Documentaries are fascinating and capture the brilliance of humanity when executed thoroughly. Every director and producer has his or her own routine of writing a documentary script, which can be very liberating to those who are starting out. Depending on the subject of the documentary, the schedule can be incredibly pressing, which means that having a system in place prior to embarking on a new documentary project can be quite rewarding. And don’t forget to check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.
Here are 7 steps on how to write a documentary script:
1. Finding the Story You’re Meant to Tell
Why documentary? What are you hoping to convey? Why are you the perfect person to tell this story? These are all questions you answer in a pitch in order to be green lit by producers and executive producers. Answering them first for yourself can lead you to a story you feel passionate about and are thus able to see through the long process of documentary filmmaking. Once answered, you begin the arduous task of looking deeper into material that will lead you to the story and ultimately, the script.
2. Research, Research, Research
Research is the most important phase of Pre-production and is the foundation of your script. Often, when we begin looking at a topic, others have come before us. This means that we need to dig deeper into the subject in order to not only inform but also surprise the audience. This surprise is key to creating an interesting story. If you’re looking for experts, one of the ways to find them is to search for books on the topic and then approach the authors. They may simply become “advisors” – people who can provide key background information and fact-checkers. They may also turn into interviewees, on-camera experts who elevate the believability factor. Whichever role they assume, their input is important to create the skeletal form that you then flesh out with “story” as you develop your outline.
3. Blueprint Your Documentary
This is the time to organize and plan how the story will be transmitted to your audience. This can be in the form of an outline most commonly expressed in a set of “sequences”. These are detailed scenes to show how the film may play out. When you have this sequence outline clear in your head, shooting the frame is much easier because you already know what you want. This sequence outline follows the natural narrative spine of storytelling which is broken into acts which culminate in the overall message that you are trying to convey. There may be some tweaking along the way, but the sequence outline is there as a guide.
4. Writing the Script
The first column is optional and is used by some filmmakers as a guide to the arc of the narrative. Video and Audio columns are the standard and they are formatted so that the visuals line up with the audio (interview, narration, music, etc.) that plays over them.
You must work backwards. It is the only way to write a documentary script. Once you have collected your research, data, and interviews, only then can you write the script. Without research, it would be impossible to conceive what an interviewee is going to say and how that ties into your message. Once you have all of the facts and materials, then you can sit down and write the script and voice-overs.
5. Compel Your Viewer
Viewers want to connect with your project. Zeroing in on protagonists to highlight compelling personal stories will enthrall viewers. Emotionally, your viewers will open up and understand the complexity of the issue while making the issue entirely relatable. Every viewer wants to be transported somewhere else, look through fresh eyes, learn something new, and then be motivated and moved by this information.
6. Declare Your Point Of View
Presenting the facts and reality isn’t always clean cut and unbiased. That isn’t to say that directors and producers spin a project a certain way but there is information that stays in a documentary and information that is cut. So, what is it that you want your documentary to transmit? When your thematic message is well-defined, putting the entire script and production together is much easier and it is clearer to the audience regardless of whether or not they agree. They can still connect because of the clarity of the message. At the very least, the audience is given something to think about moving forward. As a director/writer/producer, you can be flexible and allow your story to unfold even if it’s not in the precise direction that you thought it would go.
7. Finesse Your Project
Be thorough with your writing and voice-overs. Writing and rewriting the script is part of the process as you continue to define your message and refine the story. If you are using a narrator, you may have to readjust to your narrator’s style. Sometimes while you are fact checking, there may be some discrepancies so you want to make sure that everything you are presenting to the viewer is accurate and reflected in the rewriting process.
Documentaries aren’t an observation of humanity, but rather an opening door into our nature, into what drives us, what makes us fill with joy and weep with sorrow. Documentaries are real, with real people and dealing with real issues that are powerful and hit us at our core. Let your writing reflect those deep, moving messages and capture your audience emotionally.
Just like everything else, writing the right documentary script can only come after hours of training and practice, including feedback from professionals. Find out more about how you can gain that experience at NYFA’s Documentary Filmmaking Workshops.
Interested in learning more about the craft of creating excellent documentaries? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.