Online Videos – A New Challenge for Screenwriters


Written by on Friday, August 23, 2013
Small empires

A good example of serial storytelling: “Small Empires” by the Verge. This weekly show focuses on the New York City startup scene.

People often ask me how is it possible to write a script for an online video. They usually refer to online videos as something that is really happening. For many, writing documentaries equals to manipulating the reality. It is also very common to think that something released on the Internet does not need to have a manuscript. That making an online video is just pressing the rec button at the right moment. In many cases this is true, but as the role of online video services as arenas for entertainment and educational and commercial purposes increases, new needs for written material arise.

To enlighten the basic idea of screenwriting in documentary storytelling – which writing online videos also mostly represents – we should take a look at our own lives. The major part consists of everyday tasks like sleeping, working and communicating. If we had to follow a home video from an unknown person’s birthday party, we would get quickly frustrated watching people eating cake and socializing. But if an unwelcome surprise quest suddenly turned up, we would sharpen up immediately wanting to know what will happen next. In a nutshell, the screenwriter’s job is to find these highlights, these twists in our daily existence. We have to search for causal relations and transform them in to a form that captures people’s attention.

We have had the need for storytelling since the days our ancestors spent their spare time sitting by the hearths. One could think that the Internet and its online video services are like giant modern day equivalents to those hearths, gathering people from all around the world. A good story or an idea can spread rapidly to millions. Online video services have democratized the possibilities for storytelling, and nowadays practically anyone can make a video that goes viral. Sometimes when looking at YouTube, it is as if there were millions of people shouting for attention at the same time. This also means that more emphasis has to be put in capturing the potential viewer’s attention. To make one’s own voice heard is the biggest challenge when writing for online format.

Phenomenal music videos and home videos revolving around some funny incident are well represented when looking through lists of most popular online videos. But these videos are usually not the solution when wanting to create promotion or when the aim is to achieve something that can be produced as a series. Properly made background research and scriptwriting serve like the famous red thread and help the whole production achieve its goals. With the help of scriptwriting it is possible to think what kind of things appeal to certain groups and then pick up just the elements that interest the viewer. If there’s a good story involved, any message can be delivered efficiently.

What makes a good script for an online video is to choose a point of view, do your homework and know how to summarize. It is important not to try to please everyone. For example is a video about a technical subject aimed for professionals or enthusiasts? Is an online video guide to a holiday resort going to serve pensioners or backpackers?

Currently online videos tend to be short, and the viewers are expecting something that is brief and compact. The narration has to be dynamic, but also informative. This is a challenge for writers, as the screenwriting education usually focuses on film and TV. One could say that online video storytelling is in many cases a combination of a documentary and a drama,  a short film and a news insert, and it has many things in common with the commercials too. So one has to have a hold of all of these formats and be able to combine them.

The current role of online videos is that they are something people watch when wanting to experience something thought provoking or uplifting, or when they are in a need of a good story. In the old days, good stories lived through generations as a word-of-mouth tradition. Nowadays the equivalent to that is the social media. Do the viral videos of today live through centuries, only time will tell. But perhaps one could think that in our times the epitome of good storytelling is numerous clicks of the “share“ button.

About the author

Emmi Kivinen works with scriptwriting, journalism and post production at online video agency Klok. She has writing experience in TV and film. Emmi has a degree in Film Art and wrote her Bachelor's thesis on youth films. Currently she is also working with a feature film script and several short film projects.