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What is a Documentary Script?
Documentary filmmaking is a non-fiction form of storytelling that depicts reality. The purpose behind the film could be to educate, inform or simply to document. The realistic and off-the-cuff style of documentaries may have writers questioning, what exactly goes into writing a documentary script?
The process of writing and creating a documentary differs from a narrative film. Documentaries can entail longer hours and flexibility, especially if they take place over the course of many years. They require immense research that doesn’t end until the completion of the project.
Ultimately, writing a documentary script is unpredictable. However, the best way to prepare is to hone in on the process. Whilst it might not seem like a documentary needs a script, it is, in the end, a story just like any other. Some stories might write themselves, but they still need a structure to be told within. This is where a documentary script will come in.
Finding The Story for a Documentary
A documentary script tells a story of real life. Therefore, ideas may come from any aspect of life. They can be personal or unrelated to the creator but must evoke passion. The passion and emotional bond the creator feels to the story will translate to the screen for the audience.
Life is enriched with all the storytelling elements a screenwriter needs. And writers should have a sixth sense when it comes to identifying a potential story. When searching for an idea, a writer must tap into that narrative storytelling side of their instincts. Apply it to real-life subjects that spark an interest and find where the story lies.
More importantly, find a subject that will spark interest in others. Before diving into any story, think of the audience. Who are they, why do they care, how will it impact them, what message is being conveyed? These are only a few questions to consider before locking in on an idea.
Be attuned to the world around you. Where are there intriguing stories? Where are there big stories and where are there small stories? These might come from your everyday life or from a news story that sparks an interest, for example.
Finding the story for a documentary is much like finding the story of a fiction script. It’s about seeing the potential for big stories in the everyday and seeing the everyday in big stories.
Minding The Gap
Finding a story from everyday life is exactly what Bing Liu did with his documentary, Minding the Gap. What starts as a young boy documenting his skating antics, turns into a coming of age exploration of trauma and manhood. In fact, the story couldn’t get more personal as it explores the lives of those closest to him.
The film draws a parallel between skateboarding and escapism. Liu showcases how the two main characters deal with past trauma in their present lives. Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan and Liu himself explore their own personal stories, all of which are linked in more ways than one.
“I had no idea it was going to lead where it led, but it was in the casting of Zack that this idea was first formulated. The cycle of violence is not a strange idea to people. It’s pretty well-known, and ultimately the film is about a lot more than that.”– Bing Liu
Minding the Gap is the perfect example of how a documentary idea can develop. What started out as an inkling soon developed into a more fully realised story, with deep far-reaching themes. Research and open-mindedness is key to this process, with an overarching story idea to help guide the direction of the story, even if you’re not sure what exactly lies in that direction.
Before jumping into the documentary script, take the time to research. It’s a crucial step in the process and without it, the story could face a big setback. Not only should the information be accurate, but proper research also unveils new details and story elements that wouldn’t have been present otherwise.
Sources can be personal interactions, such as interviews. Finding and talking to people who are up close and personal with the subject matter can be one of the most insightful tools to utilize. Don’t limit interviews to the subjects featured in the film. In fact, it’s encouraged to talk to as many reliable subjects as possible.
Other sources include newspapers, archival footage, academic books and research papers. The library and the internet will become the writer’s new best friend. Furthermore, keep all information organized. You may need to come back to the research later down the line.
In the end, the writer molds the perception of their chosen slice of reality. The writer is only one point of view. It’s their job to assess as many angles as possible. In that, the reality of the story will be found.
Writing and making a documentary can be a very different process to making a fiction film. Whilst fiction filmmaking can be delineated into different sections (writing, pre-production, filming, post-production), the lines tend to be more blurred in documentary filmmaking. The process can feel holistic in this regard.
“I looked at all kinds of films, and I did every kind of research you can imagine, talking, reading books, watching other films and then most of all thinking. I was able really to think about what I felt, how to express it and I did a lot of worrying. On all the films I’ve made I have never celebrated after a day of shooting.
I start worrying and after shooting, no matter how good it is, I always think ‘well jeez, sorry we did that’ but what didn’t we get, what do we still have to get while we’re here or in this situation or at this school or in this firehouse, wherever I happen to be filming.
Always worry, that’s just advice to a filmmaker. I never feel reassured until the film is over, mixed and released. Reassurance is not something that I as a filmmaker have felt or as a writer, until the whole thing is over.“– Peter Davis
As this quote highlights, the process of making a documentary is an immersive one. It’s a journey, with clarity often an elusive quality. As so much is conditional, discovering what the documentary is really about might not happen until everything is locked.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t plan.
Planning a Documentary Script
Typically in filmmaking, the writer’s role ends after the script is written. Rewrites may occur throughout the process, but for the most part, the writer will stay out of the picture (this can depend, of course). In documentary filmmaking, the writer has a slightly different role.
A writer may develop their own idea or be brought onto a project by a fellow creator. There may be a big crew and budget or a single creator with no budget. No matter the situation, the screenwriter‘s role remains essential until the final cut of the film.
Once you discover and thoroughly research the idea, it’s time to plan out the script. A significant difference between a narrative script and a documentary script is the unpredictability. However, that’s the beauty of the craft.
If the story is being documented in real-time, it’s almost impossible to know what to expect. There is likely to be constant development and unexpected turns that a writer must be prepared for. The best thing to do when planning for a documentary script is to keep an open mind. In particular, stay open to the idea that the story is going to change.
With that in mind, it’s still important to plan as much as you can in advance, even if things are expected to change. Every writer’s process is different, but starting with a type of outline will help map out how the story is best told. The outline should flesh out the idea on a larger scale and reveal whether there’s enough material in order to move forward.
The most common form of outline is a treatment. The treatment should include everything someone should know about the film. This includes a logline, synopsis and the plan for the character‘s narrative arc and storyline.
Structuring a Documentary Script
Much like creating an outline or treatment, there are different ways to format a documentary script. When it comes to stories being documented in real-time, a well-developed treatment may be the closest thing to a script a writer can create. This is because there’s no way to know what will happen until shooting is complete.
However, some documentaries are created to tell a story that’s already happened (such as a biography). In this case, a writer who is used to the techniques of traditional narrative screenwriting might feel more comfortable with this sense of control. One of the most well-known formats for writing a documentary script is to break up the visuals and audio into two columns.
Similar to a fiction script, narrative, structure, character and plot are essential to any documentary. The story should typically follow a three-act structure. Throughout the intricate planning, constantly be looking for the bigger picture.
Meticulous planning, research and footage will uncover how to set up the introduction. Then, discover the inciting incident. Reach the midpoint. Work up to the rising action. Find a gripping climax. Lastly, arrive at a rewarding resolution. It’s the basics of storytelling that help guide this form of writing, just like any other.
It’s important to hook the audience right away. Tease the importance of the story and state the point of view from the very beginning. Although the story structure is the same to fiction writing, scenes and beats can look a little different, depending on the style of the documentary.
For example, when crafting a documentary script, account for: elements of narration, interviews with subjects, B-roll shots of surroundings for context and visuals, graphics to cue information. Also, remember how essential music and sound can prove in dictating the pace and tone.
The Flexibility of Writing a Documentary Script
Although the writer may lose their sense of control, the ongoing changes that come with creating a documentary will result in pleasant surprises. The best thing to do is to embrace those changes and make it work for your story. The process of writing a documentary script is a long and winding road. However, the payoff can open the minds of many.
As a documentary screenwriter, an open mind is key. The story doesn’t stop unfolding until the final cut of the film. Unlike writing a narrative, the writer experiences the story up close and personal. Take advantage of this intimacy. Let the audience in on it by exploring a part of life that has yet to be articulated in such a way.
As research began, Kotevska and Stefanov discovered handmade beehives in a remote part of North Macedonia. It led to their owner, Hatidze Muratova. Hatidze lives a solitary life with her mother and tends to her bees in a crucially caring way. Subsequently, the film turns into her story.
The changes didn’t stop there. Initially, the film would focus on Hatidze’s sustainable living. However, when her new neighbors move in, there becomes a new pivot to the story. The directors find the conflict in Hatidze’s environment.
While these were two of the most significant changes, there was constant story development throughout the entire four-year process of making the film. Kotevska and Stefanov’s experience acts as a prime example of how flexibility can turn a good documentary into a great one.
“Our biggest challenge was to create a documentary that had the internal structure of fiction. Because this is really the future of cinema: Fiction that looks like documentaries and documentaries that look like fiction.“– Tamara Kotevska
Ideas may come from any aspect of life. Life is enriched with all the storytelling elements a screenwriter needs. When searching for an idea, tap into that narrative storytelling instinct and apply it to real-life subjects that spark interest.
Any and all research is crucial. Sources include interviews, newspapers, archival footage, academic books and research papers.
Plan out the idea by turning it into an outline that maps out how the story is going to be told. Finalize that outline into a treatment. The treatment should include everything someone should know about the film. This includes a logline, synopsis and the plan for the character’s narrative arc and storyline.
Documentaries and narratives are structurally similar. Both are telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. Meticulous planning, research and footage will reveal how to approach the beats you need.
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This article was written by Madison Kemeny and edited by IS Staff.
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