15 points every good film script should contain

Checklist

Checklist: 15 points every good film script should contain Checklist: 15 points every good film script should contain

The film script is a key component of any means of communication within the moving image. We can say with confidence that a film or video – at least from the point of view of the client – can only ever be as good as the underlying concept.

There are numerous ways and possibilities of conceiving a film or video and of putting it in writing, be it for coordination or exposure. Whether an advertising film with a director’s interpretation (also known as DI) and a storyboard, or a synopsis, treatment, story outline, or simply a written document entitled “Concept”, every film script has a common denominator: 15 questions that define the final outcome of the work in progress.

What should a film script do?

In the conceptual development stages of a project, a film script does not provide a detailed blueprint, but rather lays down a foundation for further creativity. That said – and this is important – a film script should work as a checklist to ensure that all those involved have understood the objective and that its realisation is on track. So the film script itself becomes a milestone.

As for sponsored films, it is best to distinguish between two stages in the film script: storyforming and storytelling.

Storyforming should be the answer to “what” the story is. Storytelling explains “how” that story should be told.

It is not only younger or less experienced filmmakers that mix up these two aspects of a story. Distinguishing between storyforming and storytelling obliges us to keep this distinction in mind and to purposely decide on how our plot develops. After all, storytelling without storyforming is impossible.

Throughout development both storyforming and storytelling – depending on the complexity of the project- can either be regarded as simultaneous, interconnected processes or as consecutive steps.

The difference between Storyforming and Storytelling

A young woman is surfing on a remote beach with friends. When a shark kills her friends, she flees out to sea and takes refuge on a rock, where she is forced by the shark to spend the night. In a bid to call for help, she records a message on her Actioncam, puts the camera in a plastic helmet and throws it into the sea, like a message in a bottle. The camera is found by a child and the woman is rescued.

If the film The Shallows were a true story, that is how the sequence of events might have been told in a police report. Storyforming is characterised by the facts being told in chronological order, strung together and governed by the law of cause and effect.

In storyforming events are recounted in neat succession, as if a camera had been there to record the events from beginning to end. When it comes to the conception of a film production, whether a feature film or corporate image film, these chronological events merely serve as information. And in order to convey this information to the audience in an interesting manner through image, storytelling is needed. The clock ticks on and cannot be stopped. Events are added to a timeline and they begin to form the story. However in storytelling (in the truest sense of the word) things don’t have to be so straightforward. The storyteller can leave things out or even chose to tell a story back to front.

Storytelling means telling a story in such a way that the viewer is captured by it and without realising it, identifies with the story. In storytelling it becomes clear who really masters the filmmaker’s set of narrative tools. This is where real talent and artists set themselves apart from amateurs and wannabes.

For the young woman, the cinema audience and the hungry shark, storytelling here means that the narrative – in order to create and build suspense – does not begin with the drive to the beach. It begins with the boy’s discovery of her call for help; the action camera and helmet washed up on the beach. Therefore, as the film begins, we the viewers can rest assured that help is on its way. Boring? No, not at all. Because other narrative elements are incorporated: on one hand the shark displays a surprising amount of creativity in its bid to devour the principal actress, Blake Lively. On the other, flashbacks throughout lend a more multifaceted aspect to the main character. This survival-blockbuster is close to hitting the billion mark at the box office. All down to storytelling!


The 15-point Checklist        

Like all articles in this forum, the Videothink checklist for evaluation of film concepts is primarily geared to corporate films. Differentiating between storyforming and storytelling makes sense with this type of film too, as they also need to capture an audience and ensure an online presence. Just as every film inevitably has a point of view, each viewer looks for a story in every film.

The level of detail and the language naturally calls for a checklist: keywords that help to double-check if the main points have been mentioned and considered in the film’s concept. This list of course cannot replace skill and experience in film production.

No.Storyforming
1Core Message
2Content description (Story’s progression)
3Characters who appear in story
4To do’s
5Don’ts

Source: Condor Films, Summer 2016

No.Storytelling
6Dramatic structure
7Narrative point of view
8Spectator guidance
9Voice-over and speech
10Story Values
11Look and Feel
12Montage, Rhythm, Editing
13Music and Sound Design
14Animation 2D/3D
15Graphic elements (Title, Logo, etc.)

Chart: Source: Condor Films, Summer 2016

Clarifications:

  1. The core message is the key statement the film or video transmits. It will always be made up of a mixture of the information and emotions the film intends to convey.
  2. Content description is the core of storyforming. The content can be based on real events or be invented. To bypass storyforming and jump directly to storytelling, would be like baking a cake before you have all the ingredients.
  3. Characters must not necessarily be people. Location or other factors can be just as important for storyforming. If this is the case, those elements should also be listed under this point.
  4. To Dos: Especially in corporate communication, key messages are usually intentionally integrated into a greater whole and adapted to other channels, media and forms of distribution. As a general rule this gives rise to a series of points relevant to its success, which must be considered from the very beginning of the project. These are the To-Do’s.
  5. Don’ts: These are the opposites of the To Dos. “What is the worst this film could trigger or cause?”. This question is answered by the Don’ts. Along with the other first five points on the list they create the framework within which the storytelling can be established.
  6. The dramatic structure explains – be it expressed plain and simply, in more complex jargon, or already in the form of a synopsis or story outline – “how” the story is told and effectively transmitted to the audience.
  7. The narrative point of view is the perspective from which the story is told. It may not naturally result from the storyforming and storytelling processes, but rather consciously chosen. The story of “The Shallows” for example could have been told – without changing the elements or the narrative structure – from the point of view of the rescuer or the shark, instead of the surfer.
  8. Many films and videos invest all their energy into the development of the narrative perspective and the main character. They forget that with communication in film and video and with viewing films, the public has a right to be guided by the filmmaker. This audience guidance checklist point ensures that you plan ahead on where you want to take your audience.
  9. Good filmmaking always shows in how the narrative voice is managed. To transmit their core message, many corporate films rely on voice-over or off-commentary. These should not be left to the editing stage, but need to be planned from the beginning. With international films made in German, the question of subtitling or dubbing is also an important factor to consider early on.
  10. Story values are the content equivalent to the better-known production values. With both, it’s a question of allocation of resources for optimal effect. The story values should indicate which story points are meant to capture the attention of the viewer throughout. Production Values answer “where” and “with what budgetary means” a maximum effect can be achieved (note: scenes that might be important to content are not automatically the most expensive production-wise).
  11. Video and film mean image. How should the visual world of the film be transmitted? How should it feel for the viewer? This is the “Look and Feel”.
  12. Rhythm and editing: see the series of articles “Editing Films and Videos correctly”.
  13. Music and sound design is a universe in itself, too vast to venture into here.
  14. Can be done in two ways: hidden and without the viewer being aware of it, or as an active element of film communication. In any case, animation is cost-intensive. A film script which fails to take this into account, can lead to unexpected surprises for all those involved.
  15. As part of the brand identity, graphic elements often point to the film or video’s commissioner. The use of client logos and brand names in a film should therefore be considered upfront.

© filmpuls, translated by Nina Kaelin

About Philippa von Wittgenstein
Philippa von Wittgenstein is Project Manager and Consultant at Condor Films.

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