A teacher of screenwriting emailed me recently because he'd been asked to write a documentary. He didn't know where to start, and was trying to locate some completed scripts to study. While these might prove useful, I knew they wouldn't adequately convey the work ahead, or reveal important differences in the scripting process. How does one write a documentary?
To explain: Fiction screenwriters have long borrowed documentary techniques, and documentary filmmakers rely heavily on the tools of dramatic storytelling. As I wrote in an earlier article, Documentary Storytelling: The Drama of Real Life, both groups need to worry about protagonists and antagonists, rising stakes, and viewer investment in the outcome of a story. They both serve audiences that don't want to be preached at or talked down to, and they both seek to enthrall viewers by transporting them to new worlds and bringing them on emotional journeys. A key area where they differ, however, is that while storytellers working in fiction are free to invent characters and scenarios, those working in nonfiction are not. Nonfiction filmmakers can't take creative license with factual stories, but instead must limit their artistry to what media historian Erik Barnouw described as the creative arrangement of factual material. What's the difference?
Creative (or "artistic") license is generally understood to mean the freedom artists may take when handling factual material. From William Shakespeare to Peter Shaffer (Amadeus) and beyond, history has inspired, but not controlled, artists. Even when a dramatic feature is said to be based on actual events, audiences are generally aware that some liberties have likely been taken. Multiple actual characters may have been merged to simplify the storyline and reduce cast size. Invented characters may have been added, or the timeline of actual events shortened. (Still, as Dr. Linda Seger has noted in her book, The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film, there may be ethical and legal considerations involved, especially when portraying recent events and featuring individuals who are still living.)
In general, the term "creative license" doesn't apply to documentary filmmaking, because documentary filmmakers--who are something of a hybrid between artists and journalists--may not take liberties with the facts as they're generally acknowledged to be true. Arguably, the use of actors to recreate history might be seen as creative license. This is a complex subject, but the practice is usually accepted in documentary filmmaking as long as the recreations are done responsibly, the viewer is not misled about the nature of the recreations, and the recreation is used in service of a story that is otherwise factual. (For an interesting example of this, see Peter Watkins's Culloden, in which he adopts a black-and-white television reporting style to "cover" the 1746 Battle of Culloden.)
Creative arrangement broadly describes the use of storytelling tools available to documentary filmmakers, from an initial choice of subject and focus to decisions concerning tone, point of view, style (including recreations), and more. A documentary might open at the middle or end of the event being covered, and then work its way back to the chronological beginning. A film about science might be shaped as a mystery or an adventure. Multiple story threads might be interwoven. In making these choices, however, filmmakers must be careful not to violate the story's overall factual accuracy. Filmmakers may select details for inclusion or exclusion, for example, but they may not "cherry pick" details in order to mislead viewers. They may play with the order in which they present the chronology, but may not misrepresent cause and effect. They must guard against the possibility of cutting factual material together in a way that leads audiences to a false conclusion.
It's worth noting that truthfulness in a documentary is based not on an absolute standard, but on the rules established and made clear to the audience by the filmmaker. For example, in his Academy Award-winning documentary, The Fog of War, filmmaker Erroll Morris did not set out to present a history of American military engagement in the 20th century. Instead, he offered a platform to the voice of one man, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, as he offers his take on his role in that history. The audience is free to question, admire, or be outraged by McNamara's analysis, but it's clearly McNamara's, as edited into a film by Morris and his team. Documentary memoirs, likewise, reflect the unique perspectives of their authors.
Nonfiction Screen Storytelling
Let's go back to our teacher of dramatic screenwriting, and the tricks of his trade: character, conflict, resolution, stakes, tension, and more. While these can also be found in top documentaries, another important difference between the two forms lies in when and how they're employed. Dramatic screenwriters create the world of the film on paper before it's made real by the cast and crew. Nonfiction screenwriters (usually the producer and/or director, working as or with a writer) identify the world of the film on paper. Both types of storytellers usually conduct at least some research--generally a lot, for the nonfiction storyteller. Both may write outlines, which set out a film's initial premise and potential storyline(s). From there, the fiction screenwriter may augment or replace reality with invention, including characters, plotlines, and dialogue. The dramatic film is then fully scripted, existing on paper as an early version of the film that will appear on screen.
In contrast, the nonfiction storyteller can usually be described as moving from the initial premise and outline back to research. Who are the people and what are the stories that best embody the ideas and themes the filmmaker has decided to explore? The creators of Murderball, for example, built a powerful drama from the combined (and related) stories of a handful of quadriplegic athletes. There is Joe Soares, a former star on America's quad rugby team who's now a hard-driving coaching for Canada. There is American player Mark Zupan, tough as nails, who has yet to come to terms with the friend who was driving on the night he was injured. And in addition to a range of other teammates, girlfriends, family members and doctors, there is Keith Cavill, just coming out of rehab--a young athlete at the start of a journey that for the others is already well under way.
Experienced documentary filmmakers, including those working in vérité, may also look for a naturally occurring narrative arc that can be anticipated and planned around, as a preliminary film structure. Weddings, school years, political campaigns, competitions, even single days or weeks all offer a beginning, middle, and end that can help to shape the storyline (and production schedule). Sometimes, the arc is created when filmmakers put themselves in the story, on a quest for answers or action.
Writing a Treatment
Based on the research, casting, and story decisions made to date, the nonfiction screenwriter may write up a shooting outline or even a very detailed shooting treatment that serves as a blueprint for what will be filmed. These are quite different from dramatic screenplays. Documentary storytellers don't write dialogue for the people they'll film, but based on their research, they may write up questions to be asked or topics to be explored. They don't usually tell people how to behave or where to go, but they've learned enough about their subjects to anticipate key events and be prepared to film them. And by thinking through not only what's being shot but also why, nonfiction filmmakers can recognize the distractions and opportunities that are an inevitable part of filmmaking. With any luck, the story and structure that were anticipated will give way, during production, to a related but even more powerful version of themselves, which are further shaped in the editing room and eventually presented on screen.
Writing the Script
The nonfiction screenplay (or script), if there is one, isn't usually drafted until editing is under way, as the voices of people who've been filmed are transcribed and the material assembled, on paper and on screen. Narration or on-screen text, if there is any, is crafted around these voices. A final script is essentially a document of these efforts, a transcript of the finished film. I find them helpful to read (transcripts of American Experience, NOVA, and Frontline, for example, are available on their PBS websites) as a way of analyzing the films. But these scripts reveal only some of the process it took to write them.