Documentary filmmaking is a non-fiction form of storytelling involving real people, real issues and real-life situations. While lots of documentary projects are just as entertaining to watch as fictional films, they usually have a dual purpose: to educate or inform their audience or document a particular subject matter.
Considering that the job of documentary filmmakers is to… well, document… then you might be wondering what role scriptwriting plays in a documentary project. While it’s not possible for a filmmaker to totally control what happens during the filmmaking process, they can still create a storyline that acts as a template for the project. And that’s what the script is for.
Every good documentary starts with a documentary script. While your documentary subject and interviewees might be so compelling that the story ‘writes itself’, you still need a story structure to hold the whole documentary together. And that structure comes from your script.
Your documentary script will tell a real-life story, so you can look for ideas anywhere around you. It’s all about being aware of your surroundings, staying curious, and spotting interesting story nuggets in everyday life.
The most important thing is that you’re passionate about the story you tell. Firstly, because that passion will come across in the film and grip your audience. Secondly, because you’re going to spend a lot of time working on the project – and passion will carry you through the tough times.
Although it’s important to follow your own passion, you need to be mindful of what an audience will want to see. Here are some questions to keep in mind:
It’s crucial to wrestle with these questions before you settle on a subject. You may also want to watch other documentaries that deal with your subject matter and explore what makes your project different.
Every good documentary starts with a lot of research. While it might be boring to spend time reading books and papers, it’s a vital step in the process and could save you a lot of time later in the documentary filmmaking process. As well as ensuring your documentary is accurate, it’ll also reveal new details that you can feed into your storyline.
Your research will involve a mix of:
Remember to keep all your research findings organised, whether it’s in a notebook, Word document, or a tool like Evernote or Notion. Cataloguing everything correctly will be a huge help further into the pre-production process.
Bringing in more information and points of view at this stage of the process will make for a more nuanced, compelling and rigorously-researched film. Which will lead to a better story.
If you want to get support for your documentary project before you crack on with the scriptwriting process, you’ll need to create a documentary treatment. It’s a sort-of film proposal (including a logline) that lays out the synopsis of your documentary, helping to attract collaborators, funders and interviewees.
Want to hit up Netflix for some cash to pay for interviewees’ flights? Need some extra budget to cover post-production costs or fancy reenactments? Get your film treatment written and start banging on some Hollywood doors.
There are lots of different ways to structure a documentary script, just like there are for film treatments. If you’re documenting your story as it happens, then a fleshed-out film treatment might be the closest thing to a script that you can create (and a valuable pre-production tool). That’s because you never know exactly what’s going to happen until you’ve wrapped up the shoot.
However, your documentary might be about a story that’s already happened. In which case, the writing process looks a little closer to that of a traditional feature film.
One of the most well-known formats for writing a documentary script is to break up the visuals and audio into two columns.
Just like the script for a fiction film, narrative, structure, character and plot are the essential components of your documentary film. Your storyline will usually follow a three-act structure, too: setup, conflict and climax.
Some people call this the ‘inciting incident’. This alliterative treat is the fancy name for the moment when the story's set in motion.
Where your characters start going through big changes (the pros call it character arc) as a result of what's happening.
The resolution. Our characters confront the problem, the story comes together, and we wrap up any loose ends (a.k.a. the ‘denouement’).
The most important thing is that you grab your audience right away, just like with a good book. You’ll need to quickly tease the importance of your story and set out your point of view from the word go.
While your story structure will be similar to a fiction film, your scenes and beats might look a bit different depending on the style of documentary. As a documentary filmmaker, you’ve got a few extra tools to work with: narration, interviews, voiceovers, B-roll for context and visuals, graphics, talking heads, and lots more. Not to mention music and sound design to set the pace and tone.
Lots of documentary filmmakers use storyboards to nail their story structure. At Boords, we make the world’s best online storyboarding software – and we think you’ll love it. Try it for free at boords.com.
While writing a documentary script is hard work, it’s a lot easier nowadays thanks to a huge range of affordable screenwriting software. These programmes handle all the tricky script formatting bits (margins, spacing, etc.) so that you can get down to telling a great story.
Here are a few programmes to check out:
There are also a load of outlining and development programmes out there. These make it easier to collect your thoughts and storytelling ideas together before you put pen to paper.
You can also use Boords to storyboard your documentary film, then export your script as a Word document – complete with word count.
While the scriptwriting software mentioned above handles most of the formatting, it's good to know how to do the basics. Your script should be a printed document that's:
The page count for an average screenplay should be between 90 and 120 pages, although it’s worth noting that this differs a bit by genre. A short film is a lot shorter, obviously.
If you want to dig into the nitty gritty details – scene headings, subheaders, dialogue, transitions, shots, and the rest – check out our scriptwriting guide: How to write a script.
Ken Burns is the documentary filmmaker behind some of the most acclaimed historical feature documentaries ever made, including The Statue of Liberty (1985), Huey Long (1985), Baseball (1994), Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The Dust Bowl (2012), Jackie Robinson (2016), and The Vietnam War (2017).
Over on MasterClass, he shares 8 tips for writing a documentary script. It’s definitely a must-read for any budding documentary filmmakers.
Creating an award-winning documentary film isn’t easy, but it’s a lot simpler when you start with a great story. Boords helps you go from that first idea to a fleshed-out storyboard in minutes, crafting your story to perfection. Try it for free at boords.com.