The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

Writing a script for something that hasn't happened yet

There are many different kinds of documentaries, but a simple definition might be a film about a real event. In this case, documentary makers are obviously working on something where the ending isn't clear - as it hasn't happened yet.

This can seem to be a problem in creating drama in your documentary. That is, designing the telling of your story to be compelling.

Dramatic and compelling means that you are presenting information in a particular way. That means using techniques like suspense, surprise, comedy, tension, threat, empathy and so on.

But how does this relate to the 'reality' of the subject you are making your documentary about? Is there a level of dishonesty in this process?

If events proceeded in a very dull way, do you have a duty to present them that way - even if no one will make it to the end of your documentary?


And this is why.

Choosing to make a documentary means that you have an opinion about the material that interests you. You feel it's important, that there are things about it that will be entertaining, exciting, interesting or important.

So by choosing to make the documentary, you have interpreted reality.

Remember, to other people, the same subject might not be fascinating at all. Your job is to assemble the information to make it clear WHY you think it matters.

These are the steps.

You find an event that is meaningful to you. It's an idea - something that excites you. It can be anything at all.

You then have to organise this idea so that what is meaningful to you about it gets across to your audience.

Obviously, this involves working out what it means - the best of your ability. This is the beginning of storytelling.

As you gather information, do some more research, and find out more, you become more precise about this meaning.

So you adjust your 'script'. Remember, film is a sequential art form. The order in that you put things matters. This is your outline or script.

As more information comes in, you adjust the meaning of your story so that it makes more sense to you, and you adjust your script.

It's a constant process, backwards and forwards, between new information you discover about your idea, how this changes the meaning of your story, and how you plan to tell your story in your script.

There are various places where this can go wrong, with horrible results in the real world.

One common way is to create something simplistic, just like so many other stories you have seen. You have one way of working, and you adjust and manipulate your material so that it eventually works. Unfortunately, that attempt at simplicity often creates terrible films.

They clog up the airwaves.

Stories that you've seen before are told in an incredibly predictable way. You haven't rocked the boat. You've said nothing at all. If you are fortunate you have a timely or shocking subject, it gets noticed.

But honestly, the people watching it know that it's rubbish - really. A product that fills time and just takes people's minds away from other issues in their lives. And, if you are lucky, it pays the creator's rent for a while.

But there are more serious storytellers who never get to the stage of making anything at all.

You don't want to create a script because you think you need more material to have a considered opinion. So you keep working on it. You do more research and interviews, and you may even begin filming.

But things are now getting expensive. There are costs to your lack of clarity.

Part of you, for some reason, feels bad about creating a 'story' because you feel guilty about manipulating the material. So you put it off for as long as you can.

I've come across people who've been gathering material for years or editing for many, many months. They aren't being more honest - they are putting off having an opinion about their story for as long as possible.

They are actually fighting against creating a great story. They are blocking themselves.

All storytellers have strong opinions. That is what your audience craves.

They want another human being to show them an aspect of the world and ask them to look closely and see things they haven't noticed before.

All these problems come down to a lack of craft - the lack of a process you can rely on.‚Äč

All the best - Nigel