A good script is essential to creating a great film. In the case of documentaries, however, the role of the documentary script is often misunderstood. What are documentary scripts? How do they differ from a fiction film script? How are they alike? Let’s take a look.
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This post was updated in June 2021
What is a Script?
Experience has taught writers to craft scripts in a particular way. This structure, as we’ll find out, is also used in documentary scripts.
Three Acts and Traditional Structure
Three-act structure is the traditional form of storytelling in fiction film in general. It is very popular and indeed the vast majority of films will have this layout. Interestingly, even documentaries will use this traditional structure in one way or another too.
The blueprint generally goes like this: The film begins with an inciting incident, which propels the action. The first act finishes with a turning point, which leads to the second act. This act, the longest one, is usually divided in two, with a midpoint in the middle. The second act finishes, in turn, with another turning point, leading to the third act and the final climax and resolution of the story.
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a basic framework in the organization of a story. Some would even call it a basic genre. This framework begins with an ordinary world, where a hero receives a call to adventure, refuses it initially, but then accepts it. The hero meets with a mentor and begins the journey, crossing a threshold, enduring tests and combatting enemies and making friends and allies. The hero eventually approaches a metaphoric inmost cave where a final ordeal and battle is fought and a reward and victory is eventually theirs.
As well as a story framework, the hero’s journey provides several archetypes that are used to create characters. These archetypes are: the hero, the mentor, the threshold guardian, the herald, the shapeshifter, the shadow, the ally and the trickster.
This type of structure has been greatly developed by people such as Joseph Campbell or later by Christopher Vogler. This basic framework is apparent in each ‘Harry Potter’ film, for instance. John Truby, screenwriting expert, would describe this same basic structure as: weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, new equilibrium.
The Basic Elements of a Script
Story refers to all the elements contained within a narrative, in chronological order. In other words, the story is everything that happens to the characters in a straight line.
The plot, on the other hand, orders story elements, uses subplots, flashbacks and all other dramatic resources that are considered necessary.
The other main elements of a script are characters and incidents. These incidents, naturally, are organic to the story itself.
There is also the need to consider things such as theme. The theme is what a script or story is really about. For instance, the theme of a film such as ‘Scarface’ (1983) could be described as the corruptive nature of power and excess, or something along those lines. The very theme will usually dictate a particular dramatic movement. In the case of ‘Scarface’ that dramatic movement is towards the annihilation of the character and story world, because such is the natural conclusion of the corruptive nature of power and excess.
The Nitty-Gritty of Documentary Scripts
Differences Between Film Scripts and Documentary Scripts
The basic feature which distinguishes the writing of a documentary script is that it is necessary to write backward. What this basically means is that it is important to have all the research, data, interviews and only then can the script, and all its voice overs, be written.
Another great difference between traditional fiction scripts and documentary scripts is the use of voice over. Indeed, in fiction screenwriting the use of voice over is often discouraged by screenwriting professors, whilst in documentaries it is essential.
Finally, documentaries deal with real live topics. This means that there must be fidelity to the facts, akin to that of journalism. Fictional scripts, on the other hand, have no such limitation. Although it may be fine to organize events in a logical or dramatic manner in a documentary, it is improper to forget about the reality and truth of the subject matter.
Similarities Between Film Scripts and Documentary Scripts
Perhaps the biggest similarity, as we’ve noted here, is the use of structure. At the end of the day, a documentary is still a story, and the dramatic forms common in fiction screenplays also serve a purpose in the crafting of effective documentary scripts. The use of antagonists, in particular, is very effective in film structure and can be used in a documentary script as well.
Another crucial similarity is the running time of a documentary. Often, fiction films will run for about two hours or one hour and a half. Documentaries should imitate these conventions, even if an excess of material could very well be crafted into a longer finished product.
Getting Down to Business: Writing the Documentary Script
Writing a documentary script will be easier if the basic structure of screenwriting is used. We’ve seen the basics and the theory. Now let’s get down to business.
- Brainstorming: The first step is coming up with a documentary idea. The idea must be something which sparks tremendous interest and passion in the team who will make the documentary, naturally. The writer of the documentary script should begin imagining and jotting down a gamut of possibilities early on: possible interviews, possible locations, possible scenarios, etc.
- Research: Investigating the subject matters extensively will lay the foundations for a successful documentary script. This research may be on the Internet, libraries, etc. A documentary scriptwriter should know, however, that once the documentary filming begins, the opportunities for tranquil research will narrow; it’s best to do as much as possible at once.
- Writing a ‘shooting script’: Since the whole script can’t be written at the start, what is often possible is to write a pre-script or outline. This will serve as a blueprint for what the documentary seeks to accomplish, whilst leaving room to add in all the dialogue later on.
- Transcribing Footage: This is a long, complicated process, but it will help disentangle the hours of footage. It will slowly be possible to begin constructing a documentary script from this raw text.
- Crafting the Story: After transcribing, a story complete with plots and subplots will begin to emerge. The idea is to move chunks and scenes around to be able to create a proper story.
- Writing Voice Overs. When a rough documentary script is achieved, the documentarian will frequently note that there is some voice over narration needed to smooth things over and connect scenes and moments altogether. This voice over will thus be written into the documentary script, ready to be recorded later.
Interesting Examples of Documentary Scripts
‘Anvil’ and Story Structure
Many documentary scripts use a three-act structure as a fiction film would. Not only that, it is not unusual for them to use the same elements of fiction films that we have described earlier: story, plot, characters, incidents, theme. Consider the documentary ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ (2008). It features a real Canadian band named Anvil, and their attempts to make it in the music industry.
The film introduces the characters, their history in music and desires to succeed despite the passage of time. The band hires a new manager who sets up a European tour. They go to the tour and many things, both good and bad happen. Eventually, they make it to the Monsters of Transylvania rock concert, playing to a lackluster crowd. They return to Canada, in dire financial straits. The band contacts a music producer and goes on to record a new album with him. At the end of the documentary, the band receives an invitation to play in Japan, where they play to a large crowd.
Despite it being a documentary depicting real events, you can see how the director organizes the real events in a traditional three-act structure. This is a normal practice in documentaries. After all, viewers are used to this sort of structure.
‘The Act of Killing’ and Creative Reenactments
A great difference between fiction film scripts and documentary scripts is the unpredictability of documentaries. Indeed, once a documentary starts shooting, it is impossible to tell what will happen or what people will say. There is a documentary which is a curious exception to this.
The documentary is called ‘The Act of Killing’ (2012). It focuses on the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. The documentarian invited Anwar Congo, one of those responsible for such killings, to talk about them and create scenes and reenactments of these experiences and situations, eventually playing the part of a victim. The director called this powerful work a “documentary of the imagination”.
This documentary is an interesting case study because it is one of the few examples of a documentary script which could very well be written in large part before filming. The blending of factual and fictionalized scenes make for a gripping filmic experience which is part true and part pure creativity, seldom encountered in other works.
‘Grizzly Man’ and a Subject’s Material
‘Grizzly Man’ (2005) is a particularly interesting work, to learn more about the documentary script process. The documentary is about Timothy Treadwell and about his sojourns visiting, studying and indeed living with grizzly bears, until his tragic demise.
What’s most interesting about this documentary is the fact that it is Treadwell’s own filming tapes which make up the brunt of the story. Indeed, the subject (Treadwell) provides himself the prime material for the documentarian’s later use. In a sense, the documentary script is ‘written’ very much by the subject himself, an unusual situation in documentaries, where the lines between director/writer and subject are often very clearly defined.
How to Get It Right
Experience has taught writers to craft scripts in a particular way. These approaches may also be used in documentary scripts.
This includes the use of a traditional three-act structure and the hero’s journey dramatic arc.
Documentary scripts may also use traditional story elements such as story, plot, characters, incidents, and theme.
The use of voice over, however, and an emphasis on veracity are some of the distinguishing marks of a documentary script.
The process of writing the documentary script will often be divided into stages. Before shooting, research and crafting a shooting script are essential. After shooting, a transcription of the footage, along with the inclusion of necessary voice over, will deliver a finished product.