George Constanza said it best when he and Jerry pitched their TV show to NBC (Season 4, Episode 4 on ‘Seinfeld’): “Story is the foundation of all entertainment.” We can go further and state that story is script and script is story. At least, that is what we should strive for: Without a great script, virtually all forms of content will fall flat. This principle includes films and television shows, of course, but much more. We will examine freelance script writing in several forms of entertainment in this article.
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Freelance Script Writing vs. Staff Script Writing
To properly assess the role of script writing, we must make a simple distinction. There are different ways in which we can acquire a script.
First of all we have what we call staff script writing. In the days of the Hollywood studio system, studios would have staff writers who pumped out most scripts together. As this system withered away, things became more fluid. Although today there are staff positions in Hollywood, freelance script writing is the norm in many quarters.
Television, however, is really still the domain of staff writers. In the United States, writers who foray into this world will quickly see that it is quite structured. Note that, in principle, all positions are filled by writers, even if their responsibilities eventually include more than just the script. The positions go from highest to lowest like this:
- Executive Producer / Showrunner
- Co-Executive Producer
- Supervising Producer
- Story Editor
- Staff Writer
- Writer’s Assistant*
- Writer’s Production Assistant*
*Note that these two last positions are not quite writers, but they are typically the stepping stone towards a Staff Writer position.
Part of the reason that television is thriving these days is this system, which in effect works a sort of apprenticeship system. In that sense it is not unlike the Hollywood studio system of old, in that experienced writers teach newer writers the craft.
Freelance script writing is a lot more prominent in film. There are typically two avenues whereby Hollywood acquires scripts for production. First, there are scripts being written and sold ‘on spec’ (meaning speculative scripts which do not have a buyer just yet) and writing-for-hire.
This first category is freelance script writing in its purest form. Here, writers who are both known in the industry or unknown, may write a script and sell it. This is the stuff of dreams for many writers. We must understand, however, that it is difficult to achieve. For one, the industry prefers buying scripts (even spec scripts) from proven writers with a track record.
A writer who is unknown in Hollywood should attempt certain things to gain some traction that will help in achieving a sale. There are reputable contests which may open doors to writers and may help them get the attention of a manager.
The second route by which scripts are written and sold in Hollywood is work-for-hire. Here, vetted writers with a track record are hired (and often just as easily let go) to work on studio projects. If you check out the credits in a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster you will notice a large number of writers, for instance.
Freelance Script Writing in Other Content
All this is fine and well but what about other forms of content? “Story is the foundation of all entertainment” in film and television, sure. But is it the case in other areas? We believe that story rules anywhere. This means that the script is king in other forms of content.
Advertising is another arena where freelance script writing plays a significant role. Again, there are several ways to acquire a script for advertising, in this case for use in audio ads.
Audio ads, as we know, are making strides in the world of online advertising. There seems to be no better way to reach people these days, particularly those working on their computers and using headphones.
Podcasts are another piece of content that does profit from story fundamentals. Podcast scripts are slightly different to scripts for things such as television or film. But podcasts still do need scripts.
In the case of documentaries, scripts are also needed. They too are rather different to those we find in other forms of content such as television and film. They are also typically created by the directors and writers involved with the documentary.
Freelance Script Writing and Getting the Work Done
Freelance script writing must be created on top of a solid dramatic and story structure if it is to succeed. This goes for all types of content, including all the other ones we examined above.
Premise and Story Arc
The premise of a fiction work, in the words of Lajos Egri, is what it is really about. Such a premise is essential to give our script a depth that will resound with an audience. Moreover, such a premise will provide the story with a sense of direction and dramatic movement.
Take a film such as ‘Scarface’ (1983). On the outside, we could describe the story as being about ‘The rise and fall of a drug kingpin’. This is not a bad way to describe it, but, is it enough? What is the story really about?
Well, we could say that this story is really about greed and thus the premise could go something like ‘Greed corrupts and absolute greed corrupts absolutely’. This premise charts out the whole story for a scriptwriter: Tony Montana will get involved in the drug trade, climb to the top, and then be undone by the same greed and ambition which propelled him upwards.
The premise is thus instrumental in charting out where the story will go. It is also instrumental in creating convincing story arcs for our characters. This is so because the premise dictates a certain character and story movement and a dialectical movement until the ending.
Most people venturing out into freelance script writing will be working with a traditional three-act structure. What is three-act structure though?
A typical classic movie script includes causality, closed endings, linear time, external conflict, consistent reality, and active protagonists. Most films use this sort of template. It is also the basis of most forms of entertainment, including television and video games.
The scene, for example, is the main building block in a script. It must serve the overall purpose (premise) of the script and mean something within the larger context of the script. Scenes that are merely expository should be avoided. In the words of Robert McKee, a scene “creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”
Length and Turning Points
A study of freelance script writing must take length into account. A typical feature-length film script will have around 90 to 120 pages. This means (in a 120-page script) that the first act will usually have 30 pages. The second act is about 60 pages long. It is usually divided in half; the midpoint of the second act is also the midpoint of the film. Finally, the third act is another 30 pages.
Although these lengths are not to be taken too literally, they do serve as goalposts to make our script flow well. These ratios can usually be applied successfully to other forms of entertainment. Note also that, typically, one script page equals about one minute on-screen.
It is useful to remember that a typical script has turning points that propel the action forward. There is usually a turning point at the end of the first act and then a turning point at the end of the second act.
The ending is usually composed of a crisis, climax, and resolution. The crisis is usually a choice by the protagonist. The climax is in McKee’s words “A revolution in values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony- a value swing at maximum charge that’s absolute and irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.” The resolution, in turn, is quite simply any material left after the climax, which often works as a sort of tag or even epilogue to the story.
Troubleshooting Freelance Script Writing
When all is said and done, we need to assess our content. Here is a checklist to take into account, as well as a list of typical problems we may encounter:
- Is the story understandable? Can it be followed and grasped by an audience?
- Is it well structured? Are there basically three acts that flow well together?
- Does the script have an intriguing premise?
- What audience are we targeting? Is it adequate content for such a group or demographic?
- Is the protagonist active?
- Does the protagonist have clear needs and desires? Does this desire propel the action forward?
Freelance script writing may produce content that has certain problems. Some of the typical issues include the following:
- The script is too bland. This is usually due to a very rigid approach when writing it. We need to remember that any sort of tips about script writing must be taken only as general principles.
- There are far too many scenes that are merely expository.
- Character is underdeveloped. It is vital to remember that character really is at the center of story.
- The script is poorly formatted. There are certain ways in which a script can be correctly presented in the industry. Check out Christopher Riley’s ‘The Hollywood Standard’ to learn the nitty-gritty of format.
The Bunny Studio Way
The surest bet to acquire freelance script writing for all sorts of projects is an online all-inclusive provider. An online hub such as Bunny Studio is able to vet freelance writers who will be able to create a great script.