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What Screenwriting Taught Me About Writing for the Web

Writing a screenplay for television or movies seems to be a world apart from writing web content as nonprofit communicators. That being said, there are also some pretty great insights that can help to make you (and me!) become better content writers for the audiences we are looking to reach.

Working in the nonprofit marketing and communications sector, I write for the web. Every day, I come into work wondering how I can do a better job of creating and distributing valuable online content that helps our clients do their jobs better and strengthen their important missions — whether that’s to make health data more accessible to the public, or increase the chances that someone has access to educational resources. This usually means reading up on latest trends, digging into analytics reports, getting direct feedback from clients, and developing new and updated content that speaks to them.

Last week, I was invited by our creative team to attend a screenwriting masterclass led by writer and producer, Radha Blank. The masterclass was part of the inaugural Smithsonian African American Film Fest, which Forum One has been thrilled to be a part of through our design and development of the festival’s brand identity and website. While I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a screenwriter, I absolutely loved the masterclass! As someone writing for digital audiences, I came away with some phenomenal tips and reminders.

Take the time to develop your characters

In her introduction, Radha asked the class who their favorite on-screen characters were. From Indiana Jones to Sofia in The Color Purple, people shared who they loved most. When asked why, feedback ranged from relatable to exciting to powerful. As Radha was quick to point out: the reason we love our favorite characters is that someone took the time to develop them. If a character suddenly does something that you don’t expect, that may be because someone didn’t spend enough time on defining who they are, where their motivations lie, and why they feel the way they do.

As we think about how this applies to digital communicators, this is where the concept of persona building rings true. Whether it’s user personas or buyer personas, our content is far stronger when we are writing for a particular person in mind. If you are trying to speak to an elected leader to take action in support of your cause, develop his or her persona before writing your text. If you are trying to speak to a group of supporters whose regular donations allow you to take your work that extra mile, first define their motivations, wants and needs.

Referencing The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, Radha spoke about the importance of “The Bone Structure”, which is the understanding that as every object has three dimensions (depth, height and width), humans have an additional three dimensions: physiology, sociology and psychology. As Egri put it: “Without a knowledge of these three dimensions, we cannot appraise a human being. […] It is not enough, in your study of a man, to know if he is rude, polite, religious, atheistic, moral, degenerate. You must know why. We want to know why man is as he is, why his character is constantly changing, and why it must change whether he wishes it or no.”

These three dimensions apply directly to how we can be doing a better job of developing online personas: physiology (age, gender, etc.), sociology (occupation, income bracket, nationality, etc.), and psychology (interests, ambitions, frustrations, etc.). And being as specific as we possibly can will take us even further, e.g., giving the persona a name, a city they grew up in, a life experience that influences the way they see the world. The more descriptive we can be, the better our content will be received.

Earn your ending

As someone who rarely writes fiction or drama, I really appreciated Radha’s take on this. As she put it in the class: “When you have an ending that you love, screenwriting is about earning it.” As you take the time to build your characters, you’re ultimately allowing them to “plot their way” through your story so that your ending is as powerful as you’d hoped it would be. 

In the case of screenwriting, Radha suggests starting at the end and, through your build-out characters, working your way back. In writing for the web, your great ending is most often a call-to-action (CTA), i.e., a request to take part, sign up, join, or donate. As in screenwriting, you need to earn that CTA. Tell the right story that resonates enough for someone to donate. Develop the right argument that convinces someone to sign your petition.

Being able to develop compelling content for the web does come back to the personas you’ve developed, especially around psychology. What can you offer to your audience? What are they looking for? What do they need help with? How can you be as helpful to them as possible? If we keep these questions top of mind, and do our best to answer them, then we’ll have indeed written something of value for those we care about reaching.

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