I was recently asked about my knowledge of screenwriting for documentaries. I don’t know why I never thought to discuss it before, but writing documentaries is bit different from writing any other type of script. And knowing the ins and outs of story telling will definitely make you a much better documentary screenwriter. “Why’s that,” you ask? I’m glad you’re curious.
The major difference in writing a documentary is that it must be written after you’ve shot all the footage. That’s not to say that you don’t write anything before you start shooting, just the final script. The script is what will help you piece it all together and make things easier for the editor. So in essence the whole process of creating a documentary is backwards from traditional filmmaking production.
So what’s the first step? Once you’ve got a concept you’ll need to create some sort of outline for your story. You won’t be able to get too specific because you never know what people are going to say. So once you have a general idea of what you story will be about the next thing you’ll want to do is research… lots and lots of research. Use that research to plan out your outline. The outline will be like a blueprint to keep you on track while you’re out there shooting events and interviewing people. It may even help to break your outline down into acts. Pick a topic for each act, but make sure they all culminate into your overall message.
After you’ve shot all of your footage, then it’s time to sit down, watch it, and piece together your script. This is where having a keen understanding of storytelling will come in handy. You already know who your protagonist and antagonists are and they’ve given you all the dialogue. You’ve got your research and hopefully footage to back it up and mix in. Let your creative powers create a compelling story.
The actual script is different from traditional screenplays. The script will look more like a commercial script with two columns. The left side will consist of dialogue only. The right side will be your scene headings and action lines (audio visual or a/v). I only know of two programs that allow you to create this type of screenplay. One is Final Draft AV 2.5, but that was discontinued in 2013, but you can still purchase it by clicking here. The other is a free program called Celtx. You can sign up for a free account at www.celtx.com. After you’ve created your account, just click on “create” and select “AV SCRIPT” from the drop down menu and you’re ready to rock and roll.
For more in-depth notes on how to create a documentary, follow this link on How to Write a Script for a Documentary. To recap, the creative process and the story elements of a documentary are all pretty much the same as writing a traditional screenplay, the major difference being that the whole process is done in reverse. If you’re a good storyteller, you’ll be a good documentary screenwriter. Until next week, happy writing.