Ask Andy: How do I script a doc?

NW Documentary’s Artist in Residence, Andy Blubaugh, is here to answer your non-fiction storytelling questions.

Is there a proper script format for making a documentary?  I’d like to know your pre-production process for organizing your ideas before you start shooting and editing. -Mark

Dear Mark:

The short answer is no, there’s isn’t an agreed-upon convention for the writing of documentary scripts, at least not in the way that there is for narrative work.  For fiction films, the Cole & Haag format dictates every detail of writing, from type face to margins and page numbering, creating a document that presents roughly one page for each minute of finished film.

For non-fiction film, things get a bit more complicated, and the type of script you’ll want to create depends on how it will be used.  If your film has largely been shot, and you need a document that will help communicate how you intend to use your existing interview and imagery to tell a story, a 2-column (sometimes called an A/V script) is your best bet.  In the right column, you’ll write quotes pulled from your interviews or voiceover narration.  In the right, you’ll describe the imagery you intend to pair with those lines.

But if you’re in pre-production, your needs are very different.  You’ll likely need a document that helps organize your thoughts and ideas, speculate on a structure, and solidify what you intend to achieve with the interviews and shoots you have planned.  This is also the period during which a filmmaker often needs to bring on creative partners, and it is helpful to have a succinct description of what your film is going to be about, and how it will work.

For these purposes, a film treatment is likely a better choice.  A treatment is a description of your film in direct language that reads like a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Like a good story, the beginning of your treatment should have a good hook that compels a reader to continue reading, and the paragraphs that follow build upon that idea or question.   Direct quotes can be included from interviews that are already complete, but its not uncommon for a treatment to include description of the interviews that the filmmaker intends to secure, and speculation about what that interview will provide for the story.

If a 2-column script is in your future, I can’t recommend Celtx enough.  It is a free, open source screenwriting application that allows you to write scripts in a variety of formats, and includes tons of production tools when it’s time to shoot your project.  You can download the software (or use it online) at the web site celtx.com.  If you’d like to write a treatment, try reading a few first.  Treatment examples can be found all over the internet, and I suggest reading both narrative and documentary examples, to get a sense for the style of writing that makes treatments both clear and evocative.

Good luck!
-Andy

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