How to Write a Documentary: You’ll Never Wing it Again

Wait a minute, documentaries have scripts? Absolutely. A well-written script will capture your audience’s attention, rouse the emotions, and even change their behavior.

Truth be told, there are several steps you need to take before you can sit down with your laptop and compose your script. One thing to bear in mind about documentary writing (in fact all writing), is that the process is rarely linear.

It’s all too tempting to skip steps because you think you roughly know what you’re looking for. (Trust me, I’m adaptable, the struggle to wing it is real!). But grit your teeth and power through it. You’ll end up with a much stronger film with a clearer message. Scrivener is a great tool to help you plan your documentary digitally (and is useful both in the planning and script writing stages).

Documentary Writing Checklist

  • Start with a clear controlling idea
  • Create a pitch document
  • Research, research, research
  • Build a storymap
  • Write a detailed treatment
  • Make a shot list
  • Write your script
  • Review your footage
  • Begin editing

Although I’ve listed the steps in chronological order, I’d encourage you to pause, reconsider, and go back a step where necessary to make your documentary the best it can be.

Start with a clear controlling idea

As a documentary writer, you’re in charge of the story. A strong controlling idea will give your film a strong backbone and can be summarized in just a couple of sentences that capture the conflict/narrative of your film.

Think about what you want to say in a way that hasn’t been said before. Your story should transport your audience to a different place and challenge them to think about a topic in a new way. Whether the audience agrees with your viewpoint doesn’t matter as much as whether they understand what you’re trying to say.

Create a pitch document

A pitch won’t just help you get funding or stakeholder buy-in, it will also help you stay focused throughout the planning, filming, and writing stages. Pitches don’t need to be pages and pages long — just a few summary paragraphs will do.

Expand your controlling idea by providing details about your storyline, location, and talent. Think of this document as your film’s business plan. If you are looking for buy-in from an investor, include a brief paragraph about yourself and your previous experience.

Research to find the unexpected, hidden gems

Here’s where it’s time to become an expert on your chosen topic. Your research is often where you’ll find nuggets of gold and hidden gems. This is the stage where you’ll find places to shoot, gather historical footage to use if you need it, and find people to interview. You’ll probably have a good idea at this stage who you want to talk to, so look for a main character to base your story around. Bear in mind that including more than eight or nine characters will be difficult for the audience to follow.

You’ll be able to start sketching out your storylines at this stage, but don’t be surprised if you need to cut or alter them later. Keep returning to your controlling idea. If your research doesn’t align with your controlling idea, you either need to discard it or change the idea. Doing that now will save you a lot of headaches later on.

Build a story roadmap

Your story roadmap is the basis of your script and it’s where you start thinking about your documentary structure. Outline your story using sticky notes, or Scrivener’s index cards to keep all your notes in one place. You will need a voiceover, interviews, and events to move your story along, but right now, focus on building scenes.

Obviously, you won’t be able to script out your interviews, but you will be able to compile interview questions and have a rough idea of the tone that the interview might take.

Planning your story up front will make filming easier, particularly during moments when you need to think on your feet. You will come back to this story map when you’re reviewing your footage and getting ready to write your script.

Write a treatment

Your treatment is the closest thing you’ll get to a script before you start filming. In it, you’ll capture the details from your story mapping session such as scenes, characters, visuals, and audio. This is an evolving document that is sometimes required by stakeholders and should answer the question “why should we film this documentary?”.

Whether or not you’re required to write a treatment, doing so will help you solidify your ideas and bring together all the work you’ve done so far. At this stage in the game, you should feel quite certain about where your documentary is going, but don’t be surprised if your completed film ends up quite different. It’s all part of the process.

Make a detailed shot list

From your storyboard, create a list of everything you’ll need to tell your story. This is essentially a detailed checklist where you plan out absolutely everything that needs to happen. Include interviews, times of day you want to shoot at, location (interior or exterior), and type of shots.

As you’re compiling this list, think about your style. What do you want your shots to look like camera angle (eye level, birds-eye view, etc.) and type of shot (close up, medium shot, etc.)? How will you want your audience to feel? What audio will you need to capture? What music will help you set the scene?

Start shooting

If you’ve planned well, you should find it easy to go through your shot list and check off footage as you capture it. On the other hand, you may find that as you start shooting that everything you planned is well… wrong. That’s okay, writing is a recursive process and your finished documentary will be stronger for the rewrite. Expect to throw your script away and start over.

Make sure you capture more footage than you think you need. You’ll never regret capturing additional B-roll or asking your interviewee more questions than you originally intended.

Review and organize your footage

You may want to import your work into your video editing software at this point and start mapping it out. Before you start writing, review your footage and begin to organize your shots. Try to resist the urge to edit the footage at this stage, you’ll do that later.

Start looking for interesting scenes and as you do so, go back to your controlling idea and ask yourself, does this relate? Take each key moment and put it together in a structured order. Each scene should move your film along and each scene should have an emotional charge that takes your viewer on an emotional journey. Look for a compelling beginning, middle, and end.

Come back to your story map and update it based on what actually happened. Perhaps you had to change the location of your shoot, or you cut an interviewee. Make changes here so that you’re ready for the next step of writing your script. This is also a great time to do some fact-checking, using the three-source rule of journalism (confirm information with at least three reliable sources before you use it).

Write a script

Your script describes what your audience sees and hears. It’s not just the voice over, it also details what scenes will be used and in what order.

If you have enough money in your budget, you might consider sending your footage, particularly interviews, to a professional transcription company as it will save you time here. If not, transcribing the copy yourself will be time-consuming, but ultimately worth it (you can use it for subtitling later).

Documentary scripts use a two-column format known as a split script, using the left column for video and the right for audio. Later on, you can add an extra column to track timecodes.

This format is helpful for writing your voiceover, which should provide details of what the footage doesn’t convey.

Video Audio
FADE IN

WS INT APARTMENT.

CU of a cat, who stares out of the window.

Cut to MS of a cat dropping a hairband into a water dish.

Cut to MCU of a cat on the toilet.

THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER)

NARR: “Today is Saturday and everyone is home.”

(FADE MUSIC OUT)

“Keith has been waiting patiently for his owners to change his water for over three hours.”

(FRENCH MUSIC UNDER)

“He dropped a hairband as a way of a hint in his dish earlier that morning…”

(We hear the noise of a cat drinking water)

“…and has been drinking out of the toilet bowl since.”

Remember what I was saying about documentary writing being a non-linear process? You might get to this stage and realize that you need to go back and get extra footage. Rewriting is part of the creative process, so don’t fight it. Completely lost? A simple way of getting unstuck is to choose an ending and work towards it.

When you’ve completed the first draft of your script, record a rough audio version. Now you’re ready to start the editing process.

Begin editing

Now you’re ready to put everything together. Based on all the work you’ve put in before now, the editing stage should feel relatively easy. Using your script as a guide, be prepared to ruthlessly edit. You may find yourself with over thirty hours of footage for a thirty-minute documentary. You can’t keep it all!

You might think you’re done with the writing stage at this point, but you’d be wrong. In fact, you may need to return to scriptwriting as you make edits to your film. At this stage, you probably want to spend most of your time in your editing software, but keeping your script up-to-date is a good practice that will save time for subtitles and will provide a valuable resource when it comes to planning and writing your next documentary.

Closing Thoughts

Congrats! If you’ve followed all the steps here, you should have created a documentary with a strong controlling idea, powerful storyline, and interesting characters. Take some time once it’s all over to review the work you did and think about what you’d do differently next time. Do you need to work on your interview skills? Did you need to do additional research? Don’t be discouraged if your finished work isn’t what you set out to create. If you’re just starting off, chances are your taste is better than your ability.

You might also like

Leave a Comment