How to Write a Script
for a Documentary
Tips for creating a dynamic storytelling
experience for your audience
By Faith Fuller
How to write a script?
I seem to ask myself this question every time I begin a new project, my eyes blinking at that
daunting white blank page...
Most people think of a script as what’s being “spoken.” However, even a silent movie has a
That’s because a script is a written description of what the audience is seeing AND hearing.
A well-written script should be able to “capture your imagination” and help you visualize what
the audience will experience on the screen.
Before You Begin Shooting
Create a List. Based on your research, start creating a list of potential
characters/interviews, basic storylines, areas of potential conflict and emotion. Ask
yourself, “what’s at the heart of this story and how do I “show” that visually?”
RESEARCH! Once you’ve settled on your documentary idea, time to start digging.
Leave no rock left unturned.
Get Style. Decide the look, feel and style of your documentary. Search web videos or
watch TV for ideas. Netflix is a great resource for documentaries.
Write a “shooting script” (pre-script/outline) – Often with documentaries, the script
can’t really be written until after the footage has been shot and you start piecing the story
together based on what you “discovered” with your camera. However, writing an outline
at the beginning can be an invaluable guide to point you in the right direction, especially
to be able to look back as a reference when the chaos of shooting can get you off track.
There WILL come that moment in the process when you say, “What was I thinking!?”
Get Creative. Think about some unique and creative ways you can spice up your movie
and give it that "Wow" factor. “How to write a script” creatively involves adding special
elements such as stop motion, time-lapse, animation/cartoons, recreations, etc. For
example, in the 2008 documentary Young At Heart, the filmmakers used MTV style
music videos to segue between scenes of their elderly singers. Perfect!
After Shooting is Complete
The very nature of the documentary is that it is “unscripted”. It is meant to capture some aspect
of “real life”. Then it is up to you (the writer) to take the messiness of real life and create some
kind of story.
As the scriptwriter, you will need to examine all the “unscripted” & “raw” footage and create
some sort of structure out of it.
It will seem daunting at first (you WILL feel overwhelmed at some point), but think of it as
putting together a great big puzzle. It will look like a jumbled mess at first, but bit by bit, the big
picture will begin to reveal itself as you mix and match the various pieces. How to write a script:
1. Log your tapes – This may seem like a tedious and boring task at first, but TRUST ME,
you will thank yourself in the end. This is where you begin to "log" and categorize the
various "pieces" of your puzzle.
2. Review the BIG picture. What are the main elements (characters and plots) that have
surfaced through shooting process that create the tapestry of your overall story. What are
the key “moments”?
3. Create Scenes. Take these “moments” and divide your documentary into mini-stories
(scenes) that, together, create the documentary.
4. Build a Roller Coaster. Take these scenes and begin creating a “Roller Coaster” ride for
your audience. What kind of “ride” are you taking them on? Think about the powerful
moments in your story and how to write a script to build up those moments. A fantastic
book that describes this process is Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV by Dona
5. Villain and Hero. Another important part of scriptwriting is determining the villain(s)
and hero(s) in your story. A hero/villain can be a person, thing or event. (A tornado can
be the villain).
6. BEGINNING, MIDDLE and an END. Of course, every story has a beginning, middle
and end. If you can outline your story in these three general categories, then you can
begin to fill in the details.
7. The Ending. If you have a lot of footage and information to work with, a simple way to
clarify how to start building your script is to think about how you’re going to END your
documentary. Everything else leads up to that.
8. Start Strong. I cannot express enough the importance of how you START your
documentary. This is when you “hook” the audience and set the tone for the entire
program. The beginning of your film should:
Establish the “core message” of the documentary (this often includes a specific
“incident” that is controversial or offsets the balance of forces in some way).
Create curiosity -- set up the “problem” or “issue” in the most compelling way
possible to tantalize or grab your audience’s interest. Create a situation that makes
the audience ask, “Why is this happening?”
9. What's in the Middle? It’s easy for scriptwriters to get “lost” in the middle (body)
section of the script. Just keep asking yourself, “does this scene/story or information
move the story forward and lead to the ending conclusion?” Don’t get attached to any
particular footage or information. If it doesn’t fit, leave it OUT. You can always put it in
the “Bonus” or “Deleted Scenes” section of your DVD. :-)
10. Script Template. Finally, once you have a general outline of your story, begin building
your script using a 2-column script template: one column for audio, one column for
You may or may not need scriptwriting software to help you write your documentary script.
Unless you are shooting a lot of reenactments for your documentary (half movie, half
documentary kind of thing), a basic 2-column Audio/Video script template is probably all you
Here are your two basic choices for scriptwriting tools:
Use a A/V (Audio/Video) scriptwriting template from your word processor.
Download a stand-alone scriptwriting software program such as Final Draft or Celtx.
These software programs have some pretty cool features, but they're primarily geared
toward narrative filmmaking and can be overkill for a basic documentary script.
For anyone in the corporate video making world or if you're working on some reenactment
scenes for your documentary, storyboarding software such as Storyboard Quick can be pretty
How to write a script? Of course, what looks great on paper does not always work great on the
screen. Think of your script as a guide and be prepared to modify, slice and dice once the video
editing process begins.
This is where those tape logs come in VERY HANDY. A quote or scene that you didn’t think
was very important in the scriptwriting stage, will suddenly take on new importance once the
So those are a few key points on how to write a script for documentary. Remember, with
documentaries, there is no perfect formula. Just start writing and do what works for YOUR story.
Getting Great On-Camera Interviews
How to Build a Basic Documentary Structure
Making Documentaries: A Step By Step Guide
Storytelling Techniques for Documentary Filmmaking
How to Write a Documentary Treatment