Scripts for movies, plays, and visual media are very different from other kinds of writing. They’re designed from the beginning with a performance in mind, not to be read. Explainer scripts are more specialized, which is why our team has put together this guide on writing compelling animated explainer videos.
Explainer videos are short, usually under five-minute, animated videos that take complex subjects and break them into digestible pieces. They are popular in several industries because of the flexibility animation allows. For example, you can zoom into a water molecule to visualize the different atoms in one moment and then rocket out of the solar system to show the galaxy’s shape in another. Because everything gets created on the computer, we can do almost anything.
Who are we? We’re Duke & Duck, and we’ve been making animated content (including lots of explainers) since 2009. Our team has written hundreds of scripts, and in the process, we’ve learned a few things about writing compelling scripts for animated explainers. So whether you’re working on a video right now or hope to do so one day, we hope this guide will help you tell your story in a way that inspires, educates, and entertains your audience.
Before writing your explainer video script, it’s essential to become an expert on the topic. At Duke & Duck, we start with a client call where our team is constantly asking questions to absorb as much information as possible. Our team approaches everything from a questioning standpoint and never undervalues the importance of being curious.
An important thing to remember is to fight the desire to synthesize and boil down information as it comes in. Instead, make sure to take in all the information first.
Context: When we clearly understand the problem that our client is aiming to solve, it helps inform how we might visualize a solution in a compelling way! To read our case study, click here.
The next step is to know your audience. You need to determine who your audience is, define them, determine what is interesting about them, and figure out what they will find compelling.
Knowing your audience is key to determining the words in the script since it will allow you to figure out how much explanation you need and avoid being tone-deaf.
Context: Our target age range for the audience of the Prepare With Pedro series is 6-8 years old. With that in mind, we’re always looking for ways to lead with silly physical humor and songs to reinforce our messaging! To read our case study, click here.
If you are writing a script for a client, determine the one message or sentence they want the script to have. Having them boil it down to that singular idea becomes the compass for the script. Remember, animation has endless possibilities, so you don’t need to say what the client mentioned explicitly but instead get the video to say it. Likewise, if you create a video explainer script for yourself, ask yourself that same question to be concise.
Context: Boiling down this message into a one-sentence idea was central to our ability to achieve the visual theme of the ‘web of knowledge.’
There is a strong incentive to use words that make you sound intelligent or technically accurate in academic or professional writing. If that’s the tone your video needs, then do that. But because we’re talking about making an animated explainer video, we don’t want to alienate people with overly complex language that might only make sense to insiders. So, put the thesaurus away and pick words that people will understand. Don’t worry about losing the meaning; you can capture all the details with the visuals.
Always keep in mind that when you’re writing an explainer script, you’re writing for video. So while your audience is hearing the words, there will also be something happening on screen. The best explainers take full advantage of this by not overemphasizing points in the narration that can be better explained with visuals.
We suggest keeping a copy of the proposed visual art direction for the video nearby and looking at it frequently as you write to make sure the tone and visuals, as well as the narration, will match.
Context: This is a great example of a project where story, art, and animation all worked closely together to tell a story that was visually abstract, but had a specific intention behind every moment. To read our case study, click here.
By considering the transitions when writing, you are allowing the animation to flow. It’s important to remember that transitions are frequent in explainer videos, so it’s essential to mind the gaps. We suggest looking out for where the commas are and where the spaces are and knowing that is where the visual transition will happen. When writing, also keep in mind the camera movements.
In each transition, imagine what the visuals will look like, such as zooming in or booming up, and take advantage of the form of animation. Always remember that even though you’ve heard the story a thousand times, your audience is hearing this for the first time.
Context: These videos are both examples of giving transitions space to breathe – Nestle being the stronger example. In the Pew video, the scenes from:25-:32 and:42-:50 are ‘lists’ we knew would be great to show visually and made sure to add a pause in the voiceover to allow the viewer to digest them.
If you can only remember one thing, remember that the script always needs to be shorter than you think it does. Audiences only have so much time to dedicate to watching a video online, and they’re swift to stop watching the moment they lose interest.
In most cases, they’re watching the video in a web browser or their phone, where there are plenty of options for how to spend their time. So respect that they’ve chosen to spend time watching your video by not wasting a precious second.
We suggest making sure your narration is no more than 140-150 words per minute to ensure your audience can follow along.
Context: The Nestle Earth Day video script has a low word count for its 60 second run time. This was to give the ‘transformer’ art and animation transition concept room to breathe and take priority in the story.
Telling a story in 60 seconds is like telling a joke; timing and pacing are everything. Make sure your script addresses all the points in a way that gets the message across and is enjoyable for the audience. Don’t forget that brevity is the soul of wit, the king of comedy.
Remember, you’re making good on a promise, and the pacing is everything.
Context: This series of videos is a great example of stories that are appropriately spaced and timed to the beats of the music in order to elevate the humor. A narrator isn’t needed to understand what’s happening and the message is both clear and funny. To read our case study, click here.
Remember that with an animated explainer, the script is never going to be read by your viewer. Instead, it will get read by a narrator, who will add their touch to the performance. So whenever possible, try to edit the script by listening to it rather than just reading it in your head.
It’s best to have someone perform it for you. You want to get as close to the viewer’s perspective when you are editing and writing a script, which means having someone read it out loud to you. If you can’t have someone perform it for you, record yourself. When you are reading out loud rather than silently, you’ll notice new things.
Context: On this project, we had room to build a world that was extremely vast, but we made sure to tell the story in a way that maintained that same scope but did so in an economical way. To read our case study, click here.
While most explainers are about conveying information, many videos also need to convey a feeling in order to really make an impact. Thoughtful music does this, and it’s worth thinking about the emotional arc of a story when choosing the music.
Context: The music in this piece changes with the tone of the story. It begins light as the teacher describes Grace and starts to get more intense/darker as he describes her being bullied and the scenes turn black. The music lightens up again as we land on the call to action/light background again. To read our case study, click here.
If your script has a narrator, they will help bring your vision to life. When writing a script with narration, you first need to figure out who that person is. Ask yourself if they are meant to mirror the audience, or are they supposed to counter them? Also, you need to determine how they are speaking; is it first person or third?
Other areas to confirm with your narrator are their gender, age, background, and how they will get the audible storytelling points across. Every video is different, but when in doubt we always like to think of our narrators as our audience’s best friend.
Context: This project’s target audience was both elementary school students and their parents. We put a lot of thought into what kind of voice would work best for Strider and made sure it was neutral in both age and gender. We also wanted it to be approachable and fun. The client was really happy with the voice we landed on and plans to use it for future use of this character.
When writing explainer video scripts, treat every script as its own individual story, and don’t be afraid to step out of the explainer video box and make it new and different.
Video storytelling is king, and it’s a team sport. Artists, animators, and writers should ideate together to ensure stories feel cohesive and take advantage of the visual medium.
To see examples of our explainers, check out our website, or click one of the videos throughout the blog to go straight to watching.