What is a script?

Writing A ScriptAt a minimum, scripts are made up of dialogue and audio content. They may also have other information that helps producers, directors and others working on the set see what they need to do and when.

Purpose of a script

Having a script serves a number of purposes. It helps the director to be clear about ideas, to coordinate the production and to understand what resources are needed. Many others involved in the film also use the script – for instance, assistant directors use it to guide preparing actors and camera people for scenes and for special effects.

Types of scripts and other tools

You can choose from different tools to make sure your film is a great product and to produce it  efficiently.

  • You might write a preliminary script, which you can get an editor to review.
  • An outline script will contain scene topics with accompanying times, people involved, equipment and any content from other sources to insert.
  • Fully scripted scripts will have everything necessary for production, including dialogue, actions, equipment needed, camera moves and special effects. The script shows the relationship between dialogue, action, treatment and mechanics. Full scripts are often used for newscasts, drama and operas.
  • A rehearsal script familiarizes the cast and other staff with the production and is used pre-shooting.  It may have a synopsis, settings, character list, team information, locations, weather, as well as actions, actor directions and dialogue. Drama productions will often use this.
  • A semi-scripted script contains the details that production staff need.
  • A camera script has instructions for camera operators showing shot numbers, camera used, basic shots and switching instructions such as cuts. If camera and boom operators used full scripts, they would be distracted by detail they don’t need. A camera script will also be often used for a drama production.
  • Storyboards are designed to figure out details for scenes, including camera work. A storyboard is a grid, with each box recording what is contained in a shot. For example, the first box in a filming of a Commonwealth Games might be entitled “Waiting for flag entry” and show the a drawing of the entrance where the flag will be brought in, with the second box entitled “Flag enters,” showing a drawing of a close-up of the flag-bearer with the flag.
  • A Production Plan shows the flow of the work.

The script might also be written after footage has been shot, based on a story outline, with shots then filmed opportunistically,or a script can be written after footage has been edited. The editor assembles the shots that have been taken based on a story outline. A Music and Effects (M&E) version of the script will be needed for the dialogue when it’s made in another language.

You might also like to consider other tools. A synopsis showing basic setting, characters and plot helps all the crew understand the production. A fact sheet about guests or products can be useful. A breakdown sheet/show format/running order is useful for shows that have separate parts. Team rosters with numbers of crew jerseys can also be useful, especially for directors. There are many other tools you might like to consider – camera cards, cue cards, teleprompters and more.

Different layouts exist for developing different types of scripts.  The main ones are:

  • A full page script type has an introduction explaining the location and action. Under this comes the dialogue and actions. It’s used often for narrative films and single camera films. Reminder notes can be put in a wide left hand margin – for example, transition and camera instructions.
  • Another type of full page script is often used for television. It has the name and number of the scene in a top row, then shows all information for all the crew for each scene in further rows, including all of the cameras’ shots, audio and actions.
  • A two-column version has dialogue and actions on the right hand side, and all other information guiding the production on the left hand side.

You need to have the following in mind as you develop a script.

  • Start with a simple outline, creating a flow of ideas. Have one idea relate to the next.
  • You are developing the script for people to see, so you should present the content visually as much as possible. Visual messages can be powerful. A raised eyebrow, for instance, can say something in a much shorter time than words. Also keep in mind that you will sometimes want the audience to be concentrating on events rather than what is said; an example would be a detective story where they need to ‘get’ what the sleuth is figuring out. As a guide, try not to use “talking heads.”  Instead, use scenes that show what they are talking about where possible.
  • As the filmmaker, you choose the pace, unlike a book author whose audience can choose their own pace. You need to consider the time viewers will need to take in information, especially new information. The pace at any time during your film might be slow, medium, fast, brief, or leisurely. Note that once an actor has finished a point, the picture or action needs to be completed before you move onto another. Having a little more time can help the viewer take in the information. The opposite is also true;  a picture may be brief, and the actor can more time to complete the point.
  • Don’t have too much dialogue. Break up the commentary, or else a scene can feel like endless information.  Also, if the talent speaks more slowly or quickly, the scene can get out of step.
  • Don’t use formal, bookish style. Instead, use everyday conversational style. Write the script as if you are talking to one person in the audience. This means not using long sentences. Know that audiences having to pause to figure out something mean that they’re likely to not be focusing on the next piece of information. Subtitles or passing comments can also help the audience understand what you’re saying.
  • You may get writers’ block. If this happens, get yourself outdoors or do something else for a while. This will help you see things in a fresh way.
  • Think about your subject and your audience. Is your film meant to entertain, interest, inform, persuade or something else? What does your audience know already about the subject?
  • The script has to fit your budget and probably program length. Think about what absolutely to be shot on location and what might be sourced cheaper.
  • Make sure your style matches your subject and suits your audience. A serious subject will need a serious tone.
  • Who is the talent in your production? If they are inexperienced, keep the dialogue to brief ‘bites’.