Scripting for the Screen

Scripting for the Screen

Developing scripts for Video and Film Production
by Steve Barnes

You have a great director, a superb cast, and a talented crew. So what are they going to be shooting? Enter the script, the first part in any production. Without it, the director cannot visualize the piece, the cast cannot learn lines or action, and the crew has nothing to do. The script is the first and most important part of production because it defines what you want to accomplish with all these talented people. It is a blueprint to bringing images and action from your idea onto the screen. Putting together a script is not a hard process, but having it accurately reflect that great scene in your head is the true test of the scriptwriter.

As head writer for TMI Productions, a Richmond-based independent production company, it is my job and that of my writing team to submit everything from 15 second comedy sketches to movie scripts for production. What follows is a basic approach to developing your own ideas for a 2 minute comedy sketch, a 30 minute script for any sit-com or weekly television show, and a 2 hour movie script.

The 2 Minute Comedy Sketch

As a basic rule of thumb, each typed page of your work translates into roughly one minute. If you have not written anything down about your idea, do so now. Just a few quick notes on what you want to get across, essentially a mini-outline. The next step is following the outside-inside trick.

Take your idea and establish a setting. For two minutes, you are looking at one room like a kitchen, living room, or sidewalk. Once you have that, you have just set a boundary where your idea will take place. Next is putting in your characters. With the limited time of the sketch, probably no more that one or two people, but go with whatever your idea may be. You now have a limited setting, have defined your basic characters, and now the action and dialogue can begin. What actions and who says what is limitless, but you should try to make it believable within the context of your idea. Action should be basic. Most of it is going to be defined by the actor and director as the sketch is shot. Dialogue should sound like normal people talking. That sounds obvious, but dialogue can be very tricky because what you want to say doesn't necessarily sound like what real people would say. Learn to listen to how people talk in everyday life and frame it to your dialogue.

Once all that is done, congratulations! You have just written a scene. You have taken your idea and bracketed it from the outside (setting, characters) to the inside (dialogue and action) and now you can focus on that fleeting two minutes.

As to the comedic aspect, there are hundreds of ways to make people laugh. Slapstick, bizarre characters, and tight dialogue are some examples. Comedy is the best genre to cut your teeth on because humor can be very hard to create. How many times have you told a joke that several people found funny, but one or two did not? You are going to have the same problem with a sketch format. Keep repeating the scene process and you will get better at scoring the laughs.

The 30-Minute Script

This is where it gets interesting. You now have 30 pages to fill with different settings, multiple characters, intense action, and a huge amount of dialogue. But if you break it down, you're simply creating interlocking scenes, just longer ones. Again create your outline, but it is detailed this time. We are still going to follow the outside-inside approach for individual scenes, but you need to have a focal point for all this action. It could be a central character, or a situation that your characters need to overcome. Welcome to a plot line. Treat it with respect by paying some attention to it in each scene you write, especially beyond the first five to ten pages of your script.

The plot is your guide to how all these characters and action fit together, and should show the director how all these random scenes are linked together. You may have already come up with the perfect ending scene, or a great action scene within the script. The rest of your job then becomes a matter of filling in the time until these scenes. A good tool here is the sub-plot, some type of parallel story line that is not your main focus, but is still interesting to the viewers. Be careful with these little creatures. Too many will leave loose ends and make the whole script impossible to follow, while the right ones can add to your main focus if they tie in at some point.

It is unlikely that every scene in your 30 pages will be fantastic. But if you have three or four great scenes, place them in the context of believable characters, dialogue, and action, you'll have a piece that can be produced. Pacing is very important, because if the action is slow and the dialogue boring, your great scenes will never be seen because everyone will have lost interest.

The 2 Hour Movie Script

You now face the daunting task of creating a script that runs 120 pages long. This is the marathon of script writing, and you will have to use everything you have learned. Start with your outline. You might want to write a two or three page short story that details the plot line and any sub-plots you want to add. With the length factor, you might find yourself lost in the middle of your script and need a "map" to show you how to get back on track.

Your scenes are going to be much longer, and you can present your characters with more detail. Show their personality, how they view the world and themselves. By doing so, what the character feels or experiences will be translated to the audience. They will become so interested they will not be aware of being in a theater or watching TV. If you can do this, you have created that visual of your idea and made it a world that the audience can experience firsthand.


Besides the development process, there are three things that are going to cause you trouble along the way.

Ideas: You may find you come up with a great idea, and say "I'll write it down later. "Don't do this. You will forget them. Always try to carry a pad and pen to write down a idea. Just the basics, you can flesh it out later. This is your only warning.

Discipline: The whole process takes time. Whether you are a dedicated writer for a project, or simply filling in, you need to put in the time. Several hours a day might be necessary for long pieces. What is important is to stay focused on your idea. This is the best time to complete it as your ideas and visuals are fresh in your mind. Get a working draft down on paper.

Writer's Block: Seasoned writer's cringe at this condition. The closest description I can give to writer's block is that somehow you lose all your experience and tricks of the trade. It is the most frustrating thing about the whole process and can paralyze you for weeks or longer.

If you are lucky, the condition might only exist for one piece you're working on. If it is, move on to something else and keep writing. If not, you can try to work through it or take a break from writing for a time and do something different.

Another thing to try is writing one hundred descriptive sentences about an ordinary object, like a lamp. The act of describing the ordinary in such detail might snap you out of it.

You now have the tricks and techniques to bring your ideas to life. Remember, the best way to improve this skill is to practice it. Write now.