When done right, documentaries can be just as popular and entertaining as other forms of fictional media. Some of Netflix’s biggest hits consist of documentaries like Tiger King, Wild Wild Country, or Cheer.
A good script is one of the cornerstones of a successful movie or TV episode. The same applies to documentaries. However, the process of writing a documentary script has some very interesting similarities and differences from writing a movie/TV script.
Anyone who wants to know, how to write a documentary, must be aware of these differences as well as the methodology involved in developing a documentary script.
The Elements of a Documentary
All documentaries consist of five basic components. Just like a film, a documentary must properly develop all of these elements in order to make for a compelling viewing experience.
The five elements are:
1) The Interviews- Every documentary consists of a series of interviews from experts, scholars, or members of the public who relate to the subject in question. Getting these interviews from various people and hearing their varying opinions on the topic is important in order to provide a detailed and comprehensive overview of the subject matter.
2) B-Roll- The B-Roll is what adds to the visual appeal of the documentary. B-Roll is usually described as a series of quick shots positioned in between the main documentary footage. The main footage can be a dramatic recreation of events or more interviews.
3) Voiceover- This term refers to the narration that is featured in the documentary. Narration is used to catch the viewers up on the basic setting of the scene. It is also used to provide a singular message or narrative through the documentary.
4) Sound- Documentaries have a lot of interesting visual shots and interview styles. However, natural sound and background scores are equally important in making a documentary an immersive viewing experience.
5) Story- The story of a documentary refers to the exact message and stance of a documentary. A particular subject can have many different angles of perception, a documentary must decide what its angle is.
What is a documentary screenplay?
A documentary screenplay is a document that dictates how the documentary is shot. A documentary script template is completely different from that of a movie or TV script.
Also, a documentary script might change and go through many revisions even while or after the shooting process has ended.
The format of a documentary script contains three columns.
The first column consists of narration/voiceover, the second column is a detailed list of visuals that will accompany the narration, and the third column specifies the various background noises that will play during the scene.
This particular method of scripting a documentary means that one does not need to download free scriptwriting tools in order to start working on their documentary.
6-Step Guide On How To Write A Documentary Script
Writing a documentary can seem like a very daunting task. However, the same can be said for a lot of creative endeavors. Whether tackling a feature, pilot, or documentary, it is important to divide the project into different stages and work accordingly.
Many writers often have their unique methods of conceptualizing and developing a story. That said, every writer planning to make a documentary must directly or indirectly take these six basic steps in order to craft an interesting story for the documentary.
Step 1: Discovering The Story
It is important to zero in on the topic the documentary is about. But that’s not all, writers must also find out what they are trying to convey with the story. As discussed before, a single subject can be presented in a number of different ways. The writer must know what the message of the documentary is going to be.
- Why does the topic interest you?
- What aspect of the subject do you want to present?
- How are you best suited to tell this story?
- How will you make it unique?
A writer should be prepared with the answers to these questions before starting the script.
Step 2: Building The Structure
Like movies, documentaries also follow a three-act structure. The script format between the two is quite different, but the method of creating the story is the same.
Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Where to start the documentary?
- What is the inciting incident?
- What journey will the audience go through?
Movie and documentary writers have to figure out these things in the early stages of the development process.
Step 3: Conducting Research
Documentaries are supposed to feel genuine and legitimate. It is necessary for them to paint an accurate picture of real-life events. Hence, it is obvious that one would have to engage in thorough research while scripting a documentary.
A simple way to start with research is to find pre-existing texts on the subject of the documentary. The authors of these research papers or books can also be useful when conducting interviews. Furthermore, authors usually have to do their own research before writing a book.
So there is a high possibility that they might have gathered a number of useful contacts during their research that they can share with the writer of the documentary.
Preliminary research can be started by examining sources like:
- Previous texts on the subject (books, research papers, etc.)
- Visual media (previous films on the subject, or news coverage about it)
- Conducting interviews with experts on the subjects. These experts may also decide to appear in the documentary at a later date.
Step 4: Finding the Main Characters
Documentaries usually consist of one or two individuals whose experiences and actions act as the anchor of the story.
This is similar to how movies and TV shows are made entertaining because of their complex characters. The main characters of the documentary do not necessarily have to be virtuous and noble, they have to be interesting.
Step 5: Writing the Script
Once an outline has been prepared and the goals of what the documentary is supposed to achieve are clear, it is time to write the script. As discussed before, the script format for a documentary is not the same one used in movies.
Writers must divide a page into three columns. One column will contain a description of the visuals, the second one will consist of narration, and the third one will be used to specify background music to be played at various points in the documentary.
Step 6: Editing the Written Script
As documentaries are based on real-life events, it is possible that new developments relating to the subject might require new footage to be added. This would require the writer to make changes to the script, add new scenes, or get more interviews.
Sometimes, edits may also be required due to factual inaccuracies. Almost all documentaries require edits in the script before they are finished, writers would be advised to not see this as a setback, but a rite of passage.
After the script has been written, the creative team must use tools for documentary making in order to finish the project. The process of shooting a documentary involves working on a tight budget and stringent deadlines.
However, if the planning and script phases of making the documentary are properly worked upon, the rest of the process becomes much easier.