallowed ivy-covered halls, although it can come in handy for nonfiction projects on academic, scientific or technical subjects.

       As a producer, you should be sensitive to the fact that individual writers will have strengths and weaknesses. You will need to appreciate the elements of the writer’s craft to precisely identify script “problems” or missing elements. More often than not, the missing elements are one of the primary elements in the writer’s palette discussed above.

       As the producer, whether you want to be or not, you are almost always part of the writing team. The producer gets enough credit as it is, so I recommend you never ask or take screen credit for writing, even though you may have made as large a contribution as any writer (unless you are a writer-producer who is the main creator of the script). Like all the “rules” of producing, this is not carved in stone so much as etched in plasticine, and, particularly on smaller scale non-fiction or documentary projects, the writer and producer may well be one and the same person.  Toward your goal of producing well, become aware of your own writing strengths and weaknesses.

    Five Writing Formats

    The ScreenplayThere is one established format for TV and film scripts (with small variations between episodic TV and feature film). To find out about the general format requirements, read the delightful and accurate template prepared Lydia Antonini, by a graduate of the Media Studies program, entitled “Standard Screenplay Template: The Rulz.” As you will see, she is something of an expert on the subject of proper formatting for the screenplay standard that is used in both TV and feature films. Read this document with care. Thanks to Lydia for these detailed and engaging notes. If you use Microsoft Word, you can search their free online template library for “script” or “ screenplay” to obtain stylesheets that you can use to format your document. If you’re collaborating with someone using GoogleDocs, there are a few templates available. Search “script” to locate them, since they change often. Not all of them will be useful to you, but I have found a few that work in a recent search.

    Other templates are available from:

    Scriptsmart MSWord templates from the BBC
    Snoozeletter MSWord 2002 + 97 + 2007 templates
    OpenOffice.org 2.x/3.x Screenwright(R) screenplay formatting template (FREE!)

    Screenplay formatting/writing software (some free) is available from:
    Final Draft Screenwriting software
    Movie Magic Screenwriter
    Movie Outline Scriptwriting Software
    Montage Screenwriting Software
    Writer's Cafe
    Celtx screenwriting software (FREE!)
    Wikimedia screenplay extension
    Cinergy Script Editor (FREE!)
    Plotbot Online Script Editor (FREE!)
    Zhura - Features online collaboration. (FREE!)




    Reviews and links:


    I won’t vouch for everything here. Final Draft and Movie Magic are industry standards. The Celtx system is an online collaborative system that also includes scheduling and budgeting, sort of a specialized wiki environment for filmmaking. I’� � � � � � ve seen the Cinergy script editor and it is good as well. A lot of the free stuff works on Windows and is not available for Mac. Open Office.org is a free office productivity suite that runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux. It is full-featured, and read and writes Word format files, and can use those templates. Whatever you use is up to you.

    The Beat Outline (narrative treatment)It can take months or even years to write and polish the screenplay for a feature film. Teams of seasoned Hollywood sit-com writers need weeks to hammer out the screenplay for a half-hour series that already has established characters and a show formula that is formalized in a “bible.” So it’s a bit unrealistic for those of you who are working on an original narrative project to think that you will have a completed draft of your script done within the first 5 or 6 weeks of the semester. (Unless, of course, you are using a script that you have already been working on for some time.) However, it is possible to write a “ treatment” or “beat outline” that gives enough detail about the story so that, as a producer, you will be able to figure out how to make it (particularly, how to build a schedule and budget.)

    The StoryboardThere are some kinds of writing/designing tasks that do not lend themselves to spoken words or written words either. They require a more precisely detailed kind of visual notation. This is the “storyboard,” of which there are many varieties ranging from extremely complex and detailed to extremely informal and simple. Television commercials are traditionally storyboarded because the visual elements are so essential to the message. Animation, graphic, and special effect sequences are also best expressed in a storyboard. Some examples of storyboards can be found in the Writing & Scripting folder in the Resources section of Blackboard.

    The BibleIn episodic television in particular, there is a huge store of background with which a writer must be familiar before starting to script an episode. Producers (usually the show runner) -- along other members of production teams – usually develop a set of definitive notes about a broad range of elements related to a show: character notes, art direction, production technique and much, much more.

    The Treatment (for documentaries)While the tradition of “scripted” documentaries goes all the way back to Flaherty, contemporary documentary films are rarely, if ever, scripted in the same way as a narrative. Almost by definition, it is impossible to know the story that will be told until after it has been captured onto stills, film or videotape. Other forms of non-fiction filmmaking, particularly educational, scientific, or industrial, are often scripted in advance of production. With that in mind, it can be useful to look at the process of writing a documentary concept as requiring two phases.

    • Research and Positioning Phase
      • kinds of research (5)
        • competitive analysis;
        • quantitative metrics (the ratings, the budget, the sponsorship interest)
        • informal polling people in the field
        • citation of hard data from professional organizations, government, etc. (cite your source)
        • content research
          • written materials
          • subject matter experts
          • fact checking
      • ways to do research:
      • web scouring
      • meeting with industry insiders/experts
      • libraries & repositories.
    • Segment Treatment / Pre-Production Phase
    • write overall positioning statement
      • “goals”
      • “intent”
      • “theme”
    • break into “segments”
    • estimate duration of each segment
    • consider choices of formatting devices
      • hosts,
      • reporters
      • blind VO,
      • screen graphics

       Non-fiction projects are inherently difficult to script or even accurately anticipate. After all, much of the magic comes as things unfold during the production. Yet, a producer needs to plan a documentary to schedule, budget it, and sell it. Therefore, the producer needs some sense of what kinds of sequences will be shot and an idea of how these will fit together in the final project. Usually, this begins to come together during the research phase, although it will inevitably continue to evolve throughout the course of the production.

       A “treatment” is the document that maps a documentary/reality based production before it is actually recorded on film or tape (or disc or chip). There is no single standard format for treatments, such as there is for theatrical screenplays. Depending on the style of production, a treatment might include “ scripted” elements like the on-camera comments of a host, or voice-over narration. Or, you may be planning a classic “cinema verité” production where the entire story is told without comment from the filmmaker. Whatever the style of the production will be, the heart of a good treatment comes in the form of discrete “scene” descriptions.

       Scenes or sequences in non-fiction can not be fleshed out in the same way as those in a narrative. You may only know some part of what is going to be recorded – perhaps a person to be interviewed, or an event, or simply a location. But, even if you are working in the “cinema verité” style, a documentary producer should have some vision for where the project will go, and a sense of what elements will be needed to tell the story. That compelling sense or vision, along with your rationale for exploring the subject, should be clearly expressed in the treatment, with the understanding that it is likely to be revised as production progresses

       Here is a template designed to help you break out the essentials of each segment you intent to undertake. Remember, though, that your treatment should express your overarching vision, the main themes you wish to touch, and the reason that you find the story worthy of exploration. The sequence or scene descriptions outlined below are part of the process, but should not be the sole component of your treatment. They are, however, essential for the rest of the producer’s work – scheduling, budgeting, and working out the logistics of the production.

       With that understood, go ahead and start thinking about the way your non-fiction story will unfold. The notes in blue are just guides and you should not copy these into your project’s scene-by-scene breakout.

    1. SCENE #: (This is a useful shorthand ID for scheduling and budgeting.)
    2. SCENE NAME: (a name or title for each scene is a big help in planning and editing)
    3. LOCATION:(include a very short description of place you will be shooting)
    4. LENGTH: (this is estimated length when scene cut and positioned in production)
    5. ACTION: (describe basic activity taking place in front of the camera. If you have too many interviews, look for additional scenes that “show” the information/emotion you which to convey.)
    6. CONTENT: (list for yourself elements of intellectual fare being covered in this scene)
    7. DIRECTION: (optional, depending on your need)
      (notes for director. How you want to cover the scene. This could include lighting information, or explain how you plan to use multiple cameras, or give guidance on another important production element that will shape the scene. These notes would be particularly important in, say, a music documentary which includes large performance scenes.)
    8. CAST: (optional, depending on your need)
      (who is in the scene? Maybe notes about scheduling or logistics required to make sure this “talent” is there when the cameras start shooting, and knows what is expected.) 
    Early in the process of researching and pre-visualizing a documentary project, you will most likely have only some part of the information you will eventually need. Perhaps you can identify a subject you wish to interview and know what you want to talk about, but don’t yet know the location. In such a case, leave the location blank for it will remind you that, before you shoot, you will need to find out (or, better, to scout) the place where you will be shooting the interview.

    Try to fill out the first 5 topics for every single scene (“ sequence”) in your project. Then add up the times to see if you are close to the length you need. Of course you will always want to produce more scenes than you can use in the final project. During the editing process, you will inevitably eliminate or combine scenes in ways you could not have anticipated. But you want to be sure you have enough material for your show, and that there is contrast and variety between scenes.

    Here are some specialized kinds of scenes that you may choose to work into your treatment. Each will require a variation of the information above.

    SHOW OPENING TITLES(Show titles should be short – around 20 sec – and often involve sophisticated motion graphics)

    END CREDITS(Keep them short. On TV, networks often start running promos for the next show while your end credits are running. Do not overproduce these.)

    GRAPHICS SCENES(where you may want to use tables, charts, animation, titles, etc.)

    ARCHIVAL STILLS OR FOOTAGE SEQUENCES(Yes, I know that Ken Burns has done these to death and iMovie does them automatically, but they can still some in handy. You can often find existing photographs or even existing video/film footage that can be built into a scene themselves or used within other scenes (for example, during interviews). The pacing and visual style of such montages is often a useful contrast to other kinds of shooting in the project.)

    MAN ON THE STREET INTERVIEWS (aka “VOX POP”) (not as easy to get what you want as you may think.)

    HOST SCENES(Many documentaries don’t have hosts, of course. But some will, and it helps to maintain continuity between segments in a magazine format.)

    BREAKS TO COMMERCIALS(If you’re making the show for cable or broadcast, you can anticipate the act structures in your treatment. In a TV half hour, there can be either a 3 act (2 breaks for commercials) or 3 act formats, depending on the channel. Helpful to make a stab at where these will occur because you may want to create…)

    BUMPERS - both in and out of commercial breaks
    (An “out” bumper could be a “coming up” preview to hold viewers over the break. An “ in” bumper might just be the show title card and musical sting)

    COLD OPENS(Many documentaries as well as narrative shows will begin with a sampling of action/emotion from the show that follows. This takes place before the Show Open and is designed to lure viewers with a promise of what is ahead.)

  • Software

    Attached Files:
    Here are two free scriptwriting programs: ScreenForge and ScriptMaker. Unfortunatel, they only run on Windows. If anyone knows of a good Mac freeware script processor, please email Andy and I'll post it here
  • Writing a Treatment

    Attached Files:
    Marilyn Horowitz is a well-known script doctor and teacher of screenwriting in New York. She was kind enough to visit our class a few years ago, and provided this article and workbook on writing a narrative treatment. While this material is primarily aimed at those who are creating fictional narratives, it is certainly worthwhile for students who are planning non-fiction projects, or even websites or events.
  • Story Structure & Scripting

    Attached Files:
    This is a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that we used for the class lecture.
  • More Guides and References

    Attached Files:
    Here's the place for additional guides and reference material about scriptwriting and formatting. There are some examples here, templates for Word, storyboard forms, and much more. Hope this stuff helps.
  • More Guides and References

    Attached Files:
    Here's the place for additional guides and reference material about scriptwriting and formatting. There are some examples here, templates for Word, storyboard forms, and much more. Hope this stuff helps.
  • Project : Scripting/Treatments (Beat Outline )

    We suggest that you review notes from the talk on "Writing & Scripting.” This document describes 5 formats that offer different ways to approach writing your project. It is essential that you begin this task immediately, for much of your work of producing your project requires that you have enough detail about what you plan to shoot to be able to develop concrete production plans. 

    The 5 formats that were described include:

    •  Screenplay
    • Beat Outline
    • Treatment
    • Storyboards
    • Bible

    These are formats that work well for traditional linear fiction or non-fiction media forms. If you are planning an interactive or non-linear form like a website, a video game, or a project that will be distributed on wireless, these formats may be limiting or even useless. Even if you are thinking of a project within one of the traditional linear forms, these formats may not quite work for you. Therefore, if none of these formats works for the project you have in mind, then feel free to invent a hybrid format, or even an original format of your own as you put to paper the details about your project.

    Whatever the final outcome you envision, the assignment for this week is to see how far you can take writing process in two weeks (2/24).  We want to help you jump start the writing process. Towards that end please develop a Beat Outline for your project. This consists of a simple listing of the major chunks of your project (lets not identify them yet as segments or scenes).Check out the PDF of the beat outline for the feature film Witness for an idea of the form of a beat outline.

    This may be a difficult task. We are less interested in how completely you can envision the finished project than in forcing you to start sketching the component parts and overall structure and of the project you are undertaking. We believe it will help to give specific names and assign tentative lengths to each segment. However, we realize that may not be possible at this point.

    Please post your beat outline to the discussion “Beat Outlines” by Week 5 (2/24) but sooner if possible. We will not be providing specific notes. We will be checking to see that you are underway. If the beat outline is too sketchy, then it may mean that the reach of the project is too great to undertake in the remaining time. Should this be the case, we recommend you scale back ASAP – perhaps the hour long project can be a half-hour, perhaps you will be writing and pre-producing a significant portion of the project, just not the whole thing.

    Note that scripts for narrative projects (in the standard screenplay format) and treatments for non-fiction projects (all segments described) are due by class # 8. Short narratives (15 minutes or under) should be fully scripted. Feature length narrative projects should have 20 pages (roughly 20 minutes) of script, plus a beat outline of the entire show. It is critical that everyone make these deadlines because we begin our work on budgeting and scheduling in that class.

  • Industry Dossiers: Defining Scope & Setting up Template Categories

    I hope that we will be able to get the dossier groups together in short order. Once we have settled on a group, you will need to decide how you wish to collaborate: using the Blackboard wiki, using Googledocs, a wiki using pbworks (www.pbworks.com) or another format. I have no preference; you need to choose a tool that will provide you with the most flexibility but is also familiar and easy to use. All I ask is that I be able to view and comment on your wiki.

    By Week #6 , I would like to see a draft in which all of the categories have some input, not necessarily a full draft, but the beginning of an organized collection of data which begins to structure that data. It should also show evidence of research, including links to sources.

    Again, I’d like to remind you that the template should be used as a guide for structuring your dossier. Some categories may not be relevant to your specific segment, and that additional categories may be called for as you analyze your data. Please contact me before making significant changes to the template categories or structure.

Priya Nayar,
Apr 25, 2012, 6:50 PM
Priya Nayar,
Apr 25, 2012, 6:53 PM
Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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Priya Nayar,
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