Screenwriting: Do Documentaries Need Scripts?

Documentaries involve capturing real events, and these films can range from filming wars, interviewing real people, even capturing the speeches of politicians or filming disasters. But, do documentaries need scripts? While it may not seem obvious, documentaries do need scripts, just not traditional ones. And, to create screenplays for documentaries, screenwriters need to figure out how to use events, interviews and voice-overs to move along the story of the documentary.

Step 1: Using Scenes, Not Written Dialogue

Unlike traditional screenwriting, a documentary screenwriter will start with more of an outline as opposed to a detailed script. Since real people and events drive documentaries, a screenwriter cannot write out what a person's going to say. But, they can do an assumption of what a person's views will be based on past interviews. This will be an initial screenplay based on what the screenwriter think that a person will say or what they think they can film.

For example, a conservative Republican is unlikely to espouse the liberal side of popular issues. So, if a documentary filmmaker is planning on interviewing this person, they have an assumption as to what the person will say based on the subject. Then, if the screenwriter wants back-to-back opposing views, he will match up this interview with a liberal view espousing the other side of the issue.

In the outline, documentary screenwriters should make a timeline of where certain interviews and footage should fall. But, these should be flexible. Oftentimes a documentary screenwriter won't be able to film in a certain area or interview a certain person. So, later this outline will have to be changed to what was actually filmed.

Step 2: Using Historical Footage

Just like the interviews will move the story along, footage should also be inserted that support or oppose a certain point. Most documentaries look to support a theme. Footage should somehow support that theme. But, footage can also be used to refute what an interviewee said.

Again, screenwriters should temporarily insert what they want to film if it hasn't been filmed in the past. Sometimes, filmmakers are not allowed on the premises of certain properties, which means that that scene won't be able to be filmed.

Step 3: Creating the Final Script

Once all footage has been taken, now it's time for screenwriters to make their final script. Documentary writers will choose which scenes that they want to include and which need to be edited out. Generally, documentary screenwriters will want to add some voiceover work and even on-camera interviews of themselves. This can now be written out and inserted into the script.

The final layout of the film will now be created: what scenes will be used in what order, where interviews will be placed and where the filmmaker will appear. Now, the script can be used to edit the film.

Step 4: One Final Reminder

The goal of a documentary film is to advance a certain view or goal. Scenes and interviews should help move the film along, but also support this view or goal. Always be sure to match up opposing views with refuting evidence.