Earlier today one of my former coworkers came to me, asking for assistance in the process of writing scripts for short films and comedic skits. Though I have practiced writing in these formats in the past, I took this as a valuable opportunity to really dig deep and develop my knowledge of the topic.
So we will be starting off with the basics of writing a script, primarily from the viewpoint of a YouTuber or someone doing short films for other social media sites. Before getting into the details of the process, it is important to note that when scripting for sales situations or performance art platforms, the objective should be to never make it apparent that the exchange is, in fact, scripted. Instead, aim for a free-flowing exchange of thought between you and the audience.
Keep that in mind as you develop your first scripts, and for those who are doing the work on and off screen, when the time comes for you to shoot your first film—
You’ll probably fail miserably…
But not to worry, properly reading from a script is a learned skill that must be developed over time, like any other. So just give it time and focus until you build the requisite confidence for producing scripts, and reciting them when needed.
Now let’s get into the very basics of script writing for short films and YouTube videos (these pointers won’t be written from my perspective, as I am new to YouTube and scriptwriting in particular, but my writing background should hopefully offer you, my readers, confidence in my guidance).
Picking Your Ideal Screenwriting Format
- Monologue (Bullet Points) – In the case of writers who are more focused on producing scripts for monologues, it may be of significant value to leave the content of your program open-ended, opting for the use of a list of detailed, direct, and expressive bullet points instead of a fully polished script. As is the case for many forms of expressive writing, the fewer words you can condense your thought into, the more likely you are to grab the attention of your audience.
- Short Sketch – When writing a sketch, emphasis should be on developing the base premise of the material as quickly as possible, while using proper timing to follow through and deliver the entire concept. So, as an example, when writing a short comedy sketch, the joke should at least be hinted at within the first 10-15 seconds. After that, the timing for delivering the “punch line” or other significant details should be distributed at a pace that offers enough information to keep the audience engaged and hopefully waiting for the script to develop.
- Long-form Script – If you are more inclined to produce a 15+ minute movie, a long-form script is the format you are going to employ. With long-form screenwriting, you will be engaging in the production of a script that could be relatively short, or extend to the length of a feature-length production. The long-form screenplay, or script, has several legacy formats as well, they are the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, Syd field’s paradigm, and the sequence approach. Though these fundamental builds can be applied to any length of screenplay, they work best when allotted the time for each transition to be developed effectively. Though, what is deemed an “effective” delivery varies in conjunction with the subject matter and writing style being utilized.
The Importance of Properly Conveyed Visualization and Imagery
While a well-orchestrated dialogue paired with a deep, yet understandable plot is important, many screenwriters neglect a duty that could be described as their raison d’etre: translating words to images—and often times back to words once more. This is the prerogative of creatively inclined screenwriters. Guy Magar of thewritingstore.com does a great job of presenting this concept in his statement, “Visual writing is simply this: A FOCUSED USE OF VOCABULARY TO EVOKE A VISUAL IMAGERY OF THE ACTION.” I suggest you check out his rather informative piece on visualization in film screenwriting: here.
In the above link, you will learn exactly how using a more “visual vocabulary” will allow your vision to fully perforate your film and remain clear throughout production. To summarize, rather than defining the actions of the director during the writing phase, focus on formatting your language so that during the direction stage, it is abundantly clear what image you were hoping to achieve.
Sketches are used most often for comedy, and in them, there is often the recurring idea that “in an insane world, a sane person must appear”. So here are some classic pointers that are geared towards improvised and scripted comedy sketches that you can use to accomplish that effect.
- Base Reality – Establishing your base reality is a primary aspect of developing a memorable and noteworthy comedy sketch. By the base reality, I am referring to the world your characters will be set in, with the caveat that the more crazy/creative the base reality is, the harder it will be to write characters that can actually produce laugh-inducing comedic moments.
- First Unusual Thing (FUT) – The FUT is exactly as the name implies, an event or prop that when introduced, exposes a complete contrast between audience’s usual understanding of the base reality. My current understanding of the FUT is that there are two (and likely more) writing elements that can help in succesfully delivering the FUT: framing the unusual thing at some point, preferably early, in the screenplay and having one or more of the characters’ emotional response heightened by the introduction of the FUT.
- Justification/Backstory – I’ve included these two ideas in the same note, because it is apparently quite often that the two matters are confused and/or combined by novice screenwriters, like myself. While a backstory is the story of a character leading up to a point in the screenplay, it is during the justification process that the audience becomes aware of “why” a character is taking on a specific cause, action, or set of actions.
- The Game – Arguably the most critical skill a sketch comedian can learn, the game is a concept that forces the screenwriter to pose the question, “if this is true, then what else is true”, then continuing in that fashion in as explorative a manner as possible. Questions that can be pitched into the game are along the lines of, “if x, then how”, “if x, then why”, “if x, then who”, etc… To avoid spoiling your sketch too early, it is equally important not to escalate things too fast, as you will run out of opportunities to move horizontally, limiting yourself to less flexible lateral, or explorative, writing.
- The Blow – After delivering the above elements, it is up to the screenwriter to deliver “The Blow”, often represented by a dramatic jump in a positive or negative direction.
These are all of the basics for comedic sketch writing, and of course, there are always exceptions to this pattern, but when starting out, it is useful exercise for building your own perspective on them and finding the proper footholds for writing more creative scripts in the future.
Watch this damn hilarious Key & Peele sketch for a quick and extremely compelling example of “textbook sketch comedy fundamentals”.
Though right now my YouTube videos have definitely adopted a free format (I haven’t yet used a script), I do plan on producing more intentional and planned videos in the future. So establishing this basic knowledge will help me to produce more valuable, entertaining, and overall engaging content for my audience. Hopefully this sparked your interest in screenwriting as well, and if you think you have the confidence to give it a shot, feel free to reach out to me for any general writing advice you think I may be able to provide to you.
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