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July 21, 2022

How To Write a Documentary Script

When working on a script, we often think about the latest blockbuster film. But did you know you can also make a career as a documentary script maker?

However, there are some similarities and some differences in writing fiction films that you need to be aware of.

Let's dive into how to write a documentary script.

What is a documentary film?

A documentary film is a film that tells a story based on real life. It is grounded in facts; the main players are people going about their ordinary lives as they happen. The characters are not actors.

Despite capturing real life as it happens, a documentary film still needs a central narrative. A narrator or a presenter usually delivers that.

A documentary film for television usually lasts between 45 - 60 mins, depending on the network or station it is aired on. A documentary film for release in the cinema would usually last longer.

However, there are exceptions. The BBC documentary films by Adam Curtis, such as Bitter Lake and Hypernormalisation, are nearly three hours long.

The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis.
Adam Curtis' unsettling documentary films help us make sense of the world from a different perspective.

Some examples of great documentaries of recent years include:

  • The Tinder Swindler (Netflix)
  • The Staircase (Netflix, BBC, Sundance)
  • Framing Britney Spears (Hulu)
  • Dark Money (Netflix)
  • Street Food (Netflix)

As you can see, many of the best documentaries have found their way onto Netflix in recent years. Be sure to check out our guide on how to pitch to Netflix if this is your ambition.

The best documentaries often introduce an element of mystery and ambiguity, leaving viewers to speculate as to the full facts of the case while offering just enough to provide a degree of resolution.

You can read more details about what a documentary is and the different elements it should contain by following the link to this blog post.

Why your documentary needs a script

If you've ever watched a documentary, the chances are, it appears organic. The cameras follow the cast of characters saying what they think, and the result is pretty much oven-ready.

However, this couldn't be further from the truth about how documentaries are made. All filmmakers have an agenda; this is not a criticism but a fact of how all stories, fiction, and non-fiction, are constructed.

The filmmaker wants to tell a specific story. To do that, they must have an idea of where they are going, which means it needs a script.

This doesn't mean you will put words into your interviewees' mouths. Instead, the script includes a voice-over or piece to camera deliveries and a list of b-roll footage.

Remember, a documentary must still adhere to a three or five-act structure like a fictional film does. Having a script can help you more clearly see this structure.

How to find your story/idea

Before you begin shooting your script, you need to know where it will go: a structure. You must first decide on the scope of the shoot. Where are you going to shoot? For how long? And who will the main protagonists be? In other words, who will we be positioned with throughout the script?

These ideas may change as you start shooting, and you may have to adapt by extending the shoot, spending more time interviewing, and following someone who you previously thought would have a lesser role in the film.  

To come up with these ideas, start by considering what interests you. For example, what areas of life fascinate you? And then think about how you might be able to tell a compelling story from that.

It would help if you also balanced those questions with what is possible. You may be interested in the inner workings of politics, but if you've never made a film before, you are unlikely to be granted access to the White House. You could, however, approach your local town council about doing a documentary series about what it's like to work there.

How to create a documentary film treatment

Before you write your script, you must first write a documentary film treatment. This serves almost like a plan for your documentary script and enables you to gather your ideas first.

The treatment should be between 10-14 pages long. It should contain a summary of your idea with the narrative and main cast of characters. It should include the film's proposed length and aim to keep the readers involved.

Think of the work that goes into a fictional script: the detailed descriptions of the characters and their surroundings, and be sure to write in a similar style.

How to structure a documentary script

Once you've written your treatment and work has begun on shooting key scenes and characters for your film, you can now start your script.

The script's purpose is to show how all the different components of the shoot come together to form the film. These are the shots and interviews married alongside the b-roll footage and the narration, either a voice-over or pieces to camera.

You should divide the page into three columns, one listing the scene number, one focused on video, and the other on audio. Anything the viewer sees during the scene should be recorded in the video section, such as on-screen captions, camera angles, and b-roll footage.

Example documentary shooting script.
A documentary shooting script should be split into three columns: picture, time and audio.

The audio column should include anything the audience will only hear: specific songs, voice-overage footage, or dialogue.

Don't forget you can use Arc Studio's formatting tools to help you format your documentary script correctly. Here are some blog posts to help you take advantage of all the formatting features Arc Studio has to offer.

You can generally only work on your script after collecting your interviews, gathering your data, and doing extensive research. In that sense, a documentary script is written much later than a script for a film or TV series.

How to format a documentary script

In general, you should try to follow the one page per minute rule when you write a documentary script though this can be hard to follow if you have many different scenes.

Use size 12 font and courier if you use Microsoft Word (here is a free screenplay template if you use Google Docs or Word!). If you are struggling with formatting, check out our guide, which answers all your formatting questions in detail.

How to write a documentary script step-by-step

Writing a script for a documentary film is a different experience from writing a movie or TV series set in a fictional world. But hopefully, this blog has helped you not be overwhelmed by the process. There is a step-by-step plan you can follow to make it easy.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!

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How To Write a Documentary Script
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"