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How to Write a Documentary Script (Fully Explained)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “documentary”? I can almost guarantee it’s not “screenplay.” Unfortunately, when most people think of documentaries, they think of a bunch of footage thrown together in a meaningful order, with voice-overs and music added at the end. In reality, a documentary script needs to be just as compelling and exciting as a script for a feature film. In this post, you’ll learn how to write a script for a documentary in this amazing medium of storytelling.

Documentary Scripts Differ From Drama Scripts

The first thing to know is that although you should aim for your documentary to be every bit as engaging and compelling as any movie, and for its script to reflect that, the way in which documentary scriptwriting works is very different from that done in drama production.

The terms “script” and “screenplay” are often used interchangeably. But most drama screenwriters will tell you that a script is a very specific and structured document, often divided into three “acts” with a beginning, middle, and end.

However, the script for a documentary is often more of a film treatment, often with a beginning, middle, and end, but with a much more open-ended ending. It’s an outline for a film that doesn’t establish every line of dialog, but gives an overview of what’ll or could be in the finished film.

Therefore, a script for a documentary doesn’t have to follow any particular rigid rules.

The process by which you achieve documentary scripts and even the way in which they are formatted goes through several stages, outlined below.

Documentary screenwriting ensures that the filmmaker’s message is clearly conveyed and transforms the raw material into something sophisticated and entertaining for the audience.

A compelling script is one of the most important ingredients in creating something great.

Related: What Is the Purpose of a Documentary

The Right Script for the Right Documentary

There are some types of documentaries that can be scripted much more than others. This is especially true of the so-called “essay films,” which have been very popular with commissioning editors and funders in recent years.

Scripts in certain formats at certain stages of documentary film production are sometimes a desire of producers and commissioning editors, not the actual filmmakers.

Perhaps it’s the very predictability of (and control over) such films that’s so attractive to those who control the money in the film industry.

The type of documentary writing you need to do in fact depends on the kind of documentary you’re making. As the maker of a film, you are its author. As its author, you are also (almost always in documentary) its writer. Your most important responsibility is to ensure that a good story – one that matters – is brought to life in a truthful way on screen.

Some historical films can be heavily scripted from the start because of the nature of the research and evidence.

Observational films and research can’t be scripted in advance like a screenwriter would for a fiction film. Real-life and real discoveries must take over during the filming process as your documentary is being made.

Documentaries often have open endings and go through several drafts that are refined as the filmmaker sees what the footage looks like or gets new ideas or information from interviewees.

Documentary filmmakers know full well that the wrong kind of scripting can limit the possibilities and options in the actual production of a film.

Stories Change While Making a Documentary

When researching and shooting a documentary, it often happens that your understanding of a story – or even the main story you want to focus on – changes in light of what you discover.

It’s a good idea to write down your ideas, but don’t try to write a “script” in the traditional sense.

The best documentaries are shaped and refined when the filmmaker understands and re-understands them. A good script is always a work in progress: it’s not set in stone – and it never should be.

Documentary is about discovery, and the script is just one of the elements that are defined as the filmmaker brings his story to life.

When veteran documentary filmmaker Errol Morris made his multiple award-winning film The Thin Blue Line, he initially intended to make a film about psychiatrist James Grigson, also known as Doctor Death because of his frequent appearances as an expert witness in death penalty trials. After meeting one of the men Grigson helped get into prison, Randall Dale Adams, Morris was convinced of his innocence and the film became an investigation that eventually helped exonerate Adams and convict the real killer.

If Morris had written and stuck rigidly to an initial script, he would never have made the movie.

The Essence of a Documentary Film Script

The best documentaries are shaped and refined as they’re understood and re-understood by the filmmaker. A good script is always a work in progress: it’s not set in stone – and it never should be.

The script is just one of the elements that are defined as the documentary filmmaker brings his story to life. Whereas in drama, the script is core to the success of the film.

Documentary filmmaking is about research and discovery, not determining in advance what’ll happen on camera. You can kill a great film and great story very fast by over-scripting at the wrong stage in the overall process.

That’s not to say you don’t think up scenes – you absolutely do. Just that you don’t force them into a die-cut mold before you’ve even shot the film!

Still, the various stages of the documentary process require different kinds of writing, which we can call a “script format.”

Perhaps confusingly, the documentary script has a different name and format each of these stages:

Outlines and Treatments – the Initial Scripts You Need

In addition to defining the basic idea for the film, an outline and/or documentary treatment will help sell or raise money for the film.

A good outline or treatment clearly describes the story and the approach you’ll take to bring it to the screen. You might draw out the role of the main character in your film with two or three fleshed-out illustrative scenes or even sequences.

The most important task at this stage is to give the film’s backers confidence in the project.

Treatment is more than just a summary of the story and your research so far – it lays out the anticipated scenes and sequences in a way that gives the reader an idea of how the story will play out.

While you can include some imagined (or quoted) dialog in the treatment, most of the work is done by outlining the action and key moments of the scenes you’ll include in the treatment.

Sometimes a selected chronology can be very helpful. In any case, you’ll find that it’s much easier to write the treatment if you’re clear about the sequence of events in your story. The Aeon Timeline app is a great tool to help you with this.

The Shooting Script (Filming Script)

Once you have the funds to proceed to shoot, a shooting script is supposed to help you plan it. It helps you to better plan your ideas.

Usually, a shooting script contains a set of planned sequences and the main elements of each sequence – plot, dialogs (interview dubbing), ideas for the opening credits.

A good shooting script is when all the ideas, concepts, and research are put together in one document that helps you decide who, what, when, and where to shoot.

Sometimes you need to discuss this script with a producer or executive producer before you start shooting. It can be very helpful in planning the budget and logistics at various stages of a shoot or shoots.

It’s also very helpful to share the script with your cinematographer and sound recordist so they can better plan their work.

This way, they can better assess what equipment they’ll need in certain locations and how they’ll need to light and shoot the scene. They’ll also know how to approach the entire film from a technical and artistic standpoint. You can note in the script where you think certain pieces of equipment might be helpful in realizing your vision – for example, if you see a role for a slider, a certain type of lens, or a drone in certain scenes and sequences.

Storyboarding can sometimes be very helpful, but it’s not the same as a movie script, where scenes are “blocked” and rehearsed. It’s more about mapping out the most important sequences on paper and thus in your mind.

Editing Scripts

After sooting, and before starting editing, you make a start on creating the editing script (sometimes called the ‘cutting script’ or ‘paper edit’).

Of all the scripts in documentary production, the edit script is the most important. When you add elements to the script, such as interview clips you choose for a particular sequence or scene, it becomes a ‘paper cut’ or ‘paper edit’.

Documentary films are won or lost in editing. It’s as simple as that.

The better prepared you are for the edit, the better your film will be. The linchpin that often guides editing decisions is the script and the daily updates you make to it.

I’ll show you some specific examples of how I use Scrivener to write my scripts. But first, here are some important principles to keep in mind:

Your editing script may be very similar to the shooting script. Chances are, however, that it’ll be significantly different based on the information you’ve gathered and discovered during the shoot.

Creating the editing script is a process that happens in parallel with logging all the rushes (raw footage) you filmed during the shoot, and especially the interview transcripts you receive. Logging is when you watch all the stuff through and note down (with time-codes) the good stuff.

When creating your editing script, be guided by what you actually have available for editing – not some theoretical construct that you think you can piece together with narration.

For effective editing on paper and for script editing, you need complete transcripts of all interviews and scenes where dialog plays a role. In the past, this was very expensive, and some producers resisted this important step. These days, however, machine transcription is surprisingly good – certainly good enough for creating transcripts suitable for editing and the like.

Documentary Editing and Scripting for Editing Works on Two Levels

Making sense of the basic story

Sometimes you don’t fully discover the story or the layers within it until you edit. For this reason, documentary filmmakers sometimes use a Sync Assembly or “bout-a-bout” (end to end) approach in the initial editing phase, called the First Assembly.

Referencing the elements you filmed or acquired (e.g., archival film), you build them into the storyline.

Subsequent to the logging phase, this is a way to discover the merits of your material.

You should always keep in mind that the time or effort you spent on getting a shot or scene may not matter at the editing table!

All that matters is whether it’s the right shot or scene for what the edit needs to do at that particular moment. This is a very good reason to work with an editor instead of editing your movies yourself – you need someone whose only interest is in creating the best film, and who won’t be swayed by the production experiences you had to date.

Bringing a dramatic structure to the film

Much like three-dimensional chess – because film involves logic and emotion – film theory doesn’t always serve as a guide for dramatic structure.

Even if you use an inciting incident, a rising plot, complications, a resolution, and so on, sometimes the film structure can only be discovered by moving blocks (sequences) in a very fluid way.

It’s a very good idea to understand film grammar and theory, but also to stay very flexible when it comes to how you arrive at your rough cut. So – do study Blake Snyder, Robert McKee, et al. But don’t make fiction rules your overarching guide.

I’d advise you to have an editing structure – not the same as a developed script – that allows you to stick to your central flow of ideas when you’re editing the film and then guide it through the rough cut. Otherwise, you can very easily get lost in the details.

That’s exactly why Scrivener is so useful: it allows you to focus on a scene and quickly rearrange and organize the scenes and even the flow within a scene. I go into details on how I use it, below.

In my opinion, you should resist the invitation – or temptation – to create a script in Final Draft or side-by-side format: you’ll end up fiddling with formatting and all sorts of nonsense instead of doing the work that matters – getting the flow of ideas onto the screen.

Remember, your attention needs to be on what’s happening on the screen, the story, and the flow of ideas – not become some kind of quasi-screenwriter buried in his or her laptop.

Daily Script Updates

You will need to spend a lot of time finding relevant parts of the interview sync as your edit progresses.

My favorite way to do this is to prepare these parts of the dub the night before or early morning before editing. Precisely to avoid the buried-in-laptop syndrome identified above.

And then I can focus on the actual flow of ideas in the edit. Otherwise, you become an assistant editor: a path that can destroy a film.

The right relationship between a director and an editor is one of equals. A good documentary editor is a treasure who can bring great creative and artistic value to a production. This includes structural and narrative advice.

That said, you should always remember that as the director, you’ve to make the final decisions. If the film goes wrong, only one person is to blame.

If a film does well and wins awards, you should praise the other person in the editing room – your editor – who played an important role in making it happen!

Narration Scripts

A narration script can take several forms during the course of an edit.

In the beginning, when you’re trying to clarify the structure of the rough cut, it’s likely that you’ll record a variety of small pieces of narration script quickly so that the scenes make sense when you review and play them back.

They also help the editor edit the footage to make a scene or sequence work, even while doing the rough cut.

Later, you’ll begin to develop a cohesive narration (commentary) script for the entire film. You’ll usually record an updated commentary just before your rough cut is screened to help viewers see the rough cut.

After the final cut and, of course, during post-production (grading, mixing, etc.), you’ll write a final script that will be recorded either by you or a professional voice actor or actress.

This final script will be much more polished and should take full account of what’s happening on screen.

Write to Picture. Always.

The important thing to remember is that the narrative should follow the image, not the other way around.

Movies are primarily a visual medium, even though the sound is an important factor in the success of almost all films.

The narration is there to guide you through the film, not to have “radio with pictures.”

That’s why you should resist uneducated or inadequately experienced people trying to force a full-blown script to which pictures are then edited.

Doing so will result in a boring movie at best and a disaster at worst. You can ruin a film very quickly, even in the final stages of rough editing or even fine editing, if you let the narrative monster.

One of the problems is that a lot of people you encounter as a documentary filmmaker – including decision-makers – are incapable of watching a true rough cut. So they resort to what they’re capable of – following an audio guide through the material.

That’s one of the reasons why filmmakers end up writing endless narration too early, and films are ruined.

Make sure your narration serves the film – not the other way around.

The Devil Is in the Details

Here’s a tip: The devil is in the details. This is where good research can go into a script: just the right information at the right time to better understand what’s happening on screen.

Most documentaries need narration for this reason and attempting to resist narration for purely esthetic reasons is nonsensical.

There are some documentaries that do without narrative altogether, but they’re rare. The current Formula One documentary series Drive to Survive is a case in point: it uses interviews, real-world dialog (some of which is contrived), commentary from the racetrack (which is important to the films because it fills in the information gaps that would otherwise have to be narrated by the documentary), and subtitles to carry the films.

To see how a master storyteller uses his films, check out one of Werner Herzog’s films. Grizzly Man would be a good place to start!

Post Production Scripts

When the film is completed in post-production, the department or production manager for a film usually hires someone to write a full post-production script.

In terms of format, it’s similar to a film script – it serves to present the entire film in screenplay form, complete with accurate interview dubs and descriptions of the plot, locations, archives used, music, and so on.

Tips for Creating a Script for a Documentary Film or Short Film Script

See the Wood for the Trees

First of all, it’s extremely important to “see the wood for the trees”, i.e. to always keep in mind the structure of your film and its central ideas and the core documentary idea – the so-called “controlling idea”.

You need to keep your subject matter front and center in your attention, on the screen, and on the page! This is true even when telling a short story, and constructing a short film script.

Once you get into the detailed and exhausting work of shooting and editing, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important things your film needs to do.

Use Mind Mapping Alongside Scripting

A big part of the solution is to use mind mapping in combination with your script. Even with a short script.

A mind map gives you an instant overview of the structure, allows you to move structural ideas around very quickly, and lets you expand or reduce levels of detail.

The two apps I use almost daily are iThoughts and TheBrain. Both work for Mac and Windows and are long-established and robust.

I use them to map out ideas and connections in a mind map and then incorporate them into my writing. Then, as ideas come up while writing, I transfer them back to the mind map. And so on.

Scrivener as the Best Documentary Film Scripting Solution

I’ll put it bluntly: If you’re writing a screenplay, you need Scrivener as your screenwriting software. It’s a long-established solution for successful writers in fiction, nonfiction, and screenplay.

The reason is that there’s no other program that’s as flexible and powerful when it comes to making your way through the sometimes quite complex screenplay scenarios.

Elements in your scripts

The following elements are likely to appear in a video script for a documentary:

  • Narration
  • Interview sync (in vision)
  • Interview sync (voiceover)
  • Dialogue
  • Archive footage
  • Archive photos
  • Graphics
  • Actuality (footage you shot on location)
  • B-roll (illustrative footage you shoot on location)
  • Archival footage

and more!

Scrivener’s corkboard

The classic Hollywood technique was to hang index cards on a cork wall – and for good reason. You need to be able to move elements, scenes, etc. around quickly and flexibly so that it makes immediate sense when you look at it.

Check out how a scene can be rendered in Scrivener (it’s from my film The Warning).

The Warning Scrivener Script Example
‘the warning’ – scene in scrivener

This scene is in a relatively late stage of editing. I’ve color-coded the different elements (reality, commentary, interview dubbing, etc.).

On the left is the entire sequence of the movie – in the Scrivener “binder”. Each element – interview sync, commentary, stock footage, etc. – has its own “document” in the binder.

When you select a binder in the draft (the entire script), that binder can be displayed in a “cork” view (in the central panel) where each document is displayed as a separate tab.

When you select the entire draft, the subfolders and sub-sub folders (which can correspond to sequences and scenes) are displayed as cards in the cork panel – you can then view them to learn the details they contain.

The fact that the Corkboard can display the most important scenes and sequences in the movie is worth its weight in gold. Each scene heading or element identifier is displayed at the top of each card, in bold.

On the right side, you’ll find the “scrivenings” in Scrivener-speak. These are the complete text versions of the elements.

Rapid re-ordering

If I decide to swap the order of two parts, I can do so in one of the three fields, and the order will automatically and immediately appear in the other two fields.

The value of this feature when plotting and editing are hard to underestimate. It’s a very fluid and quick way to keep the script on track during editing and to edit possible sequences within scenes and sequences on paper before editing.

You can also display one part of your script on the right and another part on the left for comparison. If you want, you can also assign “labels” to individual items to help you find or filter them – this can be very useful if, for example, you only want to see the commentaries and nothing else. Or all the interview syncs, one after another.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but trust me, it’s much better than scripting and customizing in Word or Google Docs.

Side-by-side template

If you want to create a script for a documentary at a later date, you can do that. Scrivener has a template built in to help you. Some TV stations and broadcasters insist on having such a template. Especially for a TV show format or series.

Scrivener Side By Side Script Template
Scrivener side-by-side documentary film template

Index card synopses

The kicker for me is that Scrivener allows you to create a summary for each index card in the Corkboard and display them all at the click of a button.

Or Scrivener will automatically generate summaries based on the content of each document in the binder. You can even assign images to each card, so you can create a traditional storyboard in Scrivener if you want.

Script Follows Structure

My final piece of advice on this topic is to make sure your script follows structure. Always.

Don’t let people who don’t know how to put together a documentary (because they lack the necessary experience) push you into tinkering with details before you have a handle on the structure of your film.

Professional editors and others understand this very well.

You can go over your story before writing the script, which means you write down the entire story as it comes to mind.

Usually, though, it’s like this. I find it makes more sense to create a good chronology (I use Aeon Timeline) for reference, and then mind map out the story and how I want to tell it before using Scrivener.