When you ask for script samples from prospective writers, they will submit scripts to you presented in television format or in a screenplay format. As their names suggest, one has become traditional to television (and video) and the other to dramatic presentations.
Why should you learn how to read a script?
Learning how to read a script will be important to you if your company produces a video or you’re aiming to become a scriptwriter.
One-column scripts are primarily used in feature film production, although not exclusively. I know a few scriptwriters who prefer single-column scripts for both dramatic and non-dramatic productions, and I know producers that ask for scripts in two columns regardless of content.
There are pros and cons to each format (described below). Because you’re following our earlier advice of hiring a scriptwriter before you hire a production company, let the writer know that he or she may be asked to produce a script in a format dictated by the production company.
Two-column scripts are, by far, the norm in television and corporate video.
In the two-column, or television script, the page is divided into two columns.
On the left side is the “video” column. It lists everything you will see: actors, graphics, a description of the action, and so forth. Depending on the writer’s involvement in production, the “video” column may be fairly specific with shots (and whether they’re close-up, medium, or long, for instance), slides, archival footage, locations, and words to appear on the screen.
The right side features the “audio” column, which includes direction for every sound, sound effect, music selection (even if not defined), and spoken word in the finished piece.
Originally, the two-column script format was developed so that a completed script (developed on an old-fashioned typewriter) could be taped together, end-to-end, and run through a teleprompter (a camera accessory that projected a completed script to the person in front of the camera, who read the right-hand column (the audio portion) of the script and still appeared to be looking directly at the lens). The teleprompter of old allowed for four or five words per line, perfect bite-sized reading material for on-air talent. (Today’s teleprompters also use this line length, but work, of course, from an attached computer and electronic file.)
The television script is still the format of choice for television and corporate scripts because it organizes the visual content and the spoken copy into two distinct columns, so that a narrator can easily read straight through the right-hand audio column with no unwanted interruptions. (Single-column scripts don’t always make reading narration as easy.)
The television format is often preferred by corporate producers and many others because, when done right, the elements of the left-hand “visual” column can be sorted easily for production planning and the creation of a shot list. For instance, as in the sample film script, all shots that take place in the WAREHOUSE, for example, can be grouped together so that nothing is missed on the day of shooting.
In reviewing your writers’ scripts, read both the “audio” and the “video” columns. You can read each column independently or in a side-to-side fashion (preferred). There should be enough description in the “video” to give you a good idea of what you’d be looking at. It’s often wise to read the left-hand column before its accompanying narration or dialogue—after all, the real message is a combination of visual and audio. And that’s how to read a script in a nutshell.
In the screenplay (single column) style, action (that is what you’ll see) precedes the audio. One advantage of the screenwriting format is that it encourages the reader not to skip these critical visual areas so easily overlooked in the television format.
Screenplays are easier to read and to write, because they’re single column. No jumping back and forth. Screenplay software (de rigeur) allows a simple key stroke to transition from one speaker to the next (without retyping names) or from visual description to spoken word.
The downside of screenplay-style scripts is that they’re less familiar to television and corporate producers. Another downside is that they are more difficult to break down into scenes, and, ultimately, a shot list, than a two-column script. I’ve never found a solution that works as well as my Microsoft Word template.
Review scripts before you meet their writers
All you really need to read scripts is common sense, although you should always remember one thing: video and film productions illustrate, not pontificate. The message in any good production is told primarily through the visuals—the narration and other sounds support them.
When reading either script format, look for relatively short, plain sentences that don’t call attention to themselves. The writing should be easy to understand, not flowery and verbose. The words must “go with” the pictures, not work against them. By the same token, words should not duplicate what’s in the picture, but, rather, enhance it.
For instance, there’s no need to write, “She drives a bright red car,” if you can see that bright red car, with “her” driving it.
For each submitted piece or excerpt, determine what the goal was and whether the writer met it clearly and succinctly.
Don’t be concerned if you don’t find a script sample that represents your field (e.g., chimney repairs, landscaping, medical or banking services). Your goal is to select a writer that learns well and be an objective part of your team in speaking to the public. You want a writer who knows how to write a script.
If you’re hiring a writer for a corporate video written for employees or the general public, you’re likely getting ready to produce one of the following videos:
- Identity video (i.e., branding the company)
- Persuasive video (e.g., speechwriting, sales, or fundraising)
- News video or news video series
- Training or instruction
Obviously, make sure your writers’ samples have the kind of writing you’re looking for.
If your video is speaking to secular groups such as physicians, museum staff, pharmaceutical salespeople, judges, and the like, then you may want to hire writers with matching backgrounds.
In reviewing the scripts ask yourself these questions:
- Are the scripts well organized as a portfolio?
- Are there different kinds of writing (e.g., factual, instructional, persuasive)?
- Is the writing clear?
- Are the sentences brief and to the point?
- Do the sentences all sound the same, or do they vary nicely? Try reading a script aloud to see if it’s well written or “sing-songy.”
- Does the writing engage your interest?
- Do the writing and the visuals clearly go together without repeating each other?
- Can I roughly visualize the film or video as I read both columns?
- Do I feel anything after reading each script sample? Want to do something? Do I know something I didn’t know before? Am I interested? Bored?
Make hiring your scriptwriter the most important part of your video process, and you’ll be rewarded in the final video piece.