Tips on Writing Your First Documentary Script
Out of all of the kinds of scripts you can write, the most unique and challenging is probably a documentary script. The problematic nature of a documentary script is especially the case if it's your first time writing one.
Since documentaries are a result of what they capture, what you want to achieve might be completely different than your initial vision of a script. It requires you to be able to adapt and adjust your script on the go. Something not every person has the luxury of having.
For those of you who are beginners in the world of documentaries and want tips on writing your first documentary script, look no further! Down below will take a closer look at the subject and outline a few tips to help you get started on your documentary script. Let’s get started!
Develop a Simple Pitch
Whether you're the director of the documentary or just in charge of the script after filming is completed, you need to understand what your pitch is before anything. That might sound odd, but if you can get an understanding of what your angle is, it'll help you write a script that represents it.
For example, if your documentary is about foster care children, you might envision your pitch as: “This is a documentary about the difficult life orphans are dealt with once they’re 18 and out of foster care”.
With the simple pitch in mind, your structure and writing of the script will try to achieve what this pitch means. If you have a bunch of extra footage of stuff that doesn't pertain to your tone or subject, then you obviously wouldn't include it in your script.
Still from "Man on Wire" documentary. Photo credit: watchdocumentaries.com
The reason documentary scripts are different from other scripts is you have to work backward with them. Unlike film and television, everything was already shot, and it's your job to piece together a story.
If your crew did an excellent job shooting the documentary, then you'll have loads of footage to choose from. Which means you'll have to decide what stays in the documentary and what has to go.
Your best bet is to remember what the purpose of the documentary is and select footage that supports that purpose. Just because it’s a documentary doesn’t mean it can’t have a story structure to it. Just like all scripts, it’s supposed to be told in a way that has a beginning, middle, and end.
Think of What the Viewer Wants to Learn
The best advice for any documentary script is to watch successful documentaries. Watch them and understand what makes their script suitable. Basically, you have to place yourself from the viewer's perspective and know what they want to learn.
With the documentaries you watch for inspiration, remember to take notes while you’re watching them. It’ll refresh your memory when you’re working on your own documentary script. Consider writing why you’re enjoying the documentary piece you’re watching, how it’s structured, how it’s told, etc.
It's essential to understand what the viewer looks for in a documentary. Doing so will allow you to create a script that flows and makes sense to any viewer.
Develop Your Point of View Right Away
Before you do anything with your documentary script, you need to determine your point of view right away. What this means is how your documentary is going to be told. Whether it’s an introduction of the people working on the documentary, voice-over, or it strictly being told from a third-person perspective, it’s up to you and your script.
If you don't develop your point of view right away, then your script will confuse the audience. It needs to have a cohesive style from the start. This is extremely important to figure out before anything else.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article! For those of you who are hoping to or have already started a documentary script, hopefully, these tips will guide you in the right direction.
To quickly recap everything, remember what the point of your documentary is and stick with it. Your pitch should be simple and clear to the audience. Confusing the audience will only make them resent your documentary.
Remember how you’re going to have to work backward in comparison to other screenwriting. Understand what this means and how you can go about doing it.
Last but not least, understand what the viewer wants and the point of view of your documentary. Watching other documentary pieces will help you determine what you want to do with both of these.