Documentary films can require a unique approach, different from that of the traditional fictional script for your conventional feature film or TV show. With documentaries on almost every platform and channel, they are an increasingly compelling insight into topics and places we wouldn’t have had access to a few years ago.
What is a Documentary?
The term ‘documentary’ has evolved within the film and television world over the years. Broadly, such a screenwork ‘documents’ reality. It is a work of non-fiction. Usually, they will focus on a specific topic from an alternative angle or perspective, which the filmmaker is often eager to tell.
This is because it is either a topic remarkably close to their heart or one they feel is not being fully explored in the media. Documentary makers use a combination of film, photographs, voiceover, and interviews, all involving real people and events, to convey a message, point of view or experience to their audiences.
Most documentaries range from thirty to one hundred and twenty minutes and can be shown in movie theatres or television. With the continued development of the internet and streaming sites, documentaries can be found in all lengths and formats.
The most famous documentaries in recent years include Harry & Meghan (Garbus, 2022), Tiger King (Goode, 2020), Louis Theroux (Various, 1998-Present) and They Shall Not Grow Old (Jackson, 2018). All of these encompass the truth and experiences of specific people or groups.
Alternatively, documentaries can also focus on broader global issues affecting humanity and nature. For example, films such as Oceans (Perrin, 2010), March of the Penguins (Jacquet, 2005) and The Blue Planet (Fothergill, 2001) all highlight the environmental impact of modern life on the natural world.
Keen to try your hand at writing a documentary script and highlighting a topic close to your heart? Let us dive into our top ten tips for writing a documentary script.
We have divided our tips into ‘before’ and ‘after’ shooting. Documentary scripts are different from traditional film and television scripts that are purely fictional.
|10 Tips for Writing a Documentary Script|
|1. Find Your Story|
|2. Know Facts from Fiction|
|3. Research Your Subject|
|4. Prepare a Proposal|
|5. Create a Blueprint|
|6. Tell a Story|
|7. Transcribe Footage|
|8. Be Ruthless|
|9. Pay Attention to the Details|
|10. Fact Check as You Go|
1. Find Your Story
Like any creative project, the subject of your documentary must be something you are passionate about; there is no use in researching and discussing something you are not interested in. If you are not interested, then neither will your audience.
Audiences should be at the forefront of your mind throughout the planning process. Is there a specific group of people you are making this documentary for? How will this documentary impact them specifically?
Do not finalize your documentary topic until you have asked these crucial questions.
Are you stuck on finding a killer idea for your documentary? Click here for 9 Creative Ideas to Start Your Next Script!
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2. Know Facts from Fiction
Before you start planning the structure of your documentary, the first thing to be understood is that documentary films are securely founded in fact and not fiction. As Das outlines, documentaries tell stories of “real events, real issues, real conflict, real people and real emotions.” The raw reality is the aim of the game.
Ensure that the topic you are exploring in your documentary is firmly secured in reality; the message you are conveying is easy to follow and understand; and of course it needs to be credible.
3. Research Your Subject
Therefore, you must conduct thorough and accurate research into your chosen subject to ensure you are not misleading your audience. You will need to delve deeper than you may first think, as it is likely your topic has been researched before in one form or another. Consult experts in the field, and use reliable and proven sources.
For example, we encourage you to approach credible authors and scholars to discuss their findings and your own. They may be able to provide a different angle or suggest something you had not considered before. Similarly, if a previous documentary exists that you wish to consult, by all means, approach the filmmaker. They could also give advice on the documentary-making process too! Bonus!
All input from your research and any experts you subsequently approach will help you develop a ‘blueprint’ for your documentary.
4. Prepare a Proposal
Proposals are a common form of fundraising for the making of the documentary. However, when you’re first starting out, they can be a great way of organizing and linking together your ideas.
Documentary proposals often include information on your intended audience, your planned storytelling approach, and a budget plan. Considering your style and tone is excellent to plan too; will it be a fast-paced documentary jumping between sequences, or will it be slower moving with longer shots?
If you are not too sure about the style of your documentary just yet, watch some existing ones. Seek inspiration from those in a similar topic vein to your own. Consider whether you want to emanate something similar or turn things on their head. Whatever you decide, make sure you can explain it in detail within your proposal.
Filmmaking in all its forms is a business, so it is advisable to have finances in mind. First, consider the overall picture of costs, for example, equipment hire, crew hire, number of shoot days etc.
When writing a proposal, even if for your eyes only at this stage, you must be as thorough as possible in envisioning your documentary. If you do eventually send your proposal out to prospective directors and producers, they will want to know every detail. Therefore, it pays to get ahead of the game!
5. Create a Blueprint
It is a widely debated issue in the screenwriting industry as to whether a screenplay is a mere blueprint of the movie to be layered upon or as Aaltonen explains, is seen “more holistically, as dramaturgical thinking runs through the entire filmmaking process” in modern times.
However, when it comes to the documentary script, especially when you are outlining a hand before you begin shooting, it is a mere blueprint of what you are about to film. Therefore, think of it as a ‘shooting’ script.
So why is it just a blueprint at this point? Unlike their fictional film counterpart, documentaries need to be flexible as they do not have the same stringent guidelines. This is because they are shot in the real world, which can never be scripted or controlled. Overall, this is what makes documentary-making exciting as well as challenging.
What you can control is how the story of your documentary will play out to your audience. Usually, you can present this as a set of detailed scenes or sequences suggesting how the film will be presented. Such an outline will be broken into the traditional three-act structure.
Why? Well, you are still trying to tell a story, and the three-act formula is a proven way of doing this, whether fictional or non-fictional. Of course, as with any screenplay, you will need to make changes, but these sequences will act as your guiding light throughout the process.
To support you with your changes, we recommend dividing your script into two columns: video and audio, so you can clearly keep track of both as you work.
6. Tell a Story
Despite the non-fiction nature of a documentary, you still need to tell a good, compelling story.
As we have discussed, the three-act structure is an excellent guide to planning your documentary: a robust and gripping beginning, informative middle, and thought-provoking ending.
The opening minutes of your documentary should include an audiovisual hook demanding the audience’s Attention. Then, much like an academic essay, the beginning should outline the message of your documentary and what you are looking for the audience to take away from it.
The inciting incident is a crucial element, which rocks the boat and makes your audience sit up and listen.
Prepare for the most challenging section of your documentary: the middle. The key to nailing the mid-section is the intention, bolstering the tone and subject of the documentary overall.
Each sequence you include in the mid-section must have slightly different messaging, which again feeds into the idea you presented to the audience at the beginning. You should gradually release information, ultimately persuading the viewer.
Das discusses the options of using an open and closed ending to a documentary. For example, if you choose to tie up all loose ends within your documentary and answer all the questions raised, you will have a closed ending.
If, however, you wish to leave your audience with unanswered questions, this would be an open ending. Das warns that this style of end “relies heavily on audience imagination to fill in the gaps,” and you must give them the resources to do that within the body of your documentary.
Whichever you decide, ensure you give the audience an ending they will remember and feel satisfied with.
Once you have your completed blueprint, it is time to start shooting!
Once you have completed your shoot, it is time to piece your footage together and thus move on to a final script.
7. Transcribe Footage
If you include interviews or improvised voiceovers in your documentary, make sure you transcribe it into a log. Yes, this task will take some time, but it will be fulfilling. In addition, it will allow you to organize and categorize sections of your script.
Include any speech in the audio column of your shooting script, editing your blueprint as you go.
8. Be Ruthless
The spontaneity of documentary making when out filming means that it can be amazingly easy to end up with a lot of footage that does not match up to your intended message. Now is the time to cut it!
Remember, keeping your audience engaged and on board with your documentary’s intention is critical.
It may be the most beautiful footage in the history of documentaries but save it for the deleted scenes or your social media pages.
9. Pay Attention to the Details
A similarity that documentaries share with traditional film and television scripts is rewriting. However, when it comes to voiceovers and narration within your film, these do not always support your visual footage in the best way. Or perhaps you misinterpreted a piece of your research, resulting in the wrong facts being included.
The beauty of rewrites is that you can make them post-shoot. But, of course, be mindful of the budget available if you are employing narrators or voiceover artists, as you may have to pay them to re-record.
10. Fact Check as You Go
You may have conducted the most credible research imaginable, but there is always the possibility that a fact may become irrelevant or be proven false.
Throughout your creative process, review the information you are including. Is it accurate? Is it credible? Does it originate from an authentic and reliable source? Time well spent to ensure no one is going to catch you out!
Once you have your completed documentary script, it is time to consider your facts, video, audio, and rewrites. Now edit your footage and voiceover to piece together your final cut.
Remember, there is no absolute formula to documentary filmmaking. Keep in mind the story and message you are conveying and the credibility of the sources from which you are drawing. Finally, choose a topic you are genuinely passionate about, and run with it!
Good luck out there, documentary makers!