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  • Writer's pictureAmran Rahmat

Navigating Through the Art of Modern Scriptwriting

title page of a script

Introduction: More Than Just Words on a Page

As an overthinker, my thoughts are louder in my head than on paper, and writing has become a process for me to sculpt those thoughts into stories. When it comes to scriptwriting, it isn’t just for movies or TV; it spans a multitude of formats, each presenting its own unique challenges and opportunities. From the minute-by-minute narratives of films to the second-by-second precision of commercials, navigating through different formats and picking up skills will help you level up as a writer. Let’s dive into the ocean of script writing formats before I overthink myself out of this intro.

Side note: You will encounter a lot of fish puns, they are important so bear that in mind.

1. Festive Ads: Crafting with Heart and Humour

In Malaysia, we are experts at festive ads, especially since we have at least five major festivities a year, with almost every brand jumping in on the opportunity to tell heartwarming stories that fit the celebration. Writing one is even more of a treat, as you need to merge together not just a story, but nuances of culture that people can relate to. It’s also a challenge to try and be different, finding new ways to talk about the same thing over and over, every year.

big pay raya 2022

I had the opportunity to write a festive ad for BigPay in conjunction with Aidilfitri 2022. What was interesting was that the brief given basically asked for a raya ad for people who did not look forward to it. The concept? A blend of "Russian Doll" and Dr. Seuss, aimed at capturing the spirit of Raya with a modern twist. The moment I heard 'Dr. Seuss', I knew I was in for a challenge: writing a poem. I'd never written one before, but hey, you can't catch fish without trying.

The prep work was all about diving into the world of Dr. Seuss, understanding what gives his poetry that unique, almost musical rhythm. There are a ton of nuances in his writing but what stood out the most was how he crafts his lines. Every line is written in four sets of a three-syllable pattern that sounds like ‘pa, pa, PA’. That’s how the rhythm is made, and that’s why you can’t help but to read his poetries melodically. The difference here, and also a big challenge, was recreating that Dr Seuss style in Malay. Our language’s syllable structure tends to be on the higher side, we have more words with more syllables, so my options were either to keep things super simple, or work around it.

It’s incredibly hard to tell a story with as few words as possible, let alone trying to write out a poetic narration to carry that story. But risks are meant to be taken, so I wrote out the first stanza, the opening that would have needed to be repeated.

Raya sudah tiba!

Dengan suasana luar biasa,

Pelbagai keluarga siap sedia.

I’m no Dr Suess, and this poem had a tight deadline, so just to use the first stanza as an example, I applied the three-syllable pattern to the first and third lines only, using the 2nd line as a sort of exposition tool. Something to connect and give more to the story but done in a way that wouldn’t break the rhythm.

This was risky, because at the time I had worked forming all this in my head only, having never heard the whole thing verbalised other than by myself, and I barely had calls with the production team to work on the poem’s structure at this point so I really wasn’t fully aware if the rhythm I had tried to naturally infuse was there or not. I was prepared to overhaul the whole poem if things didn’t work but with minimal direction for the first readthrough, the VO artist managed to completely nail the tone and rhythm that had been stuck in my head for so long, like when there’s one fish you want to catch but just can’t, the one that got away.

I caught my fish, and it was, again, a risk, but one that I would honestly take again and again. There’s a lot of trial and error in writing, you’re always stuck in a limbo of not knowing if something works or not, though there’s also no progress without any effort. A couple of months later, we got the opportunity to do a similar ad for Astro, and though they had a writer already, what I learned from emulating a Malay Dr Suess could fully be applied in curating together a poem that worked. With that said, I will shamelessly hyperlink the BigPay Selama-Raya 2022, because I am still happy with what came from it and I hope you will too!

2. Live-Streaming: The Art of Real-Time Scriptwriting

You've probably heard the saying, "You can't catch a fish if you don’t know what a fish is,". Well, that's kind of how it is with live-streaming. Though we’re all familiar with the concept, what happens behind the scenes differs depending on the level you’re streaming at. Like streaming a video game and streaming an awards ceremony, both would have radically different approaches in executing them. When it comes to the writing part of it, the former would be mostly improv, while the latter would need a detailed structure to adhere to in line with the rundown of the whole show. Either way, the script becomes more of a guide with prompts on topics and jokes to fill in gaps.

dooit live

A couple of years back, I worked on a live trivia game show called Dooit Live, Malaysia’s own version of Trivia HQ. One of my main responsibilities on the show was scripting out the prompts for the host to read out in between questions as the system needed time to tabulate the viewers answers. Imagine this: two live shows daily, each a 20-minute trivia fest, which meant a lot of time to fill in. Writing for this wasn't just about churning out dry facts to fill in time; it was about crafting host-prompter scripts filled with amusing banter and quirky jokes; after all it’s still an entertainment show. We did have interesting facts of course, like how avocados are technically berries, or that Antarctica is a bigger desert than Gobi, but we also needed to supplement those facts with lines that would keep viewers entertained. Like how with the question on which desert is biggest, I had the host acting out hot and cold situations to hint players on the answer.

You also have to be dynamic as a script writer, because not only did I need to write in a way that would emulate the host’s personality and the way he talked, but there would also be guest hosts – each with their own style, requiring me to switch voices faster than an Opera Singer. Authenticity was key; we didn't want it sounding like a robotic read-off-a-script kind of deal. With the main host, Sean LJE, there were a lot of trending slang words that needed to be included, as he was always in the know on these things. There was also Ili, who you can hear on, she spoke way faster than anyone else, so her scripts had a higher word count than others. Each host required their own style catered to, and being able to switch between them all at a moment's notice was a big requirement. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to rewrite a script at the last minute because we’d need to urgently switch out hosts.

Then there was the interactive element. All about catching and reeling in live comments on the fly, digesting them, scribbling them down in shorthand, and then feeding them to the host for a witty comeback. This happened the most with regular players, those who we noticed to top the board at almost every game, or those who would regularly engage with our content outside of the show. The brand of the show needed to feel inclusive, and being able to do so on and off the screen helped with that. Instead of throwing in obscure references like how there was a fishing anime called Grander Musashi, we would instead do things like play out a compilation of the players' reactions at the start of every episode, to make them feel seen.

My experience working on this show proved that scriptwriting isn't just about what you write; it's about being adaptable, collaborative, and quick on your feet. There also isn’t a single way to write – you have to be flexible enough to vibe with whatever, or whoever, comes your way.

3. Digital Ads: Juggling Creativity and Constraints

In my humble opinion, digital ads are just fancy online videos with a bit more wiggle room than your typical TV ads. The latter's got more rules i.e. Having to go through censorship bodies such as LPF. However, with digital ads, you get to play a bit looser, stretching your creative legs with ideas like a hostage situation in an abandoned apartment, a song and dance piece set in a post office, or even a mockumentary for a casting call (more on this later) – it’s a wide playground with lots of opportunities.

netflix money heist korea casting call

Take the Netflix LCDPKR project – a project to hype up the release of Money Heist Korea which stars Jeon Jong-Seo who is amazing in Ballerina but I digress. We got the brief to write a mockumentary-style skit about casting for the show (I mentioned this before, that’s called a callback). But here's the kicker: trying to write jokes for a show that's still under wraps is like trying to grill fish without fire. You want to be funny, but not at the cost of spilling secrets or overstepping cultural boundaries. Basically, you want to be respectable to the audience.

This project was like a game of ping-pong with jokes – I'd send them over, get notes back on pumping up the humour, all while ensuring we didn't give away the plot or offend anyone. We came up with a lot of jokes together, playing around with different cameos of famous actors/personalities that had graciously accepted our fake casting call, like Bront Palarae and Diana Danielle, both of whom were down with whatever funny situations we put them in. They had to re-enact scenes from the original but with some playful humour added into the mix, like when one of the casting directors dimmed the lights down to create a more exaggerated but dramatic atmosphere. We even got Bront to curse at the end, just to wrap things up.

Though, the biggest challenge for me was in making sure the humour landed broadly. What's funny in my head might not get a laugh from everyone else. Sure, there's a wide net for what's generally funny, but trying to catch a fish in that sea? Not as easy as you'd think. Especially when we’re catering to essentially two types of potential viewers; Fans of the original and fans of K-Dramas. We went about this by adding a story that weaved through the jokes and carried by the two main casting directors, one was a die-hard fan who avoided change, while the other championed it.

Putting all of these together was the pinnacle of the task at hand, and just like when you need to ready your equipment for fishing, we needed all these pieces ready for assembly. The thing about big ideas is that there are small parts to it that give it that ‘oomph’, and by researching and careful planning, this was all made possible. In the end, we ended up with something we were all very happy with, and one of my favourite gags stayed in – that moment when the main duo realised the absurdity of casting Malaysians in a Korean drama.

In Conclusion

There are countless other formats for scriptwriting floating around out there, like super short content for TikTok, or no dialogue pieces, or even formats for different mediums like radio or video games. But here's the thing: no matter what path you choose in this script writing journey, you’re bound to learn something from it. It took me a bit to fully grasp and appreciate this, but now, it's what drives me to dive into new stories, always with the hope of growing a bit more and catching more fish.

Writing, like pretty much everything else, can hit you with some real roadblocks sometimes. Hitting a wall and getting that urge to throw in the towel? Totally valid. But here's a thought – progress isn't really a smooth uphill climb; it's more like climbing stairs, you might find yourself stuck on a step now and then. But when you keep yourself open to learning, and trying out new formats, picking up skills, it’ll make it easier to climb those steps.

Be curious and see what each experience brings. There’s a lot of fish in the sea, but not all of them can be caught the same way. As my good friend and colleague often says,

"Let’s be smart about it." - Adriana Tunku, 2023

grander musashi

So go out there and catch some fish.

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