Documentary Scriptwriting

Documentaries are unlike movies, which come from a full script, with dialogue all planned out. Because documentaries evolve from real events, footage, and interviews, you can’t predict what people will say. However, you still need to tell a clear story. This means you need a way to plan out your project, one that’s flexible, but not dependent on dialogue.

This is the art of documentary scriptwriting.

Capturing the ‘beats’ of your documentary

During pre-production for your documentary, you begin thinking about the story you’re going to tell. You organize your ideas into a set of goals that clearly illustrate the documentary’s underlying purpose. Putting all this down on paper is what documentary scriptwriting is all about. While you can’t predict what you’ll capture during production, having a script gives you a great guideline.

Rather than fill your page with scene descriptions, blocking, and dialogue, documentary scripts are all about the beats. To clarify, beats are essential elements of the story that make it complete. For example, if you were creating a documentary about a man getting hip surgery, the beats might include:

  • Waking up the day of surgery.
  • Struggling with not being able to eat or drink that morning.
  • Deciding what to wear/bring to the hospital.
  • The anticipation as he travels to the hospital.
  • Initial interaction with doctor and surgery prep.
  • What happens during surgery in the OR and waiting room.
  • Recovery.

Breaking down the beats like this creates a map for the narrative chain of events. Sure, things might go awry, but this map ensures that the finished product relays a complete story. Of course there’s still room for unpredictability and complications, so long as you capture variations of all these essential beats. Essentially these beats are a checklist of
“must haves” in the always-shifting documentary production.

Covering the basics of a good story

An old man sits for a documentary interview
During your documentary interviews, always have a backup plan.

Unlike narrative films, creating a documentary means being flexible. You could walk into an interview, with an amazing set of prepared questions, and get blindsided by new information from your subject. What would you do? The correct answer is make adjustments on the fly to lock-in the content you need to tell your story. How do you make sure that happens?

Even with a finalized documentary script in hand, you need to adapt as your story unfolds. Both the beats of your story as well as the questions you want answered go into your documentary script. However, they shouldn’t be set in stone. With the help of a trusted content producer on set, updating and adjusting your documentary script is a breeze.

Creating the right type of documentary script

The style of documentary you’re making influences your script. Obviously the story beats change based on the subject matter, but so too do the types of questions to ask. If you’re documentary is investigative, you’ll need open-ended, probing questions to get your interviewees talking. If you’re reporting on past events, you need targeted questions, like,”What happened at the stadium on February 3, 1954?” 

You may also be creating content that’s documentary-styled, but really for a specific client. This can happen when you’re getting subjects to tell a positive story about a certain place or product. For example, if you’re producing a mini-doc where students share their experiences at a certain university, you need to ask questions that produce strong sound-bytes. You might want to guide their feedback to make sure they mention the school itself. We achieve this through simple “Finish the Sentence” question structure. For example, “Finish this sentence: ‘Anytown University is great because…” By contextualizing the question for the interviewee, we gently guide them towards sound-byte perfection.

Learning more about the documentary process

Whether you’re working on a film, commercial, a web spot, or a documentary, working with production team who understands the medium is vital. Doing your research on a company’s capabilities is important, as is their ability to showcase their expertise. At ECG Productions, our knowledgeable staff not only share past documentary-style projects, but also give you a behind-the-scenes look at the project.

For Mr. Bruce Gets His Money, we had to tell the story of Mr. Bruce, a property owner who often dealt with challenging tenants. To properly capture the story, we created a documentary script that listed what footage each day to make sure a complete story was told. This included getting background on the situation, footage of Mr. Bruce’s feelings in dealing with the tenant, the actual interaction, and then reactions after the fact. You can watch the sizzle reel of the finished project as well as see what it was like on the set.

If you’ve never created a documentary script before, the task can feel daunting. But never fear: ECG is here! Contact ECG Productions today to learn how we’ll put our experience to the test to make your documentary script a hit.