a beginner’s guide

How to write a TV script

By Richard Miller Richard Miller - Jun 25, 2020
By Richard Miller Richard Miller - Jun 25, 2020

a beginner’s guide

How to write a TV script

So, I’m hanging with people I don’t really know; maybe at a mate’s barbeque or having a few beers at the pub and the inevitable question is asked… “So, what do you do for a living mate?”

Now, when you’re as cheeky as I often am, it’s tempting to say gynaecologist or nuclear physicist. But of course, then I’m opening myself up to not only doubt, but probably a host of questions I have no idea of the answer to… then of course there’s the inevitability of getting sprung when someone I know joins the conversation.

Option two. “I’m an accountant”. Always a showstopper.

But then of course, there is option three. The truth. “I’m Brand Director of a creative and communications agency”. Floodgates. Open.

Just a couple of years ago, I was late arriving at a Stephen K. Amos gig. As we were seated in the SECOND ROW, he asked the same question. My answer then was “I’m in advertising”. Of course, he had a field day and we ended up having good banter. He rambled on for ages about the old Doors Plus TV commercial… it went along the lines of “DOORS, DOORS, DOORS”.

It’s safe to say Stephen wasn’t a fan. He asked if I knew of the ad he was referencing. I said “Yes, I wrote it!”

I didn’t… but it got a massive laugh!

As a rule, the second question, after “What do you do for a living”, is usually “Really? Wow that’s so cool… what ads have you done?” At that point I usually lose leave of all senses and totally brain fart on my extensive seventeen-year career in the industry. When put on the spot I can’t remember a thing and usually revert back to a TV script I wrote for Essential Beauty about ten years ago. It was good one though.

Once we’ve got that part out of the way, the next part usually consists of questions like “How do you come up with the ideas?” or “How do you write a TV script?”

Making the point on how to write a tv script.

Ah, ha… the point of this article! Well, there is no set answer really.

I’m sure if I’d ever done a script writing course I’d be better educated as I have no doubt there probably is a formula.

For me though, it all starts with the idea. Maybe the idea is the tag line for that particular campaign, it could be the call to action or even the solution to a quirky problem. In the Essential Beauty example, the problem was how do we get an ad about intimate waxing for ladies on TV? And trust me, that wasn’t exactly how that question was asked!

The solution in that case was to use spoonerism to say the words we really weren’t allowed to say. That night, lying on my couch, the story of Mary Huff was born.

In terms of order, as a rule I usually start with the copy and nine times out of ten from the bottom up.

Typical TV durations are either thirty or fifteen seconds, but you need to allow half a second either side for dead air. So, in audio terms you have twenty-nine or fourteen seconds of audio.

In an average thirty second script, you can allow for about eighty words, ninety at an absolute push if you are reading a very quick retail ad. When doing your word count, don’t forget to write numbers and symbols as words and use the word (dot) rather than (.) when writing web addresses.

So, back to the bottom of the script. This is what we call the tag or strap line.

A strap line is emotive and sums up what you want your customer to remember. People buy with their hearts not their heads. For the majority of what comes before this, you will probably tell them about all the reasons your product or service is absolutely awesome. But the strap line is where you are going to get them in the feels.

Nike – Just do it.

McDonalds – I’m lovin’ it.

Apple – Think different.

L’Oreal – Because you’re worth it.

KFC – Finger lickin’ good.

All great strap lines. They sum up what these companies want you to remember about them.

Once you have your emotive message, consider the body content of your voice over. Remember, with TV you have pictures as well as words so to save time, many messages could be displayed as graphics.

You will most probably want to mention your company name at least three times in the voice over. Rule of thumb; if the viewer is in the kitchen making tea when your ad comes on, will they know it’s you?

Structure your script as a two-column document with voice notes on the right and vision notes on the left. Align your vision notes with the voice over notes, so an editor knows what part of the vision relates to what part of the voice over.

Now for the mandatories.

Every TV commercial script needs a key number. This is essentially a unique reference code, so the station plays the right ad. It needs to be alphanumeric and no more than thirteen characters. I usually structure them as follows:

CC PS EY 06 20 15

CC (Crisp and Co)
PS (Peter Shearer – client)
EY (end of financial year – offer/product)
06 (month)
20  (year)
15 (duration)

All TV ads need to meet Free TV standards. These can be found on their website https://www.freetv.com.au/ but that’s a whole other article in itself!

As always, we can teach the theory but best leave it to a professional. After all, there’s a really good reason I decide not to pursue option one and tell them I’m a gynaecologist!

Richard Miller – Brand Director, Crisp & Co.