By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
Fast food lunch in one hand... tape of video gold in the other... and a battery that needs to be popped on the charger cradled in your forearm, it's time to storm the station.
The most daunting thing for me about writing is figuring out the computer system. If you are lucky enough to have a good friend who is a reporter or producer, bribe them with lunch or a beer after work to spend a few minutes showing you how to create a new script, learn the macros and saving the script without blowing out the rundown. If time is working against you or it is not a good time to learn the script system, type it out in e-mail or as a Word document. You can then send it to the producer and they can just cut and paste it in the script. If a computer is not available, then make your broadcast ancestors proud and write it out on paper. If I have a long drive to and from my story with a lot of stoplights, I write out my story with a notepad on the steering wheel, then I can work on the script out loud. Saying the track helps see if your written words have a good cadence for the voice.
If you felt a good groove for your story, write down how you wanted it to go together before you even start logging tape. As you dig into the writing, if you feel yourself getting lost or running long, you have basic frame to steer you back to your original story.
If you are not really sure where to start or how to tackle four 30 minute tapes full of stuff (I had this exact feeling the other day with a package on Santa School, even after 11 years of writing, it still happens), take a deep breath, clear your head, and think of that memorable moment you wrote down as soon as you got in the car after shooting your story.
---Where does that moment fit in your story?
---Is it a beginning, a good jumping off point for the story that will grab the viewer and set the stage for the story? For example, you are doing the biggest shopping day of the year and your moment was a little girl having a melt down temper tantrum. It grabs the viewer, it gives your story a tone and now you are seeking resolution.
---Is it the middle of your story, the moment you work toward and then resolve, the "ah-ha" moment? The frantic Christmas shopper trying to do all of her gift buying in one day realizes giving pre-paid gift cards from Target would save her a lot of hassle.
---Or is it the ending, the very last thing you leave the viewers with that wraps the story up? A holiday shopper puts the last present in the minivan full of screaming kids and says, "Next year we are skipping Christmas".
Remember when you called into the producer and gave them your story in a nutshell? Write that out and now you have the bones of your story, now we just need to fill in the flesh.
Time to log some tape. As you are shuttling through your b-roll, keep an eye out for the things you hit with color bars. Put those moments to the test from above and how they will fit the shell of your story. Do they help lead up to your "ah-ha" moment? If they don't seem like they fit right now but they are really good stuff, just write them at the bottom of the script, even if they don't make it in your story, they might be worth an SOT tease or you can give them to promotions. As you are logging the interviews, make a little system for marking really great bites and bites that may help tell your story, but can be sacrificed for time if necessary. Also, sometimes a bite may be a little long on it's own, but can be intercut with nat sound or split with track for pacing. I type asterisks where I would put a nat pop and slash marks where I can cut the bite if I need to start whacking for time later: "We started at Dillards *cash register ringing* then we went to JCPenny *rustle of shopping bag* now we are headed to Hechts / we have a coupon for 50 % off one item." When you are shooting, sometimes you know with all your being that a certain image is the opening shot or the perfect ending. If you have one of those, your job just got a lot easier. Write the time code in the video/director's cues side and tell your viewer about it.
If it is your opening shot, what to do:
---Set the stage...tell the viewer what they can't see: " Shoppers poured through the doors at Paradise Valley Mall giving stores their biggest attendance in one day since the mall opened in 1977."
---Grab the viewer's attention... "<Nats of little girl throwing a temper tantrum> If the stress of the holidays makes you feel like this irritated toddler, Lisa Bigley has a different approach to Christmas shopping."
---Introduce your subject (it can be a person, place or concept)... "Rachelle Renteria does all of her Christmas shopping in her pajamas <click, click computer typing>", "This little box canyon north of Blythe is a hot spot for rock hounds", "<Man yelps as he hits his thumb with a hammer> Restoring the historic homes of Central Phoenix takes a lot of blood, sweat and refinancing". Little note here: the laziest writing in the world begins with "Meet Julia Andrews..." If you are doing a story on Julia Andrews, then there is something far more interesting to say about her than that. What does that do for the viewer other than tell them her name, which they will get from the super or chyron later? Give them a reason to care about Julia Andrews. Tell them how Julia is just like them or how she is a unique person and why they should watch to her story.
Now that you have the stage set for your story, let's figure out where you are going to end up. While you were shooting, did the perfect ending shot fall through your lens and onto the tape? You know it when it does. But maybe today it did not. Keep in mind, if an anchor is voicing this, it is perfectly okay to end on a bite so the anchor reads the tag and it is seamless to the viewer. Maybe there is a bite that wraps up the main thought of your story... "I hate Christmas shopping, but I love opening presents." Or how about a piece of rhetoric covered with one of those super wide shots you took just before you left the story... "Beautiful, just beautiful."
Maybe you don't have a definite beginning or ending shot or bite, but you shot something that you can weave through the story that holds the whole thing together: the visual thread. For your shopping story, maybe they had a piano player in the mall pounding out Christmas tunes. You start with a tight shot of him playing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland". Of course your viewers will recognize that, your line: "It's that old familiar tune you hear every year at this time" Then you go to bites from shoppers whining about bad traffic, long lines, cranky clerks, and intercut those bites with a few perky notes from the piano, then a few lines about shopping this year, "Even though the mall looks packed, Westcor reports consumer receipts are down 18 percent. There is a reason the shopping center's sad song." <plink, plink of piano>, bites from shoppers about new mall a few miles away, bad economy, can't find anything good here; last piece of track "Westcor depends on Christmas for two-thirds of it's revenue for the year, with two weeks of prime time left, they hope the season does not end on a sour note." <plink, plink , plink -end of song>. End of package.
Lots of things work great as visual threads. Any action that has a beginning, middle and end---a phone call, someone replacing a broken window, a passing train, a baseball game, someone mowing the lawn, a spider weaving a web, the list is endless. But BEWARE OF CHEESE! It is so tempting to write cliché cheeziness when you have a broad concept you are wrapping around a visual situation. For example: you are doing a story on a baseball team made up of men over 70 years old. Every part of your being will want to use "field of dreams", "boys of summer", "fountain of youth" and so on. Resist unless you are really stuck and you just need to write it and make slot. Go for something a little more unorthodox that you can shoot and write to: "Creaky knees and cracking bats", "this south paw with arthritic hands has no problem with his knuckle ball", "these silver haired sluggers play teams full of guys half their age."
Next, let's tackle the anchor lead-in and tag. Some producers will write them for you, but I try to keep those with in my control so they are seamless with the package. The lead-in is the difference between a viewer watching your story or flipping the channel. Three things I try to do in a lead-in.
---Proximity: how close is the story to your viewer's heart, mind, pocketbook or backyard? Tell them up front why this story is important to them.
---Differentiate: how is your story different than a regular ol' story on Christmas shopping, a local artist or community event?
---Bring it home: It is local news for a reason. Prove to the viewer that this is not some re-tracked CNN feed package.
Proof is in the pudding, don't be afraid to ask for some credit. "Photographer Lynn French brings us the story" or "Our photographer Lynn French was there as the sculpture was unveiled". I don't normally credit myself with the story unless the viewer is going to hear me asking people questions, but that is just because I usually need those extra five seconds in my lead-in for other stuff.
Anchor tags are good for information you don't want slowing down the pace of your story, such as dates, times, phone numbers and websites. Don't hesitate to ask for a graphic showing the information. If the viewer sees it along with hearing it, they are much more likely to remember it (or look up your station's number in the phone book and call the assignment desk for it).
You may have noticed I am not a master of proper grammar. I write how I talk or the anchor I am writing for talks. Ending on prepositions, dangling participles, sentence fragments, whether your friends who majored in English Composition like it or not, that is how people talk. I don't set out to abuse the language, but I don't let the awkwardness of following certain rules get in the way of making the anchor's track uncomfortable to the ear. With that said, if it sounds good, do it.
How is the script coming? We have a beginning, an end, maybe the middle needs a little work. I let people tell as much of the story as possible and just let the track bridge between the bites. Make sure you have included all of the pertinent details that make your "ah-ha" moment have the most impact possible. In the words of Sam Donaldson, "Specifics are the soul of credibility". All of the important facts are there? Now the big question: How long does this baby run? If it is like my station, if you are doing a fluffy feature piece, it better not come in over 1:05. Usually, the first time I get a run time on my package, it comes out around 1:30. Time to kill some puppies.
I know, could there be a more horrible sounding term for cutting down a script, but after all of your hard work, that is exactly what it feels like. Why is it called "killing the puppies"? You are like the mama dog and all of your soundbites, witty track and magic moments are your babies and you don't want to get rid of any of them, but you have to and it hurts.
First look at the facts in your story, is there something that does not have good visuals to support it? Make that the anchor tag. Is there a dead spot in the story where it comes to a grinding halt due to too much track or a boring bite? How would your story be without it? Take it out completely and see if you miss it. Okay, maybe you need it, is there a way to split the information around a more interesting bite or say it in a more concise manner. Look at all of your bites, I know that some of them are so funny or cute (it maybe even your most memorable bite!), but does it support your commitment to the story or is it in there just because you are attached to it? Go ahead, chop it out, re-tool your track a little, your package does not miss it. Keep in mind, the viewer does not know what you shot or edited out and they are whom this story is for. How are you doing on time now? Still ten seconds heavy? Is your script as tight as you can get it? You can go to the producer and fight for another ten seconds, but make sure they are ten seconds worth fighting for. If you have a reporter buddy near by, have them look it over first for some puppies to kill, they will not be as attached to them as you, but they will not be gutting it for time like a producer either.
Okay, time to go through the executive producer for approval. First and foremost, don't take it personally. We get used to editing our stories, feeding them in and airing without question. Always print out a hard copy of your story so if the EP is chopping away at it in the computer and you disagree with the revisions, you can go back in and put the original information in and try for approval again. Don't be afraid to stand up for certain parts of your story. If they chop out a chunk of track or change the wording, be ready to justify it, "That piece of track goes with a shot that shows how the building collapsed, it has to be seven seconds exactly or it does not work." One of my favorite lines I use from time to time from Peggy Noonan when she was Ronald Reagan's speech writer and they would chop up her speeches, "You are killing the poetry."
Time for the talent to voice it. If there are certain words I need the reader to hit because it works with the video, I have no problem telling them how they need to present it. You can do it subtly by highlighting them in bright yellow or putting quotation marks around them, or you can flat out say, "Here is how I need this to sound."
You are on the home stretch. When you have written the package, editing is almost a non-issue. Since the moment you took the assignment, you have been editing this piece in your head. But here is an interesting benefit: as you are editing the story and something does not work---maybe a bite does not sound as good with the track as you hoped or a nat sound pop is not appropriate in a certain spot like you planned---edit it out or find something else to fit in there, no one will know but you.
You hand off the tape, put in the super times for your interviews and a total run time, sit down and pat yourself on the back. After that first package, you will feel like you have given birth. You definitely deserve a good beer, a giant steak or a banana split with extra everything for the victory of getting your first one-man-band package on the air.
There is a little follow up to it. First, burn a copy of your story from the aircheck complete with lead-in and tag and run it by a few of your favorite critics. Don't be afraid to ask for a little tough love criticism to make your future stories better. As you do more packages, go back and watch those early ones to remind you of how far you have come.
All right, go out and get 'em! I will be back one more time to answer your questions, offer a few more tips for refining your style and believe it or not, a reading list. I would love to hear from you as you tackle your stories and offer any help I can. You can reach me at email@example.com or LEFrenchNM@msn.com.
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