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How to Format a TV Commercial Script
Most TV advertisements are brief—advertisers are typically limited to 15, 30, or 60-second commercials. For this reason, TV commercial scripts are structured to convey information succinctly. Audio/visual (AV) scripts are separated into two columns—visuals on the left and audio on the right—below a heading that conveys essential information about the project.
- The heading: The heading of a TV ad script requires the following information: The name of the client’s brand, a title that clearly describes the product or service, your name, the draft number for this version of the script, the date you submit the script to the client, the total run time (TRT) of the spot, and the job ID.
- The visual column: The left column is where you write anything the viewer sees on screen. This column is equivalent to the scene description and action lines in a screenplay. Your primary goals when writing visual language should be clarity and concision. This makes it easy for the brand to tell if your vision aligns with their objectives. It's also helpful to write how many seconds each visual lasts to make sure the entire commercial times out correctly. For example, write "(:06)" after the visual to indicate that the shot should last six seconds.
- The audio column: The script's audio column, located on the right side of the page, is where you write any dialogue, voice-over, sound effects, or music. Write each audio element directly across from its corresponding visual element. This clearly indicates to the reader when the audio element is heard in relation to the visual scene description. Indicate dialogue by writing a character's name in all caps, followed by a colon and their dialogue. For example: "EMMA: My back is killing me. I think I need a new mattress." The audio column is also where you’ll note the inclusion of sound effects and music. As with the visuals, it's helpful to write the length of each audio element to ensure the commercial meets the required time length.
7 Terms to Use When Writing a Commerical Script
Writing a script for a commercial involves a specialized vocabulary. There are seven common terms you’ll use to describe the visual or aural information in the script.
- GFX: Short for “graphics.” Write “GFX” in the visual column before describing on-screen graphics.
- MONTAGE: Include the word “MONTAGE” in the visual column before listing a series of short shots sequenced together.
- CU, MS, and WS: Use these abbreviations in the visual column to specify a close-up, medium shot, and wide shot, respectively.
- V.O.: Indicate voiceover dialogue in the audio column by writing "(V.O.)" after a character's name. Example: "ANNOUNCER (V.O.): This week only, our entire inventory is 50 percent off!"
- O.S.: Indicate off-screen dialogue in the audio column by writing "(O.S.)” after a character's name. Example: "TOM (O.S.): Hey, look out!"
- SFX: Indicate sound effects in the audio column by writing "SFX:" before a description of the sound effect. Example: "SFX: Honking car horn."
- MUSIC: Designate music in the audio column by writing a brief description of the type of song you’re imagining. Example: "MUSIC: Hard rock power ballad."
How to Write a TV Commercial Script
Once you know how to format a TV commercial script, you’re ready to begin the creative process. A great commercial will have the following characteristics:
- A good (and simple) story: A good storyline has a beginning, a middle, and an end with tension and resolution. Commercials that use the principles of good storytelling will immediately capture the audience’s attention and elicit some sort of emotional reaction. In a two-hour movie, a director has plenty of time to hit and complete all of these steps. It’s a little harder when it comes to a 30-second spot, but it’s not impossible—just remember to keep it simple when storyboarding.
- The right tone: It’s easy to think that a great video is always the one with the best entertainment value—for instance, a hilarious video ad with a catchy jingle—but if it’s not the right tone for the brand, it still may not succeed. When making an ad—whether it’s an online ad or TV commercial—you need to keep the brand’s tone in mind. Are they edgy, serious, peaceful, or quirky? That’s the tone you want to strike in your commercial.
- A recurring theme: The best commercials aren’t just standalone ideas; they’re full-on ad campaigns that include followup commercials to continue the story and develop the theme or characters. For example, Budweiser’s series of ads that featured the iconic frogs Bud, Weis, and Er, and later on the lizards Frank and Louie. Marketing campaigns like these are usually effective TV ads because they build up memorable characters over many promotional videos and generate considerable brand awareness.
- A call to action: It’s vital to know exactly what your marketing video’s call to action is before you ever start drafting. What does the company want people to do after they see the television commercial? For a small business, maybe your goal is just to raise awareness of the brand or give potential consumers the company’s contact information (for instance, a phone number or web URL). If you’re working with a large and well-known corporation, your focus may be on introducing a new tagline. Calls to action depend on the company’s target audience (also called the target market); who are their potential customers, and what would they respond to most in a video commercial?
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