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Tips on Documentary Scriptwriting

by Walter Jacob

Documentary Filmmaker

There’s no end of ways to write a documentary script, because there’s really no end to the subjects documentaries can explore, or the different ways to approach those subjects. The realities of each documentary project often dictate how you go about the task. If you’re new to the experience, though, there are a few simple things you can do to make the documentary scriptwriting process a lot more manageable. And possibly save yourself money on aspirin, therapy, or drywall repair.

1. Get started as soon as you can.

Scriptwriting is really just a way of envisioning your doc with words, and words are very cost-effective planning tools. I don’t mean to undersell the artistry involved, but at the early stages of a project, it’s mostly about roughing out what the movie is going to focus on and where the big pieces are probably going to go. The more you can do that before you shoot a lot of events and interviews, the less likely it is that much of what you shoot is going to turn out to be unnecessary or off target. Even if you don’t know where your story is headed—say, you’re following an athlete who’s training for a big race, but there’s no telling how the race will go—getting started on scripting will help you think through the possible outcomes and their implications. Just don’t get so invested in anything you write that you can’t adapt to the unexpected, which can make for some of the most powerful elements of any documentary.

2. Get clear on your purpose.

In spite of best intentions, it’s not uncommon to start scriptwriting with a heap of accumulated interviews, b-roll, and stills but only a hazy sense of what your doc is about. This can lead to panic or paralysis. Help! Where to begin? Try stepping back from it all and thinking about why you wanted to make a doc in the first place. What got you interested in the subject? Why do you care? Why should anyone else care? Who are you hoping will watch it, and what are the most important things you want them to take away from it? These are basic questions, but answering them carefully and thoroughly will make it much easier for you to resolve other key ones: Who are your main characters going to be? Who else needs to be included? What’s going to happen in your doc? What are its biggest moments? What period of time is it going to cover? What do viewers need to learn early on so they can appreciate what you’re going to show them? What’s the best way to get them hooked on your story? As you figure these things out, you’ll find your movie starting to take shape in your head.

3. Get organized.

The creative decision making involved in writing a script can be hard work. It can be downright insurmountable if, every time you want to find a great statement that somebody made on camera or check whether you have b-roll to support somebody’s point, you have to go fishing in a sea of unlogged footage. You can save yourself a lot of pain by generating transcripts of your interviews and going through them all in detail before you ever sit down to write. I like to organize soundbites by topic so I can easily see who said what about anything in particular and find it quickly if I need it. Reading transcripts isn’t a good substitute, though, for watching the interviews themselves. You need to know not just what people said but how they said it. Watch as much of your b-roll as you can as well. Delegating the logging of b-roll to someone else might free you up to do other things, but if you haven’t actually seen the shots and can’t picture them in your mind as you’re writing, you’re going to be thinking more verbally than visually as you put your script together. And if you’re not going to tell your story visually, you might want to think about making an audio program instead.

4. Keep the whole in mind.

Every writer develops a favorite way of working, and I don’t want to presume to tell you what’s best for you. Speaking for myself, though, I find it hard to make much progress at all on a script without having a sense of the overall shape of the thing. I wind up just staring at my screen and wandering in mental circles. So I usually start by constructing an outline, and moving pieces of it around until it feels like something that’s going to grab my interest from the get-go and hold onto it all the way through. Then I can start figuring out where specific soundbites and images will be most useful in telling the story, and where any narration or text on screen might be needed. To use a very old metaphor, I build the skeleton of the critter first, and then I hang meat on the bones. For some people, that’s way too systematic, and stifles spontaneity and inspiration. For me, it has the opposite effect: It frees me up to think creatively, because it rids me of that awful sense of being lost in the woods without a compass. As I mentioned earlier, though, it’s important not to get too invested in your plan, and to remain willing to rearrange things radically if the structure you’ve chosen isn’t working. It’s also important not to get too attached to any particular piece of your script as you put it together. What matters most is the effectiveness of the whole. If anything isn’t serving that, it’s got to go.

5. Play.

If you’ve taken the time to answer the key questions about your story, organize your media, and build an outline, if only a preliminary one, you can afford to let your mind off its leash. Your screen might be blank, but that’s nothing to fear. It’s a playing field, a dance floor, a skating rink. Fool around and try some crazy stuff. Put in what makes you laugh out loud, hits you hard in the gut, or seems so outrageous it scares you. You may be surprised at how it clarifies your own thoughts about the story, and sometimes convinces you to modify your original plan. Do you really need to relate things chronologically, or would it be more interesting to jump around in time? Is it essential to present a particular fact up front, or will it have more impact if you reveal it later? Were you right to focus on your main character’s experience, or is your story really more about that person’s relationship with someone else? Instead of trying to assemble your script methodically from start to finish according to your outline, try just throwing the pieces that you most want to use into the general areas where your outline suggests they probably belong, and then see how the whole thing flows as you skim it over. Let your gut tell you what needs re-ordering. Once you have a flow that feels satisfying, you can mess around with the pieces in each part of the script to create moments that resonate and keep the story moving forward.

The spirit of play is a good one to maintain throughout the scriptwriting process and beyond. It’s especially helpful when you start showing your script to others, which you really need to do. Everybody needs an editor—including everybody blenders like ChatGPT. No matter how carefully you’ve considered your script from every angle you can imagine, you’re guaranteed to have missed something—probably many somethings. Show it to a few people you trust, button your lip, and listen to their reactions and ideas with an open mind. You might find that you’ve left out something critical, or that you don’t even need parts that you thought were vital. Some things might turn out to be better left unsaid, or conveyed with images or sounds rather than words. Some of the most useful suggestions may come from people who know nothing about your subject in advance. Take their input, experiment, and see how you can improve what you’ve written.

You might need to go through the process of showing your script around, gathering comments, and revising multiple times before it feels like it really works. And even then, keep in mind that whatever you settle on is sure to change again at least to some degree before your doc is finished. It’s not scripture, it’s a working document—a means to an end that won’t be entirely clear until you get there. But in crafting a strong script, you’ll have taken an important step toward bringing your doc to life.

by Walter Jacob, writer, producer, and content developer