Writing a documentary… Want to learn how? Register for Susan’s upcoming Screenwriters University class, starting August 28, 2014.

There is no “right or wrong” way  when it comes to writing a documentary film. Sounds easy then, right? Well–wrong! While there are no set screenwriting rules for writing a documentary script, it can still be challenging to convey a specific subject matter and its characters succinctly.

Writing a Documentary Film

This nonfiction genre can be written, using the traditional 3-Act structure, as seen in fiction films or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, reenactments, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are just some examples of the tools used to convey the story when writing a documentary. Whether you choose to present your ideas objectively or subjectively, the execution and clarity of your material is important to the success of your project.

Agnes Varda Writing a Documentary

Agnes Varda

Writing a documentary can challenge traditional narrative conventions as seen in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film Manakamana. A documentary can portray, for example, social or political issues (Louis Malle’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, God’s Country; Joe Berlinger’s Crude, and Michael Moore’s Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11), a musical concert (Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock), a “making of a film” (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo), or follow the lives of a person or persons over a period of time, such as Michael Apted’s series of films 28 Up (1984), or tell autobiographical stories in a unique and revealing way, such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” says Varda at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival where I asked her about her process of writing a documentary. Varda describes her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “InThe Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

In a documentary, characters give a face to the story you’re telling. A character can not only be human but an animal, an object, a location, or the filmmaker can choose to be a character in his or her film. The audience should feel empathy for the people you are portraying – whether it’s love or hate, viewers must feel something and care what’s going to happen to them. If the subject matter of your project does not involve people, films can show characters directly or indirectly relating to the subject matter.

To read more: