I wrote this guide for the blog of the storyboarding and animatics software Boords. This is an excerpt; read the full version on their blog.
Writing commercial scripts for TV ads is entirely different from screenwriting a screenplay. Not only is a video script for a TV commercial only 15 to 90 seconds long compared to the 90 minutes of a feature film, it also follows a different format. While screenwriting software has largely automated the formatting part of scriptwriting, you can write a TV commercial script with a template. We’ll talk about the commercial script format and give you a free template to download. We’ve also compiled tips for you on how to write a great commercial and explain important terminology.
Overview Of TV Script Formatting
Television commercials follow a much more concise format compared to feature films. There are two reasons for this: length, and timing.
A TV commercial is short and you have to win over the target audience within 15, 30, 60 or 90 seconds maximum. The pacing needs to be perfect, so a TV commercial script has to convey time well. A movie script alternates dialog and action lines, creating a varying pace. A TV ad separates audio and visual to give a more precise sense of timing.
Like a storyboard, the script gives an overview of events in sequence, though just as descriptions. Thanks to the format, the reader is also able to tell at a glance which elements are paired up together and are happening at the same time. If you’re looking at a script for a TV commercial for the first time, you’ll notice it’s just a short informational header followed by two columns. Let’s go over what goes where!
The header contains all the important information about the spot or the project:
- Client: Identify the name of the client or the client’s brand.
- Script Title: Clearly describe the advertised product or service in a clever title. If you’re producing a variety of scripts for the client, the individual titles should be unique and clearly announce their differences. You can also give the name of the ad campaign if necessary.
- Your name: The writer’s name and possibly contact information such as a phone number allow the client to quickly reach the person responsible in case of changes.
- Draft number: This is important so everyone is working off the same script version in production.
- Date submitted: The date you sent the script to the client.
- Length: The total runtime (TRT) of the TV commercial in seconds, commonly 15, 30, 60, or 90 second.
- Job ID: Further identifying information.
The left column answers the question: what do viewers see? Compared to a screenplay, the information in the visual column is what you convey in scene descriptions and action lines with clear and concise writing. The visual language needs to be unambiguous and on point for the target market. Reading your script, the client needs to know you are aligned with their brand and the objective of winning over potential customers.
To repeat, anything visual will be in this column, from shots to graphics and on-screen text as well as camera directions such as close-up or wide shot. Write the visual cues in all caps and be as specific as you need to be. For clarity, shots can be numbered in their order and you can indicate shot length in brackets like so: “(:05)”. You can provide distinct location names if any have been chosen or reference existing visual material such as a tile from a storyboard–some companies even include thumbnails in the visual column.
Likewise, the right column answers the question, what does the audience hear? The audio column of your commercial script contains descriptions of all audio elements and possibly further information such as length or source. Audio used in a TV commercial can be dialog, voiceover, music, a jingle, sound effects or a tagline.
In the audio column, you write everything that isn’t dialog in all caps. Dialog lines begin with a character’s name, followed by a colon and their line or lines, like so: “TROY: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure.” Ideally, the names for all speakers start with a different letter so you can abbreviate them after the first appearance. To keep the runtime in check, specify the length of audio elements such as effects, jingles and musical cues where available.
As we’ve noted above, the advantage of the two column layout is the sense of timing, so make sure that visuals and audio line up horizontally in their respective columns so the shot description and the corresponding audio begin on the same line.
How To Write A TV Commercial Script
Now that we’ve cleared up the formatting of commercial scripts, let’s talk about best practices for writing TV ads. The best commercials are defined by a clear storyline, the right tone for the target audience, an interesting theme, and a clear call to action.
Define the story
Set the tone
Pick a theme
Pick a call to action
This is an excerpt from a guide I wrote for the blog of the storyboarding and animatics software Boords.