How to Write a Documentary Screenplay

by Ginger Voight Google
A documentary is not simply written but crafted.

A documentary is not simply written but crafted.

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A documentary is a different animal than a traditional screenplay. It is mostly unscripted, as interviews are spontaneous answers to questions posed by the writer. You are more in charge of putting together the pieces of a story puzzle and filling in the blanks with any necessary narration. This is done primarily in two stages, with a pre-shooting outline and a post-shooting script that will detail the interviews, facts and narrative script.

Pre-Shooting Script

Step 1

Do your research, and not just the information that supports any personal agenda for shooting the film. Write questions for the advocates and detractors of the issue and then find factual data to support or refute it to fully address your topic.

Step 2

Write your outline. This will include major topics and subpoints and essentially be filled with questions that the documentary sets out to answer. These will be grouped under the three main questions for any story: who or what your subject's about, why it's important or relevant and how the issue has been resolved or projections for its future. This gives the documentary an introduction, a body and a resolution.

Step 3

Contact those parties you wish to interview. Because documentaries are based on fact instead of fiction, you will likely want to use interviews to support your topic. This often mixes expert and personal opinion. Include professionals and those personal stories to add a human touch to connect emotionally to your audience.

Step 4

Teach yourself to think visually. Talking heads and static facts don't "pop" --- a documentary is still a compilation of moving pictures and you will need, as a screenwriter especially, to convey messages with visuals rather than just words. Including action shots will help keep the momentum and pack more of an emotional wallop. A shot of a high-powered rifle blowing off a mannequin's head, for instance, has a lot more impact on the dangers of guns than does a doctor explaining the wound.

Step 5

Compile your raw material. This includes shooting your interview footage or conducting your interviews. Log this information onto your pre-shooting or shooting script so you be better organized once you tackle the post-shooting script.

The Post-Shooting Script

Step 1

Fill in the blanks on your pre-shooting outline. Those questions you had initially have now been answered and will likely drive how you organize your data later. Be detailed. Include actual lines of dialogue from your shots in your outline so you can see on the page the natural progression of the story.

Step 2

Organize your data by introducing your core idea by adding a spark of curiosity in the beginning. Escalate conflict in the middle by introducing the complications or conflict and finally a conclusion. A documentary of Hurricane Katrina, for example, might introduce brief shots that describe the hurricane as it happened and then have a narrator pose the question of whether the disaster could have been prevented. How the federal government prepared for such an emergency can be asked and how its plans failed to realize a solution can be proposed. How the hurricane still affects those who were impacted and what could be done in the future to prevent it happening again can be described in conclusion.

Step 3

Incorporate your themes. These are the broader universal ideas behind the facts. A documentary on the environment might have a broader theme of responsibility. A documentary on a celebrity whose life was dramatically cut short by drugs or alcohol might have a broader theme of the dangers of excess. These themes will be the through lines for your entire story and weave the piece together in a cinematic way.

Step 4

Write any script for voice-over narratives as needed to connect the dots between your interviews and shots. This single voice pulling the information together often makes the documentary more cohesive and accessible, and you can pose questions on behalf of the audience that your interviews and data can then answer.

Photo Credits

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