Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Write for Virtual Reality, the Next Screenwriting Frontier

The future of screenwriting looks virtual, at least if you ask screenwriter Bryan Young. So, we're here today to help you prepare to write a screenplay for virtual reality applications. While still novel, Bryan feels strongly that VR is where storytelling is headed.

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Bryan is also a podcaster, author, and journalist for websites including HowStuffWorks.com, SyFy.com,  and StarWars.com (what a job, right?!), where he closely follows trends and considers what's up next.  

"As far as the future of screenwriting, it's amazing to see how much virtual reality situations are taking hold in storytelling," Bryan said. "David Goyer, he's working with ILMXLab for his Vader Immortal series. He wrote it like a [traditional] screenplay the first time, and then as soon as they put on the headset and got into the VR experience, he realized that it was too much and he had to bring it down."

As far as the future of screenwriting, it's amazing to see how much virtual reality situations are taking hold in storytelling ... The medium is so different because you don't get to choose the focus of the viewer. You have to create a story that the viewer can experience.
Bryan Young
Screenwriter and Journalist

And that is the opposite of what happened to me the first time I wrote a virtual reality script. It wasn't a VR screenplay for a film, but a VR script for a marketing video. However, I realized after we made the series that we weren't saying much of anything at all.

The story is still essential – whether the viewer experiences it virtually or in 2D.

If you've never considered writing a screenplay for virtual reality, I will encourage you to stretch yourself and your storytelling abilities beyond 2D. It will undoubtedly be a learning opportunity because it's an entirely different way to write: rather than being the "teller" of the story, you become the "builder" of the experience, and the story now happens to the person experiencing it, rather than it being told to them. It's kind of hard to wrap your brain around. So, here are some pointers.

Virtual Reality Screenwriting Tips

Write a story that the VR viewer wants to take part in for more than just a few minutes.

If you've put on a VR headset, you've probably also wanted to take it off. Whether you're bored, overwhelmed, or motion sick, none of those are feelings you want to experience when watching a movie. Remember that virtual reality storytelling is less about telling and more about inviting the viewer to participate. Along those lines …

Decide how the viewer will participate in your VR script.

Is the viewer merely that – just someone who popped into your world to watch what's happening around them? Even still, they probably play a role or will assign themselves one. If your viewer's perspective in a classroom is of a room full of students staring at them, they'll probably think they're the teacher or perhaps another student giving the presentation. Place them at the back of the class, and now they're a kid who got in trouble and was told to sit in the corner. The viewer's perspective will change how they perceive their ability to interact with your story and understand the plot. Are they watching this story with a third-person point-of-view (an uninvolved bystander) or first-person person point-of-view (a willing participant)? The "Vadar Immortal" series that Bryan mentions above is a perfect example of first-person participation in a VR experience.

Decide how the viewer will experience your VR story.

If you're not in control of where your viewer goes or what they see, how will you make sure they get the full story and the necessary details? You'll need to use visual cues, dialogue, and directional sound, considering all six planes of experience (front, back, right, left, up, and down). The environment will need to be much more complete than one you'd see in a traditional screenplay. You may also need a narrator or at least an introduction, such as this short from Oculus called "Henry," which won Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Program.

The one thing that I had in my marketing VR series that could alert the viewer where to look was inserted by complete accident. It was an airplane that flew overhead while we were filming, and as I watched users experience the video, I noticed they all looked up right on cue. It would help if you put these types of cues in your story but on purpose.

The viewer mustn't only have one 360-degree field of vision either. I watched a horror short (although I really wish I hadn't because now I am scarred for life) from Dimension Gate that jumped me from a bedroom to the hallway. In both shots, I see a woman on a bed, perhaps having a nightmare. But by jumping to the hallway, the filmmakers cued me to look around and simultaneously heightened my feeling of tension. I looked down the stairs. I looked up the stairs. Nothing. I jump back into the bedroom. Nothing, but now I'm getting scared because they're cueing me that something is going to change. I jump back into the hallway, and … oh gosh, please don't make me look up the stairs again. I'll let you watch the rest. PS, if you're a horror genre enthusiast, VR is a killer medium for you to write your next screenplay.

Writing a screenplay for VR will require a balancing act of making sure enough is going on in your plot and that you've built up the immersive world enough, but that you're not making too much work for the viewer. Just looking around is participatory, and that alone can be a lot of work already.

Now write a virtual reality screenplay.

The jury is still out on how best to write a screenplay for virtual reality, but some examples are better than others, in my opinion.

Dimension Gate, a company I mentioned earlier, has an example of a short film virtual reality screenplay for a story titled "3 am." The writer Ian Tuason notes where the 360-degree camera is sitting and then details each point-of-view from the viewer's perspective. He put these details where the scene description would usually go. It's clear.

Virtual Reality Script Snippet

FADE IN:
INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT

***The 360° camera (CENTRAL POV) sits in the center of a dimly lit bedroom***

FORWARD POV - MARY - female, 25, blonde - sleeps soundly under the covers of a queen size bed. On the night stand beside her sits a digital clock displaying the time -- 2:59am. A closed closet door looms by the foot of the bed.

REVERSE POV - a portrait painting of a little girl. Her face is emotionless and her eyes stare upward.

LEFT POV - an empty floor.

RIGHT POV - a music box figurine sits atop the dresser.

Beat.

***The tune of a music box plays from the RIGHT POV (the music plays from the right headphone speaker)***

The music box begins to play as the figuring rotates.

The digital clock shows 3:00am.

The closet door opens by itself.

The blanket on top of MARY is pulled off her slightly by an invisible force.

MARY opens her eyes and slowly raises her head.

She looks at the rotating figurine.

She looks at the digital clock showing 3:00am.

The sound of children whispering resonates throughout the room.

MARY

(creeped out)
Hello?

I've also seen these point-of-view scene descriptions color-coded to match the pane of vision. Instead of detailing scene description for each point-of-view, the writer color codes left, right, up, down, forward, and back in a legend at the beginning of the screenplay, then matches each part of the scene description to those colors. For example, everything in green would exist behind the viewer, and everything in yellow would exist when the viewer looks left. While I think this makes for a more seamless reading experience, it may also overcomplicate things and may need to be changed in a shooting script. I'd encourage you to use whatever makes the most sense to you and tells your story the best. Here's an example of a color-coded VR screenplay from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Overall, remember that VR is an invitation to participate.

"The medium is so different because you don't get to choose the focus of the viewer," Bryan added. "You have to create a story that the viewer can experience. That level of writing is so much different, but it is still rooted in screenwriting, and the formatting that they're using for it is very much the same."

Just like you'd read a bunch of screenplays before attempting to write one, I'd encourage you to experience several virtual reality short films to understand what works and what doesn't. As a relatively new medium, there aren't many experts on this topic, but there is a lot of trial and error happening. Why not be one of the pioneers!

"It's going to take a lot of experimentation," Bryan concluded. "It’s going to take a different sort of writing mentality, but that’s the future.”

The future is now,

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