Script definition

A documentary script's meaning differs from a screenplay for a fictional film or a playscript for a theatre. Usually, it’s just an outline with an approximate description of the footage and soundtrack, as the exact frames and voiceover will be defined only after a shooting is complete.

Unlike professional actors, interviewees or witnesses of the described events don’t learn their lines by heart, and a producer can’t foretell how much time the narration will take. So the first draft is just a very basic outline, like a detailed plan of key locations, ideas to mention, people to meet and talk to.

Documentary script writing

When the filming is over and all the needed materials are collected, you can create a more detailed second draft. Usually, it looks like a two-column table. This format is sometimes called a Split Script. On the left side a director describes visuals, and on the right gives the corresponding audio, including verbatim or a voice over script.

How to write a script for a documentary film

Let's have a look at some basic steps that you can do to enhance your documentary and deliver your message more efficiently.

  1. Research your topic

    Highlighting any socially prominent issue or a notion takes a lot of preparation and arrangement. Study all the sources you can find, try to use unbiased documents or at least consider several points of view if the topic is controversial. Interview the immediate participants and gather evidence. Ask experts to evaluate them.

    Documentary film story preparation
  2. Write a blueprint

    As it was already mentioned, before the actual shooting you can only set some key milestones and very approximately note down the locations you want to visit and the people you want to interview. Don’t be upset if your plans don’t come true and the output differs a lot from the treatment you’ve written. For documentary scripts, it’s rather a rule of thumb than an exception.

  3. Create an audio transcription

    Luckily, nowadays there are programs that can do this monotonous and dull work for you. For example, Clideo’s tool for adding subtitles. When you have a full interview script, you can decide which fragments to use and with which visuals.

  4. Keep the audience on the edge of their seat

    "Documentary" doesn’t mean "boring". Create unexpected twists, unveil dark secrets, you can even find a "villain" and a "hero". The former may be a natural disaster, for example, or a notorious notion. The hero’s role may be perfectly presented by a scientist or a humanitarian.

  5. Write the final draft

    When the shooting is over, write a more detailed script to assemble all the episodes together. You may even include some b-roll scenes to make your film more interesting.

    Detailed script for documentary