Scripting Without Paper – 3rd in a series


“Writing” a script for a video or television piece is inherently destructive to the quality of the storytelling.

I know this may sound heretical, but it is true.

We are working in a medium of picture and sound. We should keep true to the medium.

Shooting video, then transcribing it or taking time-code notes, writing the script on paper, and then using that paper to transfer back to video degrades the quality of the work – intellectually. It is as though a painter would set out to write an essay about what the painting should look like, and then proceed to try and paint it from the written notes.

It does not make any sense.

Of course, when I learned how to make TV, whether news stories or documentaries or cable shows, this is how they were all done.

But there is another, better way.

Trust me.

Let’s go back to Fluffy’s story once more.

We all agree (and to may it is self evident) that we begin with the most powerful shot.

Fluffy on the operating table.

Now we have the viewer’s attention.

We put up the shot to open the piece, and now we have to ask ourselves, ‘what is the viewer thinking when they see this?’

We know it will get their attention, but we have to now take advantage of that moment.

If you have done this right, not only will you have the viewer’s attention, but they will also be thinking something. Show them the shot of the dog and they will be thinking, ‘what happened to the dog?’

Stop and think about this for a moment.

All across the country, every who is watching the first shot is thinking exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.


This is a pretty impressive trick.

And now you have a moment to capture the audience as yours.

All you have to do is talk to them.

‘To’ them… as opposed to ‘at’ them.

Everyone who is watching this is thinking the same question at the same time – ‘what happened to the dog’.

All you have to do is answer the question.

“Fluffy was hit by a car and may die”.

By saying this, you raise another question: “will the dog die?”

Again, you have no choice but to answer the question: “there is only one man who can save fluffy”

Now, everyone is thinking the same thing at the same time – ‘who is that man?”

And again, you have no choice but to answer the question in everyone’s mind: “His name is Dr. Jarvik”

You put up the video, it makes people think of a question. You answer the question, they think something else, you respond to what they are thinking.

This is not so much a ‘script’ that drives information down people’s throats – sit there and take this. It is rather a dialogue with the audience. You are in conversation with them. Except it is a conversation in pictures as well as sound.  The pictures drive the question – you answer the question with narration or sound and another picture. That answer drives yet another question.

Dialogue…. no script.

See the difference?

It is the same way we tell the story to our spouses at the dining room table. We don’t recite a script – we engage in a conversation.

“You’ll never believe what happened today”


“This dog was hit by a car”

“No kidding”

“yeah – and then, this kid came in with the dog..”


Storytelling… dialogue. Conversation.

This makes for much more engaging stories – and much more engaging scriptwriting

Without writing.


18 responses to “Scripting Without Paper – 3rd in a series

  1. in the UK (where reality TV originated) an injured animal on a vet’ s table invariably prompts the question:

    “Where’s Rolf Harris?”

    shortly followed by

    “Where’s the remote? – so I can switch to a cooking show or Strictly Come Dancing “.

  2. I have watched, studied, produced, shot, edited and written thousands of stories.

    There is one thing that bugs me about your statements.

    They are generalizations.

    You state that there is one way to produce a story.

    You are wrong.

    There are 100 ways to do any particulary story.

    There is no one way.

    Different stories dictate different “Creative” approaches.

    Being locked into one “rule” takes out the Creative nature of storytelling.

    You do not need to start every story with the most important, compelling, climatic shot. Sometimes you might. Sometimes you might not. Sometimes visual “storytelling” is actually starting at the beginning, and grabbing a viewer’s attention with something subtle, something unique.

    You must never assume that the most exciting or climatic video element… is the ONLY way to grab a viewers attention and / or interest.

    I can send you dozens of examples, which I believe are solid examples of storytelling.

    There are 100 ways to tell one story, and they all might work fine.

    Sometimes you can use strong AUDIO underneath different video. This might grab a viewers’ and make them want to stay watching to “discover” the story.

    You do not always have to lead with the most important video, the most compelling video, the climatic scene.

    Movies do not do this, do they? Of course not.

    Your rule… is based on false assumptions. First you assume that the only way to grab a viewers attention is to show them the most important, climatic video first. That is simply wrong. Sometimes different people are intrigued, or drawn into a story…. through something that raises their interest…. makes them wonder…. makes them laugh…. touches them in any number of ways. You do not have to “automatically” give away the climax first. Foreplay works, not only in marriage, but also in storytelling.

    Your other assumption is that all people, or even most people…. are only going to give you one shot, one moment, 10 seconds, to turn the channel. There are many people who actually enjoy sitting down and watching stories unfold.

    I agree with you… that you must keep viewers interested. And absolutely I agree…. if you don’t have anything better to grab a viewers attention… than you should, and must lead with the best video.

    However, it appears to me to be advice for immature and uncreative storytellers…. when you make it a RULE to ALWAYS do that. I am not accusing you of being an immature and uncreative storyteller. To be honest, I can’t think of any of your work I have seen. I am not able to post my work on the internet… due to copyright issues. But I can send a DVD if you are interested.

    A couple of final notes: You have done well…in encouraging young video journalists…. not to fit into the “mold” of local TV news. Then you pull a complete 360 (or 180) degree turn… and tell them “YOU MUST AWAYS DO IT THIS WAY”. Michael, if you want to give advice, do it. In many cases, telling stories – putting the climatic scene first – does work. But please please please…. do not teach that this is the only way to effective storytelling.

    That eliminates creativity.

  3. Peter,

    I am curious – you say Reality TV originated in the UK – can you explain… both what you define as reality TV… and what show it was. Thanks.

  4. Pardon my rant, again. I enjoy discussing, disecting, and watching great videojournalism. I do not mean to be to abrasive, nor diminish your work as an educator and leader in teaching video journalism.

    I think your rule should be called “a rule for beginners.” Or… “one fundamental approach” to storytelling.

    The spice of life makes it interesting.
    Yet the spice is taken out of life (and video journalism) if there is no creativity, no suspence, no flavor, no differences in style, no color, no music, no moods, no variety, no surprises, no fun, no discovery, no participation, etc… Cliches become boring.

    Some video journalism needs to start with Fluffy lying on the operating table to grab their attention. I could show you a great example when I covered the birth and the separation of conjoined twins (aired on 48 Hours/CBS) The producer DID start in the operating room at the climatic scene, then worked the story back from there. It did work very well in that instance…so I agree that it is a very effective way to grab attention. It is good advice to teach this as an effective method.

    But as a general rule of thumb for ALL video journalists to always abide by? That is a dictate.

    Experienced, more talented storytellers, might weave a story differently, utilizing various nuances they have found in the video or story. This approach might be equally effective.

    Creativity should be allowed. For beginners, perhaps it is good advice to make them start with the best video, then ask questions, then answer them with video. That is one approach.

  5. Michael,

    Your advice on how to write to video… does work.

    My debate points were just about leading with the most exciting video first – as a rule.

    I wish there was an edit button, so I could revise some of my words. At times, I come across as abrasive, or even offensive. My apologies. I am only passionate about the craft of video journalism… I appreciate your efforts to teach, inform and improve… as we all move into the future of video journalism.

  6. Hey man
    On the old blackberry at dinner in London so not muc space for long writing, but I think your comments are well placed and well reasoned. It IS a bit of a dichotomy to call for freedom of creativity while laying down ‘rules’. So simply look at this as just one way to do this – particularly good for beginners.

  7. Leading with the most exciting video is one great way… to focus and grab viewers’ attention.

    After you have done that a few hundred times… then you grow as a video journalist and find creative ways to weave a story. There is value in Creativity. But Creativity should never get in the way of Content. We have to always weigh our choices and always make the viewer’s comprehension and attention the most important factor when applying the Craft.

    I don’t have a blackberry.

  8. eb – the origins of reality TV:

    Conceptually you would have to credit Michael Apted’s “7UP”(1963)

    Stylistically Ken Loach’s “Cathy Come Home” (1966)

    But culturally the groundwork for reality TV and the “proof of concept” was laid by the seminal BBC radio show “Down you way” which ran for 45 years (1946-1992).

  9. Thanks. Here in the U.S. perhaps COPS?
    I’m just taking a stab.

  10. here in the U.S I would say “American Family” (1974).

    But it depends how you define reality TV – it runs a wide gamut from the Jerry Springer to the Bill Moyers. The net currently seems to favor the Jerry Springer end of the spectrum.

  11. Bravos, Michael. Excellent presentation. The play’s the thing! Happy New Year, many thanks for the inspiration.

  12. WOW Michael, I just saw this post, what a revelation, “opening with an impact scene”, and to think of all those millions of productions that for the last 50 years just did so coincidentally while you were creating such revolutionary technique, what’s next, the round wheel?

  13. Geez Nino
    I was a bit astonished to see that you are now charging people $50! to get on your website!!!
    Hmmm, if my instruction is too basic for you, it is at least free of charge, as is reading here. I’ll really have to start saving my pennies now just to even read what you’ve got to offer.

  14. Actually Michael, you were my inspiration. I figure that if you and the Travel Channel can find enough suckers to pay $2400 for 4 days of information that can be gotten at any adult education center and found in much greater depth in any book or magazine at a fraction of what you are charging, my $50 subscription ($20 for two months trial) by comparison is the educational value of the millennium, and I was right. As I said before; you sold them a parked car and I teach them how to go places and getting paid to drive it.

  15. Dear Nino
    Then here’s a little business advice for you, free of charge . If no one can get on your website to see what the ‘product’ is, you are cutting into your own business. Better to have an open site and then a ‘members’ section. )Look at how most porno sites work, they figured this out a long time ago). By the way, most of what you can learn at Harvard or MIT can be gotten in any library for free (or didn’t you see Good Will Hunting?). But that’s not what people pay for.

  16. Nino said:

    …I figure that if you and the Travel Channel can find enough suckers to pay $2400 for 4 days of information that can be gotten at any adult education center…

    Blah, blah, blah – Same elitism, different day…

  17. Thanks for the advice Michael; don’t forget that I’m also very active in a dozen of forums and newsgroups both in and outside the US and I give plenty of free advises and instructions everyday to those who need and ask.

    I love the way you worked-in your comparisons, me to porno and you to MIT and Harvard, very clever.

    Cliff, maybe one day you you too will have something useful to contribute, at least Michael (on certain occasions) can be funny.

  18. Wow, I love it that you don’t write out the story and edit on paper. The local news producers all do this and it feels stale and fake to me.

    Better to find the story thread in the video, in people’s words and faces and weave your tale from the direct source.

    Excellent tips, as always, thanks Michael! And sassy debate too!

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