How to write a documentary script

The main rule of documentary filmmaking: you can’t adjust reality to the needs of the drama.

This means that you can’t know in advance who will do what, who will say what in response to your questions. That’s why it’s impossible to write a script for a documentary until you have all the material in hand.

But then the question is: how do you shoot everything to get that script in the end? You can’t just turn on the camera and hope that everything will turn out as planned, can you? Especially if the subject is complex and multifaceted.

The main tool of the documentary filmmaker during the shooting is the storyboard. And only afterwards, just before editing, is this shot rewritten to become a full-fledged script.

But let’s talk about it step by step.

How to write a documentary?

As is often the case, you need to start with the study and development of the subject. Or conduct a so-called reconnaissance.

When choosing a topic for a documentary, immediately think about the most appropriate genre to deal with it: informative, analytical, educational, scientific, chronicle, portrait, experiment, etc. The list is quite long, so there is a lot to choose from.

There is no need to explain exactly how to conduct research in the information age. The only thing I would like to stress is this: don’t forget personal communication. The information you can find in books or on the internet is in the public domain. This means that there is nothing unique or exclusive.

Overall, a director-writer has three main tasks:

  • find interesting points in the subject matter;
  • find potential characters, experts and commentators;
  • explore how and from what angles the subject has been treated before.

It is this last point that is most often forgotten by novice documentary filmmakers. After all, if you want to do something original, you must first dissociate yourself from other similar works.

To prevent your future documentary from turning into a journalistic report, you need to add some dramatic elements. First of all, of course, the basic element of “conflict”. It is around this element that the drama of the film will be built. It is not certain that you can find it in the preparatory phase, but if you can, that’s fine. If you can’t, you’ll have to keep bringing it up in the later stages.

You have to remember that in a documentary, you have to find the conflict. It must not be created.

Take the example of the iconic documentary “Pumping Iron.” This is where bodybuilding took off and Arnold Schwarzenegger was first introduced to the world. The film tells the story of how Arnold won the Mr. Olympia title once again.

Originally, the writers wanted to make Arnold the main character, as he was already a superstar and a five-time champion in this venue at the time. But to make it interesting to watch, there had to be a conflict.

The problem was that Arnold had no conflict with anyone in the gym. The Golden Jim bodybuilders were all friends. And since this is a documentary, you can’t ask anyone to fake a fight with Schwarzenegger.

So the filmmakers decided to find an opponent for Arnold from the outside. And eventually found an ambitious newcomer, Lou Ferrino. He too was going to compete. He had an insane desire to win and no friendly feelings towards Schwarzenegger.

This conflict between characters is the very basis of the storytelling art that we expose in our screenwriting classes.

The second artistic point, which you can start thinking about as early as the research phase, is the basic concept of your documentary.

That is, exactly how you will tell your story. A trick or narrative approach that will serve as the basis for the film.

For example, you can structure the story around a system of symbols.

Certain things and objects carry with them a kind of cultural code and evoke certain emotions in people. By showing these symbols at a certain point, it is possible to unconsciously steer the viewer’s thoughts in the right direction.

The most common and clichéd symbols are certainly the biblical ones: an apple, wings, horns, a burning bush and a crucifix.

It is much more interesting to create your own system of symbols to suit a particular idea. But, of course, to do this you will have to go into the subject of symbolism at the same time.

Creating a storyboard

First, write down, point by point, the main points you want to make sure you cover in your film. Think about the type of visuals you want for your film. If you have already identified a conflict, or even a few conflicts, write down point by point how you want to show them.

Then think about what else you should cover in order to bring these points together into a coherent narrative. Complete the outline with these points.

If you have ideas for optional shots or scenes, write them down as well. You may be able to find ways to use them later.

For ease of use, you can divide these three categories into different colors according to their importance.

Next, write down which characters you will use and how. Prepare your interview questions to make the conversation interesting. Think of some tricky questions and decide when and how to ask them.

Separately, think about what elements about the character or his or her position on the subject can be shown without the interview. Where can he be filmed? What can you ask him to do? Of course, this footage will have to work to reveal your theme. The more of these moments, the better.

Note any other materials you might need: music, audio recordings, computer graphics, stock footage, photographs, etc.

Once you have everything written down, structure this document so that you can work comfortably with it.

This will be the script for your future film.

What is the difference between a storyboard and a screenplay?

Unlike a screenplay, a storyboard is a flexible document. Rewriting the script during shooting is a red flag. The scripted shot is a different matter. Since a documentary filmmaker can’t adjust reality as freely as fiction filmmakers, he or she must adjust the film to reality.

Some of what was planned in the preparatory phase will not be filmed. Somehow the characters will not behave as expected. And it can be the other way around: during the shooting, there will be new good ideas.

But if you haven’t found a conflict for your film before, you’ll have to do it along the way.

So don’t hesitate to rewrite and add to the scripted plan.

The key is not to go overboard. After all, if you leave out all the most interesting elements, the film will be boring. If, on the other hand, you shoot everything that comes to mind, you risk drowning in material.

Writing a documentary script

Now that you have the footage you need, you can start writing your documentary.

Of course, you can go straight to editing and try to create a story. But if you’re determined to do a quality job, take the time to write your script.

Write your story based on the final script, the footage you shot, and the additional material you collected. If possible, include the take number and length of the original video for easy reference. This will save you a lot of time later on.

Remember that the structure of a documentary should contain the basic dramatic principles: conflict, suspense, development, climax, etc.

Try to say as much as possible without words – through video, music and symbols.

If you find something missing, look for ways to fill in the gaps. Remember, you don’t have to go back and do this. The last thing you need to do is write your voiceover. If you need it, of course. And only where you need it. Remember, this is a film, not a news report.

Don’t be afraid to cut out unnecessary things. A short but focused and dramatically structured film is better than a complete but spread-out story.

And don’t rush into editing right away. Very often, good ideas and moves come to me a few days after writing the script.

Now your film script is ready. All that’s left is to publish it.