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How to Write a Documentary Script (Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Craft a Compelling Documentary Script

When you’re making a documentary, it’s easy to think you don’t need a script. After all, documentaries often capture real-life events and unscripted moments. However, a well-crafted script is essential for shaping your narrative, ensuring you stay focused on your key message, and effectively communicating your story to the audience. Without a script, you risk your documentary becoming a collection of random footage without a cohesive storyline. 

In this blog, we'll explore the essentials of documentary scriptwriting, from understanding what formatting a documentary script to practical steps and tips for creating your own. I've also put together a free documentary storytelling toolkit which includes a documentary script template. You can get the toolkit here: Free Documentary Storytelling Toolkit

 

What is a Documentary Script?

A documentary script is a meticulously crafted blueprint for a documentary film, detailing the narration, dialogue, and visual elements that will be presented on screen. It serves as a comprehensive roadmap, guiding the filmmakers through the filmmaking process to ensure a coherent and compelling narrative. This script can also encompass more than just the interview dialogue. It can also include the visual sequences, archival footage, and any other multimedia components integral to the story. By providing a structured framework, the documentary script helps maintain the focus and flow of the documentary, ensuring that the final product effectively conveys the intended message and engages the audience.

 

Why Do You Need a Documentary Script?

Well, a documentary script allows you to take a step away from the project and look at the story structure of your documentary from a different perspective. It allows you to focus on the story and characters without being distracted by the cinematography and sound design of your film. Documentary scripts are also a great way to better understand the themes that keep recurring and who are the people that keep getting talked about in the world of your documentary?

When editing your film you can easily get lost in the footage and lose objectivity of what’s good and what’s not. Documentary scripts are an excellent way of getting an overview of your film and seeing how all the scenes and characters interweave with one another.

 

Documentary Script Format

When crafting your documentary script, you have several formats to choose from, but the two primary types are the A/V script and the paper edit.

 

A/V Script

An A/V (Audio/Visual) script format divides the page into two columns: one for visual elements and one for audio elements. This format is particularly useful for planning the interplay between narration, interviews, and visuals. By clearly delineating what the audience will see and hear at any given moment, the A/V script helps ensure a smooth and cohesive narrative flow.

 

Paper Edit

A paper edit is a detailed outline of your documentary, typically created after filming. This format involves organising and selecting the best footage, transcribing interviews, and arranging everything into a coherent structure. The paper edit allows you to see the big picture, helping you to piece together your story in a logical and engaging way.

By choosing the right format, you can better manage your content and create a documentary that is both compelling and professionally polished.

 

When Should You Write Your Documentary Script?

While it’s essential to have a clear vision for your documentary before you start filming, it’s often beneficial to focus on creating a treatment and a one-pager first. These documents provide an outline of your film's concept and communicate your vision to collaborators and stakeholders.

However, I recommend waiting to write the detailed script until you have begun or even completed filming the interviews. This approach ensures that you know exactly what material you have to work with, allowing you to craft a script that utilises the best interviews and footage to tell a compelling and cohesive story. This method also offers more flexibility and authenticity, as you can incorporate the genuine moments and insights captured during filming into your script. This way, your documentary will reflect the true essence of its subject.

 

Documentary Scriptwriting: Essential Pre-Writing Steps

When embarking on writing a documentary script, the essential pre-writing steps begin with choosing a captivating subject. Select a topic that not only interests you but also has the potential to resonate with a wider audience, ensuring it is compelling and relevant, with a clear angle or unique perspective. Following this, thorough research is crucial; gather information from various sources such as interviews, books, articles, and archival materials to provide depth and credibility to your documentary. Next, decide on your narration style. Consider whether a voice-over narration, interviews, or a combination of both will best complement the subject matter and tone of your documentary. Once you have your footage, transcribe all interviews and important audio, as this transcription will form the foundation of your script, aiding in the organisation and selection of the best material. Finally, create a documentary treatment, which is a detailed outline of your film, including key points and structure, serving as a blueprint to help visualise the final product. If you'd like to learn more about documentary treatments, check out this blog where I share my process to creating a treatment for your film: How to Create a Compelling Documentary Treatment

 

Mastering the Art of Documentary Scriptwriting

Today, we'll focus on writing a script once you’ve filmed your documentary or have at least started filming.

 

6 Steps to Writing a Documentary Script

 

1. Review Your Documentary Footage

Begin by watching all the footage shot for the documentary. If you have multiple interviews, start with the most crucial ones and work your way through to the less significant ones. This helps you get a sense of the content and its potential impact on the story.

 

2. Create & Analyse Documentary Transcripts 

Get your interviews transcribed. There are a lot of great services out there that can do this for you, like Rev or Trint. Read through the transcripts and highlight the most compelling sections. Be strategic in your selections, focusing on moments that develop the story arc. Look for your character's:

  • Wants: Goals driving their actions.
  • Needs: What they must learn or do to succeed or grow.
  • Obstacles: Barriers preventing them from achieving their goals, both internal and external.
  • Stakes: What’s at risk if they fail, including physical, emotional, and philosophical consequences.

 

3. Organise Selected Documentary Quotes 

Copy and paste the highlighted sections into a document called 'selects' with the filename, timecode, speaker name, and quote. These quotes can later be organised and rearranged into your script as you begin shaping your story.

 

4. Structure the Documentary Script 

Using index cards or a digital tool like Milanote, create scenes based on the identified themes and arrange them into a Three Act Structure:

  • Act One: Set up the story, introduce the topic and main characters, and engage the audience with the characters' wants.
  • Act Two: Show the main characters facing and overcoming obstacles, learning, and growing.
  • Act Three: Conclude the story, complete character arcs, and resolve the narrative.

 

5. Write the Documentary Script 

With all your selected quotes and using your Three Act Structure, start adding the organised quotes into your script.   Start with the introduction, establishing the setting, main characters, and primary themes. This section should grab the audience's attention and set up the key questions or issues the documentary will explore. As you move into the development phase, weave in quotes, interviews, and other elements that build the narrative. This part should delve deeper into the subject, presenting various perspectives and evidence to support the storyline. For a structured approach, consider using the A/V script template I've created, available in the Documentary Storytelling Toolkit. I’ve also included an example script. This template provides a framework for organising your script, helping you maintain a coherent narrative flow and ensuring all critical elements are included. Writing a documentary script is an iterative process that requires flexibility and adaptability. Be prepared to make adjustments as you go, and embrace the organic development of your narrative throughout the whole filmmaking process.

 

6. Get Feedback 

Share your script with trusted colleagues or mentors for feedback. Constructive criticism can help you refine and improve your script, ensuring it’s as strong as possible before moving to the final edit. I've created a feedback form, also available in the Documentary Storytelling Toolkit.



Documentary Recreations: A Filmmaker's Guide to Scripting

When filming recreations for a documentary, consider using a traditional narrative film script writing format with software like Final Draft or Celtx. Starting with a scene heading to indicate the location and time of day (e.g., INT. KITCHEN - DAY) can be helpful. Action lines might describe the setting and character movements in detail to aid visualisation. Writing dialogue for any speaking parts, formatted with the character's name centered above their lines, can add clarity. Including specific camera directions, such as CLOSE-UP or WIDE SHOT, could guide the visual storytelling effectively. Clear instructions for actors regarding the emotions and actions required might ensure authenticity in the recreation. Parentheticals might indicate the tone or intention behind the dialogue where needed. The aim could be to create a seamless blend of factual storytelling with cinematic elements, maintaining accuracy while engaging the audience.

  

Crafting Engaging Voiceover for Documentaries: A Step-by-Step Guide

When writing narration for documentary films, clarity and conciseness are important. Narration should serve as a guide for the audience, providing context and linking various parts of the story without over-explaining. It’s essential to strike a balance, ensuring the narration complements the visuals rather than overshadowing them. Reviewing successful documentaries can offer valuable insights into effective narration techniques. For example, "Planet Earth" uses succinct, descriptive narration to enhance the visual experience without overwhelming it. Similarly, "The Fog of War" employs reflective, thought-provoking narration that adds depth to the subject matter. Focus on writing narration that enhances understanding, maintains engagement, and supports the overall narrative arc of the documentary.

 

How to Structure a Documentary: Essential Elements and Frameworks

The basic structure of a documentary typically includes an introduction, development, and conclusion, forming a clear narrative arc. The introduction sets the stage, providing essential background information and introducing the main themes or questions the documentary will explore. This section should hook the audience, making them invested in the story. The development phase delves deeper into the subject, presenting evidence, interviews, and various perspectives to build the narrative. Engaging characters and compelling storylines are crucial here to maintain interest and emotional connection. Finally, the conclusion ties together the documentary's threads, offering resolutions or leaving the audience with thought-provoking questions. This structure ensures a cohesive and engaging storytelling experience that effectively communicates the documentary's message.

 

Mastering Documentary Script Writing

Writing a documentary script is a crucial step in the filmmaking process, providing structure and direction. However, it's important to remember that a script might read great on paper, but the delivery doesn't always work when you put it together in the edit. The true test of your script is how well it translates to the screen. Be prepared to make adjustments and be flexible. The magic of documentary filmmaking often lies in the unexpected moments and the organic development of the narrative during the editing process. Keep refining and reshaping your story to create the most compelling documentary possible.

Written by Sebastian Solberg

Sebastian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include One Breath and the BAFTA-nominated film The Eagle Huntress. His passion for fostering emerging talent led to the creation of the Documentary Film Academy, an online community and educational platform designed to empower the next generation of filmmakers.

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