Documentaries are one of the most popular genres of filmmaking. NPR went so far as to call this the Golden age of documentary. With the increase of streaming networks and new content we have seen an uptick in the creation and consumption of this form of filmmaking.
An art form that used to be considered stuffy and boring has swapped mostly educational content for pure drama. Some documentaries like Jiro Dreams Of Sushi manage to teach the audience about the culture, customs, and food of Japan and entertain at the same time.
But what goes into making the documentary? And how do you plan out a story that is alive on the page?
As documentaries become more of the norm in our viewing rotation, filmmakers and students are asking the question, how do I create a script for a documentary?
How do I script for a Documentary?
There are two equally valid schools of thought when it comes to writing a script for a documentary.
Some documentary filmmakers say that you can’t write a script before you shoot and some say you absolutely must lay it all-out in a linear format.
For those who lay out their documentary script before they shoot it resembles a film treatment rather than a traditional film script. It still has a three-act structure but leaves room for an evolving ending.
Whichever school of thought you belong to, below are components of scripting a documentary that will help assist filmmakers in creating clear intention.
What types of Documentary scripts are there?
There are many types of documentary filmmaking and when creating your documentary you are both the director and author. Sometimes you end up as the subject.
No matter what kind of documentary story you are telling, it is up to the creator or the creative team to make the story come to life whether on a page or simply on the screen. The types of documentary are directly related to the amount of scripting needed.
Documentaries that are based solely on research, such as History documentaries can be heavily scripted because they are rooted in facts that already exist and will not change.
Observational documentaries rely on interviews and research and cannot be planned ahead like a film. Heavily scripting your observational documentary can chokehold the work and documentaries must have time to live and breathe.
Poetic documentaries focus on visual style and have no narrative structure. They rely heavily on images and the Director of Photography serves as a guide for the documentary.
Reflexive documentaries highlight the experience of making the documentary and the relationship between the audience and the documentarian.
Ken Burns, the king of the historical documentary with thirty-years of creating award winning docs outlines every type of documentary in this guide on Masterclass. Types of Documentaries – A guide
What story do you want to tell?
When you are scripting your documentary you must define the story you want to tell and why you are the person to tell it.
What feelings are trying to stir in your audience? Fear or danger? Are you attempting to expose the truth? Is there a moral lesson? Why are you the person who should be telling the story?
What topics interest you? Why do you think an audience would be interested in learning about or meeting the subject of your work? When you can answer these questions you have a solid foundation for your work.
These are questions you may be asked when you are trying to find backers and pitch your project to a studio.
Because there is no specific format in developing your documentary and no traditional film script for producers to read you must be heavily armed with the reasons that you can tell this story in a unique, engaging way.
What is the most important component of creating a Documentary?
Research makes it possible to outline, shoot and write your documentary script. The most important part of scripting and the main supporting facts in your documentary will come from your research.
Conduct interviews with or about your subjects. Read articles, watch past interviews, and dig deep on the internet to explore information about the subjects of your documentary.
Visit the locations based on your documentary and research to find out if anyone has done a documentary on your subject before. You may want to reach out to them for guidance or insight into your subject.
The research part of your documentary is much like detective work. Uncover layer by layer to find the story and the heart of your documentary. This is when you can begin to create a rough draft or outline of your story and figure out how to tell the story you are creating.
How are you going to tell the audience the story?
The first decision you have to make in order to achieve your goal of creating a great documentary is to decide on the point-of-view with which you would like to tell your story.
In this moment, you are like a novelist and the best way to reach your audience is to tell the story from a point-of-view that they will embrace and relate to.
First-person point of view is where the narrator is or documentation presents the story using “I.”
A good example of first person documentary would be the story of the propaganda of the “Boogie Man” set up by the government to control its people.
Third person point-of-view is where the documentarian narrates the story about the characters.
An early example of third person point of view in documentary filmmaking is The Legend of Marilyn Monroe by John Huston, who directed her in her first film.
You can also mesh both styles of narrative, which is a popular technique today. You can see that in the documentary films of Michael Moore. Often on the path of discovery in your journey to find a story, the creator becomes entrenched in the story, creating a melding of the two narratives.
Of course, the mark of a good documentary is one that, in telling the story, makes the documentarian seem unbiased. A good documentarian tries to put their biases behind and just tell the story, or at least convince the audience they are telling a story in which they have no opinion.
How do I outline the script?
Once you have gathered your research this is where you can begin outlining your documentary and the story you have seen develop.
While filming, minor characters may take on major roles. You may discover your protagonist is really the villain. You, yourself may become a character in the story.
When creating your outline you can begin to decide what the story is you are really telling and the theme you want to present to your audience.
There is no specific way to outline a documentary script. In some ways documentaries have the most freedom in filmmaking. Because there are no hard and fast rules the story becomes fluid as the creator has no constraints to deal with but the telling of the truth.
What happens after I shoot my footage?
In the documentary, the script comes after you shoot your footage. You can storyboard here. This is where you can decide what visuals you will use, music cues and effects.
Here you discover the story you are meant to tell and how you are supposed to tell it. Everything before this moment is a guess. Which way will the story go? The documentarian only knows after they have shot the project. Find your story in the editing room.
Transcribe your documentary internet footage. This allows you to read the interviews and study the characters in your story. It helps create the bigger picture. It also helps in fact-checking more quickly. You can use the transcriptions for closed-captioning when your project is finalized.
Find the Beginning, Middle and End of your Documentary. Begin with a strong hook. Be original and unexpected. Keep the momentum and fill out the middle of your documentary. Be picky with the scenes you choose. In the end give a strong conclusion and fill out your story. Satisfy the audience with a strong ending.
Below is an example of a documentary script.
Does a Documentary have a life of its own?
As you sift through your footage the documentary the story may change. Whether you write out every moment (and you should always be flexible when writing a documentary) you must adhere to the facts.
The documentary MY KID COULD PAINT THAT by Amir Bar Lev based on four-year-old painting prodigy Marla Olmstead took on a life of its own when the documentarian uncovered the lie that her father was the one painting her world-renowned five figure selling paintings.
As a storyteller you are a guardian of the truth. You can read all about VETTING YOUR DOCUMENTARY here.
Great documentaries question people’s motives and choices. As we strip away peoples layers we find the truth of documentary, that it is an art form as unpredictable and unscripted as its subjects.