Writing Documentaries



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  • Writing Documentaries

    I did several searches on the message board, but couldn't find an answer to this question. So I apologize in advance if this has been discussed and I didn't find it.

    I am currently researching a story to do a documentary on and was wondering how long a doc usually runs. Since it is mostly narration I assume it doesn't get written like a spec script and so I can't assume 1 page=1 minute, are there other ways of determining approximate length while writing?


  • #2
    If it's mostly narration then one page will probably egual less than a minute. With conventional fiction narrative scripts, those that either have no vo or keep it at a bare minimum, when the characters speak, you usually dont have to provide written visuals as they are speaking - occasionally but usually not.

    But with tons of vo in your doc, you also have to write the accompanying visuals you seek to capture or already have, like if its gathering and editing together pre-existing footage.

    Are you writing the script before or after shooting? Or is it all pre-existing footage? Usually vo is written after filming, because youre capturing something that is spontaneous and unpredictable - although it doesnt hurt to plan ahead.

    But I suppose it depends on the type of doc youre doing and how youre doing it.


    • #3
      I think I read somewhere that doc scripts use a two-column format.
      Visuals run down one side, words on the other.

      Maybe Haskins could help you out. He's done doc work.


      • #4
        I don't know anything about docs. but I've produced and shot couple (including one on the Port Chicago explosion & aftremath that played on PBS in the 80s). On my stuff, scripts & VO were done afterwards (because I had no idea what would be on the film - it was a documentary, completely unstaged). I always assumed that all docs were made that way - they shot footage of the subject, then created the "story" in the editing room, then added VO after that.

        - Bill


        • #5
          Thanks for the info it makes a lot of sense. Yes, I intend to shoot everything first, but it won't all be unplanned as I intend to do some interviews.

          In regard to the script, in my mind I was thinking of what I would write once I had completed shooting. I remember seeing the two-column style script before, I know it is used for commercials and radio. Perhaps that is the best way to go, as there will most likely be a lot of voice-over.

          I guess my biggest question is on average length; and maybe I am thinking into it too much. I remember reading about short films once and they were indicated that if you wanted to show it on TV in a half-hour segment you should film for 24 minutes, to allow for commercials. Anyway, I don't know if anything will ever come of this documentary or not, but should I be considering things like that?

          Thanks again,


          • #6
            hi larry -

            if you have a market firmly in mind, or are relatively sure that you'll be shooting for half or full-hour broadcast, then yes, you should keep the length (minus commercials) in mind. it might save you from having to kill some babies later.

            here's a link to a two column sample (.pdf format)


            here's a link to a downloadable template to use microsoft word in the two-column format (haven't used it but it might be worth a try).


            best of luck with your project.



            • #7
              Glad to see this question asked and to discover that someone on the boards has some experience with it.

              How does one go about making a documentary?

              I have an idea, a story that I think would work well in this format but I don't know anything about docs.
              Who do you approach to pitch the idea?
              Can you give me some documentary website links?
              Or really any other pertinent info?

              Thanks in advance.


              • #8
                I have an idea, a story that I think would work well in this format but I don't know anything about docs.
                take it through a treatment process and share it with people whose opinions you trust. research the market and make sure no one's doing the same thing or something similar.

                Who do you approach to pitch the idea?
                preferably someone with some money to invest. if not, you might want to network potential crew partners and start writing some grant applications. the money's out there (google "documentary + grants + funding") but they're highly selective and it takes a long time to raise grant funds.

                Can you give me some documentary website links?
                Or really any other pertinent info?
                start here:











                • #9
                  thank you.


                  • #10

                    Thank you for the quick and detailed responses - they are very helpful. I appreciate the help very much.