Writing for television: Part two

In the previous issue of OU, I started jotting down some tips on how to write for television including the first two tips below. In this article, I’ve expanded on that list and provided YouTube links so you can see the stories being referenced.
1. Make yourself tell the story out loud to someone else before you start writing. It helps condense the story and keeps you from getting bogged down in details that you probably don’t need or have time for. It also helps keep your story in the “active” voice. This is called your commitment statement.
For example, a group of Texas A&M graduate students capture and tag American alligators to monitor the species in “Making the Gator Grade”: http://youtu.be/ qSu4K1m9c-8.
2. When you start writing, know what the story is about but don’t exclude the extras.
Watch this example: “Nesting Bald Eagles,” http://youtu.be/wsEDdtA3q1k.
3. Tell it as simply as you can. Puns and juxtapositions are OK.
For example, in “Chester’s Island,” http://youtu.be/GDt2gXZs_tY, the narrator says, “The old protecting the young. The wise watching over the innocent.”
4. Use characters.
Formula: Find a main character and start and end your story with him or her.
The general public doesn’t really care about a trout stocking, but they care that Dakota, while fishing that same day, got his mind off his father being away in Iraq for a while. Watch: “Maya’s Fish Tale,” http://youtu.be/6JXV8wMNS-0.
And who can resist a talkative 3-year-old who knows all about fishing?
Any time someone you have on camera can say something better than you can, let them. Fragments, as well as alliteration, are fine for TV!
Voiceover: “And caught for the very first time…”
Excited boy: “A fish!”
Watch Zachary Anderson in “Trout Stocking” http://youtu.be/Avq46JI_Y4M.
5. Use humor!
This one is my favorite. I find that humor helps the viewer take more interest in the person whom your story is about, like four 17-year-olds who would rather look at birds than pick up chicks.
Learn more about “The Thrashers”: http://youtu.be/_UPcCvY8UD4.
And listen to this “Singing Park Ranger”: http://youtu.be/o8n-fflhMNM.
6. Know when not to write.
I think the hardest thing for writers to do is to let the image speak. But as videographers writing your own story, you have control.
Example: “ … not Walter, he’s got a whole lot to say.” (See Walter looking fidgety but not talking then drumming fingers in the silence.)
The tendency would be for the reporter to then write, “When things get a little slow, Walter makes his own noise.” (Then hear him scream and get a reaction.) But the viewer is much more sucked in by just waiting for Walter to do something.
To see what I’m talking about, watch this “Sea Center Volunteer” clip: http://youtu.be/sDXxORIoJzU.
7. Don’t write at all.
Sometimes it’s best not to say anything. Or maybe you just didn’t have time to cut narration with a reporter. These are your natural-sound packages.
Here’s a great example: “Robert Newman – Reaching Out,” http://youtu.be/ xK-yNt-RZGE.
I hope that these tips and video clips provide some insight into the television storytelling world. ◊
Karen Loke, a member since 2008, is from Austin, Texas. She has won two regional Emmys for her photography and storytelling on a documentary about the last of the Southern Plains Bison capture and relocation which aired on the Texas Parks and Wildlife PBS series. She graduated from the University of Texas with two degrees; one in television production and the other in broadcast journalism. Loke is also a single mom of her 17-year-old son, Elijah, who has grown up on or around Texas Parks and Wildlife television. Contact her at karen.loke@tpwd.state.tx.us.

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