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How to write a music video script?
The era of the music video
Since around 30 years, and especially since the incredible Thriller by Mickael Jackson, music videos have been a fascinating media not only for popular music, but also to develop the artistic and philosophical world of singers and bands. They are vital to guarantee the promotion and to spread a clearly identifyable public image.
There are funny and scary music videos; simple and easy, or complex, tricky, stunning music videos; hyper-realistic or poetic and philosophical music videos; in sync, or not in sync, narrative and dramatic or contemplative and purely visual music videos etc.
Despite of this diversity and this richness, the basic materials are still narration and discourse, plots, characters, situations, places and themes.
To understand better what is going on in a music video, and to make yours, the best way is to study the best works of famous scriptwriters and filmmakers.
Writing a narrative video
You are an artist, singer, musician or group of rap / hip hop, rock, electro, pop music or any other genre, and you want to write a music video script?
Right away, you have a choice to make between two options:
- either you make a clip that represents you as an artist or a band playing and singing, with more or less staging, with or without danse scenes
- or you write and produce a real fictional film, a narrative video with a story and characters, a beginning and an end, dramatic tension and suspense
The first option seems largely flatter, poorer, less artistic and less original than taking your audience on an imaginary journey through a fictional story. Indeed, in this kind of clip nothing special happens on a visual level, and nothing on a narrative and fictional level. At best, impressive choreography is the only truly artistic aspect of this kind of clip.
The second option is that of many clips that have marked the history of music, and which are true works of art. These clips invent a world, tell a story, give the audience the opportunity to dream by identifying with a main character, and thus bring a real added value to the music.
Sometimes there is a mixture of both formulas, and the artist or the musical group is included in the fiction, either as a character or in the setting.
Music video analysis
As a writer and specialist in narrative, I have analyzed, scene by scene / shot by shot, 14 of the greatest scripts of music videos in the history of music, listing all the noticeable details and effects. All of these clips are narrative:
- How were those videos built?
- How were the stories conceived?
- How were the plots written and arranged together?
- How were the characters designed?
- How did the scriptwriters and film-makers to offer their audiences a great show, using huge or minimum means, mixing horror, humor, political ideas, sex-appeal…?
To improve one’s technique and make one’s knowledge concrete, there is nothing better than analyzing masterworks, taking the best out of them to re-use it in your own works!
Our program of analysis
- Michael Jackson – Thriller – Director: John Landis
- Radiohead – No Surprises – Director: Grant Gee
- Radiohead – Karma Police – Director: Jonathan Glazer
- Thom Yorke / UNKLE – Rabbit In Your Headlights – Director: Jonathan Glazer
- Björk – All is full of love – Director: Chris Cunningham
- Röyksopp – Remind Me – Director: Ludovic Houplan & Hervé de Crécy (H5)
- Justice – Stress – Director: Romain Gavras
- Skrillex – First Of The Year – Director: Tony Truand
- Skrillex – Bangarang – Director: Tony Truand
- Aphex Twin – Come to Daddy – Director: Chris Cunningham
- Sebastien Tellier – Look – Director: Mrzyk & Moriceau
- Etienne de Crecy – Am I wrong? – Director: Geoffroy de Crécy
- Etienne de Crecy ft Camille – Someone like you – Director: Marie de Crécy
- Bomfunk MC – Freestyler
How do you write a narrative music video script?
A music video script works just like a screenplay – the music video is simply a form of short film – with a few differences:
The visual narrative is silent
In general, the strategic importance of the soundtrack prohibits the use of dialogues, so the narration must adopt a purely visual mode, allowing only a few words or sound effects.
Indeed, the spectators who watch a clip watch it first to enjoy the music, so it is not a question of replacing it by the soundtrack of a film.
This constraint leads to a visual style made of rapid alternations between contrasting shots, close-ups and wide shots, fixed or moving camera, light effects, in short, everything that can have an intense visual impact in harmony with the music.
The music sets the pace of the clip
The scenario of the clip must stick strictly to the main phases of the music and respect its duration and rhythms – the intro, the verses, the choruses, the breaks etc. When the music changes, becomes silent or rises to a crescendo, the film must adapt.
Sometimes the clip lasts longer than the music, which is then inserted into a film that has an introduction and a conclusion.
The music inspires the world of the clip
The artist’s universe and the song’s universe must be related to the thematic universe of the film, without making a flat illustration of it: if the song says “I love you”, showing two people kissing on the screen does not bring anything.
The clip’s time is limited!
In a feature film, the screenwriter has the right to take time to set up the action, introduce the characters, build suspense, etc. But in a music video, you can’t take the time to set up the action, you usually only have 3 to 5 minutes to tell the whole story. So you have to set the scene, introduce the characters and get the action going, in less than 30 seconds.
The music video is a mass cultural product
A music video is intended to reach a large number of people: it serves as a vector in an artistic and commercial strategy that aims to popularize a piece of music.
Therefore, it is important to choose themes carefully and to build the story with the aim of producing a strong emotional impact on its target audience, and to deliver a strong message.
The main choices to make when writing a music video
Scripting a video clip involves the following operations:
1/ Defining a genre
Genres allow you to set a frame of reference that is already known and understood by the audience.
- A horror movie like in Thriller or Come To Daddy
- An erotic film in Look
- A love story in the form of a science fiction film in All is full of love
- A road movie and a chase in Karma Police
2/ Choosing a setting and locations
The setting and the places automatically bring meaning to the story, by giving it a visible and meaningful social and cultural reality.
- Freestyler takes place in an ordinary place, the subway, where something magical and wonderful will happen
- Remind Me takes place in the contemporary world and the everyday life
- Am I wrong? takes place in a hamburger joint – and shows an acid criticism of junk food
- Stress is set in the suburbs of Paris in creepy and scary places that inspire fear
3/ Telling an interesting story
The story is what will catch the audience’s attention, generate their identification with the hero, and have an emotional impact.
Depending on the case, clips can be more or less narrative and dramatic (so I call them perfectly narrative or imperfectly narrative), or they can be based on another mode of functioning, for example poetic or contemplative.
Perfectly narrative clips
- Thriller – the story of a young man who loves to terrorize his girlfriend
- Stress – the story of a group of merciless vandals
- First Of The Year – the story of generous gangsters
- Bangarang – the story of a little girl who tortures a pedophile
- Am I wrong? – the story of an ordinary customer who disturbs a fast-food restaurant
- Freestyler – the story of a teenager who dreams of controlling the world
Imperfectly narrative clips
- No Surprises – allegory of the tragedy of the human condition
- Karma Police – incomprehensible story of hunted hunter
- Rabbit In Your Headlights – incomprehensible Hero of survival
- All is full of love – pure love, non-dramatic story rejecting any conflict
- Come To Daddy – confusing story of anxiety and madness
- Someone Like You – illusion of a love story
Few narrative clips
- Remind Me – description of an all too technical, loveless world
- Look – poetic crossing of metaphors of pleasure and pain, of life and death
4/ Number of plots and actantial roles
In the majority of the narrative videos, we also find some variety especially in the number of plots, even if most of the stories only have one or two plots (No Surprises, Stress, Bangarang, etc), sometimes three (Am I wrong? – if we count the mini-plot of the greedy customer), while none have more than seven plots (Thriller) – which can obviously be explained by the short format of the videos. Nevertheless, it would not be impossible to tell 20 mini-plots in a few minutes. If you like this idea, it can make for a good creative exercise 😉
The characters and actantial roles are rarely more than five or six, most of the time they are two or three, Hero vs. Antagonist or Hero + Helper vs. Antagonist.
This formal simplicity makes the genre of music videos look like the genre of songwriting, which is often very simple too and distinguishes it from the complex narrative structures that we find in:
- Novels (The little prince: 25 plots, 17 actantial characters having 54 actantial roles)
- Movies (The Godfather: 27 plots, 15 actantial characters having 100 actantial roles; Pulp Fiction: 10 plots, 19 actantial characters having 30 actantial roles)
- TV series (Game of thrones, seasons one and two: more than 100 plots, 67 actantial characters having 174 actantial roles).
5/ Universal themes
Despite fundamental differences of shape, of aesthetics, of structure, we often cross the same themes, especially a strong emotional element like:
- Love or eroticism (Thriller, All is full of love, Remind Me, Look, Someone Like You, Freestyler)
- Violence, suffering, pain, anxiety, death (Thriller, No Surprises, Karma Police, Rabbit In Your Headlights, Stress, First Of The Year, Bangarang, Come To Daddy, Look)
Those universal themes obviously guarantee a strong potential of identification from the audience to the stories.
Playlist of music videos we analyzed:
Learn storytelling and scenario techniques from the masters !