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5 Tips for Writing Documentaries and Non-Fiction Programming

There’s an entire universe of media that’s sometimes overlooked by aspiring screenwriters: writing for documentary films and non-fiction television programming. We’re living in the golden age of documentaries, and there’s never been more opportunity. Every year there are dozens of terrific documentaries released and hundreds of hours of non-fiction television programming – everything from Ancient Aliens to American Masters. Many of the narrative skills for traditional screenwriting are also applicable when writing non-fiction. Storytelling is storytelling. But there are some fundamental differences in approach.

The major difference between the two kinds of writing is that most documentary writing is performed after some or most of the film has been shot. So essentially, it’s the reverse of writing fiction for film and television. Instead, the documentary screenwriter considers a topic, evaluates the available media on that topic, and then conforms “reality” and “facts” into something contained, comprehensible, and satisfying – three things that facts and reality typically lack.

Here are some general steps to consider when writing documentaries.

1. Know your scope.

What kind of project are you making? Is it a five-minute short, a two-hour film, a ten-hour series like Making a Murderer, or something else? Most documentary productions will have some notion of what they intend from the start, but not always. If you already have distribution, it’s usually prescribed in the delivery requirements, down to the second. For example, a one-hour documentary broadcast on PBS requires a total runtime of 56:46. A one-hour episode of a documentary series on A&E runs 42:54. And so on.

But if distribution is not set, there might be some decisions to make about the final scope of the project, based on the breadth of the subject matter, how much source material is available or actually shot, and the best distribution opportunities in the marketplace. If the final film is for festival distribution, be aware that most festivals define “short” versus “feature” very specifically – often over/under 45 or 50 minutes. Most festivals prefer to program shorter documentaries, so keep that in mind.

2. Know your format.

If you’ve only ever written in Final Draft, the format of most documentary scripts will seem a little strange. Most documentary scripts will use a two to four column format with column headings along the lines of “clip/timecode,” “dialog/narration,” and “video/graphic.” The narrative is built by filling in the required information horizontally across each column then continuing down the page describing the next moment or scenes in the film. In other words, at any given moment in the film, the writer identifies the source material, what the audience hears, and what they will see, respectively. This provides a blueprint for the editor to cut it all together.

Keep in mind that many of the elements that appear in the script may not yet exist, including narration, graphics, transitions, B-roll, and archival materials. In their script, the writer might even suggest what additional materials should be shot so as to create a coherent and compelling narrative.

3. Know your arc.

It’s rare that reality presents itself in an organized way, so it’s the job of the documentary writer to find it. Documentary writing is all about finding the “story” in the “reality.” In the early stages, the most you can hope for is a sense of the dramatic arc – beginning, middle, and end. Or, if you prefer, act one, two and three.

Keep in mind, if you’re doing a project with a long, serialized story like The Jinx, this arc might run many hours. Alternately, if you were writing a non-fiction series like How it’s Made, each episode is really its own stand-alone, 21-minute short . Once the overall “shape” of the narrative makes sense, the writer can drill down into specifics.

4. Know your point of view.

This is where things start to get tricky, because it’s where the writer must convert people, facts, and actions into things like “characters,” “conflicts,” and “order.” Who or what will we be following in the story? Of course, to some degree, the point of view might be baked into what’s been shot. For example, if you were writing an episode of Deadliest Catch, you might have limited narrative options because all the available media follows the crew of crab fishermen.

The reason point of view is tricky is because inherent in point of view is the bias of the filmmakers. Bias is natural, and perhaps we are most biased when we don’t acknowledge our own biases. But you’re making choices. For example, if you’re telling a story about the lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan water supply, are you telling the story of a victim, the city’s provisional emergency managers, the state governor who appointed them, all of these, or something else? You get a very different story depending on the point of view. If you’re making the wonderful series Planet Earth or the film March of the Penguins, the narrative bias might be no more than a subtle pro-ecology message. Or, you could be Michael Moore, whose films have an activist agenda.

In any case, point of view is inherent in all filmmaking, either by accident or on purpose. The first real act of documentary writing will be sifting through a sea of facts and then deciding on some mix of the following: Who (or what) we are following, what journey they’re on, what stands in the way of that journey, and what it really means. This applies even when the topic is something relatively straightforward and chronological, such as Ken Burn’s The Civil War or The Vietnam War. Burns will be the first to tell you, it’s all about storytelling (meaning creating a narrative) and it’s all about choices – what you show and what you leave out. (So, I will forgive Burns for not including more Django Reinhardt in his amazing series, Jazz.)

5. Know your style.

This last aspect of non-fiction writing I call “style,” although that’s kind of a catch-all term. By style I mean what devices or artifice will be used in the telling of the story. It could be many things: animation, graphics, narration, structural tricks, section breaks, timeline shifts, split screen, slow motion, fast motion, dramatic reenactments, recurring visual motifs, and so on. Each of these stylistic choices might be delineated by the screenwriter in the script. While most fictional, narrative films make more-limited use of these stylistic elements, many documentaries embrace their use throughout, depending on the subject matter. Ideally, the writer’s narrative decisions will determine many of these choices. For example, dramatic reenactment is unlikely to be used in a documentary unless you’re portraying something “historical” in nature, right? But who knows, maybe you’ll be the first.

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