Of all the terms you hear in a newsroom, this is the hardest to clearly explain. Television news is dependent on video for its existence, yet few TV journalists really know how to write to the images on the screen.
Writing to video means taking the images and making them mean something to the viewer. You are providing perspective and complimenting the video the viewer is seeing. Let’s start with aerial shots of flames burning up a motel. In the video you see that the flames are shooting way above the roof. There seems to be more than one floor. It is early morning, before sunrise. The flames are red, orange and yellow and the building is dark black. You can see thick walls, but seem to be able to see through the building. This is an aerial shot, so while there’s a lot to look at, the only movement is a pan from one end of the building to the other. No close ups. Here are the facts you get from the assignment desk and the crew on the way to the scene: The motel houses 150 families; Most of the families called this place home, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; The fire woke them up; Firefighters on the scene are struggling to save even a small part of the building which takes up nearly a city block; You have the address; No one is hurt.
Now let’s write to those aerial shots we talked about above. Most would start off with a breaking news banner or breaking news open and say something like: “Take a look at these flames in (city name).” So, you mentioned the fire in the video right away. For many, that’s writing to video. Saying the phrase “take a look at these flames” is referencing video. But it’s not writing to the video. And, it’s also an overused phrase in news copy. (see “So cliché”) Writing to video means coming out of the breaking news open or banner and saying “A fire almost the size of a city block is burning right now in (city location). While you look at these flames shooting toward (helicopter name) consider this: 150 families are watching this same fire knowing all of their belongings are burning up. This motel on (street name) was home for nearly all of them. The only housing they could afford. Firefighters are trying to save some of the building, but you can see what they are up against. You can tell the fire is stripping this building down to its foundation. While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel, we want you to know that no one was hurt in this fire. Even now these flames keep shooting into the sky, lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could. An awful way to wake up this morning, for so many people.“
Read that one more time. All the facts are in this story, and the copy uses images to help compliment and put into perspective what viewers are seeing on the TV screen. The phrases “this fire,” “these flames,” “you can see” and “you can tell” are all meant to get people to turn around and look actually at the video. The phrases “lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could” and “While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel” help explain the intensity of the fire for people just staring into a TV screen. These lines are meant to make the flames lasting images in the mind of the viewer. Mentioning that this is how the families woke up helps make the video more relatable to the viewer as well. It makes them think about what it must be like to wake in the middle of the scene playing out before them.
Now I want you to look back at paragraph 2 where I set up this fiery example of how to write to video. Notice that I described the video before I told you the facts of the story? That was intentional. When writing to video, you have to see the images then, write. This is opposite of what we are taught. You probably have had it ingrained in your head that the facts are the most important thing. That is true. But what you need to consider the video as facts in your story. Actually, in TV, the images are the most crucial facts. That means when you start writing a story you need to know your video. And, you need to be able to boil down your story into one sentence, in a way that puts a picture in your head. In other words picking a first image is as important as writing a first line. Luckily when you identify that image, the words will flow naturally as you explain the facts behind the pictures. (For more on how to flow your stories read “Rule the Word” and “Storytelling on a Dime.”)
Let me give you another example of how to use images to provide perspective. When we went to war a second time in Iraq there was a visual moment that summed up why the U.S. was there at all. American and Iraqi troops knocked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. The head of the statue fell off and Iraqi’s dragged it through the streets. Saddam’s head was literally handed to the Iraqi people after 24 years of his reign. This moment was easily summed up in one line and with one image, “American and Iraqi troops join together to topple a key symbol of Saddam.” A powerful image, partnered with powerful facts, burns in your mind.
Now that you know how important writing to video is, I offer a challenge. Before you write anything, put a shot list in your script to reference. This goes for all writers. Even assignment editors should write some sort of list of images that either the crew on the scene or stringer picked up. It’s another question in a long list I know, but it will help everyone see the worth of a story in terms of television. TV is writing to video.
If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this. Video grabs a viewer’s attention for a few seconds. You have to give the video meaning to last the length of the story. That is writing to video. Even video as compelling as a huge fire can quickly become a turn off for viewers, if the words don’t support it. They have other distraction pulling at their attention. They have the internet to check out later if they are only mildly curious. Your words have to help bring the video to life, no matter what it shows. Some of the most compelling lines I have ever heard referenced boring video. Take the image of the outside of a home where someone was killed. Write to the video and say: “So and so welcomed company through that front door. But now (name is gone).” When I think of the Casey Anthony case two images stick in my mind: Caylee’s photograph and a still shot of Casey Anthony. The images burn in my mind because of the meaning behind their repeated use: This little girl is dead and her mother is accused of killing her. The point is video (or in this case photos) don’t have to be full of action to be compelling. It just needs perspective. Can you picture it?