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This chapter is from the book

Storytelling with Video

That's what you do. You're a storyteller. In most cases you may go out on a shoot with only a basic idea of what you're going to tape and how you're going to piece it together. That kind of approach will get you only so far.

As you up the ante in your work there will be times when you'll want to work from a script. It may be as straightforward as a corporate safety production with employees doing the acting, or you may have aspirations to create a dramatic feature.

In either case, some fundamental scriptwriting skills will help you raise the bar of your production. I've tapped two of Hollywood's top writers to do the honors.

Stephen Black and Henry Stern's Scriptwriting Tips

I count myself fortunate to have Stephen Black and Henry Stern as neighbors and friends. Their TV scriptwriting and producing credits would fill this page. They forged new directions in episodic dramas with their work on Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Flamingo Road, Matlock, and Knot's Landing. Their work as head writers on As the World Turns and consultants for One Life to Live stirred things up and added sizzle to both of these long-running daytime staples. They've had a hand in a half-dozen TV movies, including the only TV film starring Audrey Hepburn, Love Among Thieves.

Stephen Black (left) and Henry Stern (right). TV scriptwriters and producers.

They got their start as a writing team doing comedies in the mid 1970s. Stern had been one of Broadway's youngest producers, and Black had written a couple plays. Despite failing to sell their first comedy script to the Mary Tyler Moore Show, they were given free access to the set where they watched rehearsals and show tapings, all the while taking copious notes. That led to a brief stint writing for a new show called The Love Boat ("It paid the bills and got us in the Writers Guild") and finally landed them a job with Norman Lear Productions, the company behind All in the Family.

These days they're working on their second novel and a movie script. Here's their advice to aspiring scriptwriters:

  • The most important thing is that we like to tell stories.

  • And the most important thing in stories is the characters. The best kind of character is one with the ability to surprise you. The audience is not dumb. You've got to come up with something unpredictable. You don't want a white hat or black hat. You want people wearing gray hats. People you can't read. You want to be interested in what happens to them.

  • It's not a good idea to start your script writing with a plot. It's better to start with a theme. Know what you want to say, how you want to say it, and where you want to be at the end. The theme of our current film script is, How does the death of someone affect his three closest friends?

  • With the theme in hand we next create the characters. What is their arc and how will that change throughout the story? We invent detailed character bios. Where did they go to school? What were their parents like? What was their childhood like? We don't have to use all that in the script, but it's good for us to know to help craft the story.

  • Next we sit down with a yellow legal pad and make 30 to 40 story points, such as guy robs bank, hides in mother's house, falls in love with neighbor, and so on.

  • Then we write an extensive narrative outline—30 pages or more. We include texture—the tone and detail. We take time to describe settings and characters. Instead of merely using physical descriptions of characters, such as Bob is 6'2" with the torso of a long distance runner, we're more likely to write, "as John was driving up Canyon Avenue, he looked out his rain spattered window and caught sight of Bob, one more time, running in the rain." That says a lot. We love doing that. It makes it easier to do the script.

  • It's really crucial that you learn how to structure a piece so your story will make sense. Know where your story is going and how plot elements and character elements will build on each other so they peak at certain points. An excellent film example of structure is Two for the Road, with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. Even though they use multiple flashbacks, you know that from beginning to end this is a story of a marriage on the skids.

  • Tell as much of the story as you can without dialogue. Tell it cinematically. Don't give camera directions such as wide, tight medium. That's the director's job and disrupts the story flow. But it's okay to script camera angles. We wrote a scene where a woman was about to tell her husband their son was killed in combat. The husband ran a steak house and happened to be in the walk-in freezer when his wife arrived. We directed the camera to look through the window and, without any dialogue, watch the woman tell the husband and see the reaction.

  • You can't write if you're not an observer. We're constantly eavesdropping in restaurants. We're acutely aware of dialogue going on around us. Our characters have to speak in the vernacular of the time.

  • Dialogue is more than just writing down what two people say to each other. Good dialogue is succinct, crisp, entertaining, and rich. It's a level above conversation.

  • Bury the "pipe." The pipe is the exposition, the conduit of information, the stuff the audience needs to know to make sense of the story. Say the character's been divorced three times, has six kids with six different women, and runs a grocery. You don't come out and say that. You impart it to the audience in an interesting way.

  • Scriptwriting is collaborative. Everyone has a hand in it. A screenplay will go through 10 to 15 drafts before shooting begins.

  • Writing is hard work. To sit there in front of a blank, empty computer screen knowing that you have to come up with compelling characters and stimulating plots, week after week after week can be daunting. Back in 1970 we were working with Leon Uris on a musical production of his novel Exodus. After several tiring meetings with potential backers Stephen asked him if he had any advice for aspiring playwrights. He said, "Put your ass in a chair in front of a typewriter." This was the most succinct, valuable information we were ever given.

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