How to write documentary scripts – tips and examples!

3 min read



Part of a Voice123 scriptwriting series written and compiled to provide tips, ideas, and examples

Documentary scripts can be quite a challenge. Are you wondering how to start writing one?

While a documentary script seems like it’s quite different when compared with a short, commercial script, similar tried-and-tested writing techniques apply. Do have a look at the other posts in our scriptwriting series, especially this one, dedicated to writing commercial scripts. If you have time, please consider giving the other how-tos in this series a once-over too; they all contain useful information: commercial, explainer, video game trailer, and promotional scriptwriting.

(Disclaimer: We’re by no means suggesting our tips and ideas are definitive, but we do hope they’ll help you on your way!)

The documentary script

As the name implies, documentary scripts are generally long-form. They contain anything from roughly 300 words (2 minutes when read at a normal pace) to 7500 words (50 minutes when read at a normal pace for a TV documentary). 

Documentary voice over scripts are mostly written with video in mind. They’re also likely to contain interviews with people linked to the subject matter, although this isn’t always the case. Radio or audiobook-type documentary reads are much less common today — unless the goal is using the voice over as an exhibition-explainer in a museum, etc. In either case, the story is key and documentary scripts are all about fairly descriptive and emotive storytelling.

man holding video camera
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Furthermore, video documentary scripts frequently get drafted — at least conceptually — long before there’s even a hint of footage.

Tell a good story

As we mentioned in our post 10 tips for writing a great voice over script, there’s no story to tell without one.

So how do you tell a good story?

  • A good story is one that engages an audience almost instantly; it’s written to captivate.
  • It contains all the elements that capture an audience’s imagination quickly. It’s also always a good exercise to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What captivates you? What captivates your friends and family? Why? In short: know your audience.
  • Think visually and create scenes that build expectation. Your script needs a scene-setter, an explanatory section, and a conclusion to wrap everything up. Therefore: a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • Research your subject well!

Documentary script example

Here’s a corporate video documentary script example, because voice over jobs for corporate videos are very popular posts on Voice123.

Let’s imagine you work for a (fictitious) global banking and credit card company called Core Credit International. You must write a 2-minute script for a short documentary-type video. It’ll get shown before the CEO’s welcoming address at the launch of the company’s annual conference.

Brief: 

The conference will be at a trade center in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where new expansion opportunities now exist. Your script must entice and paint a colorful, attractive portrait of the city. The video must serve as an authentic, heartfelt invitation. It is aimed at conference attendees who come from other countries and have never been to Belgrade before. The tagline ‘Partner-in-growth’ must appear in the conclusion.

picture of Belgrade, Serbia for documentary script
Belgrade, Serbia. Photo by Alex Blokstra on Unsplash

Client: Core Credit International

Title: Welcome to Belgrade!

Target audience: Conference attendees (ages: 35-55)

Voice actor Gender/Age: Any/Middle-age

Duration: 2 minutes

Wordcount: 250 (to accommodate a musical soundtrack and breaks)

Description: Short intro documentary video

Direction notes: Voice age 45+. Warm and welcoming. Understated enthusiasm; travelogue, not so much an overdriven sales pitch. Normal pace. 

Script:

{Intro}

Comfortably straddling the mighty Danube — a river immortalized in one of Austrian composer Johann Strauss’s most famous waltzes, the Serbian capital city of Belgrade lies huddled in the haze of European history. 

Translated into English, ‘Belgrade’ means ‘White City’, something that belies its great warmth and color. Foreigners who frequent its streets are often filled with admiration for the city’s proud, adventurous, and outspoken inhabitants. 

{Middle-section}

Belgrade’s gritty exuberance makes it one of Eastern Europe’s most happening cities. 

While clearly hurtling toward a brighter and more focused future, its past is captured in the monumental socialist block-like buildings that are squeezed into lots beside art nouveau masterpieces dating back centuries. 

Remnants of the city’s Habsburg legacy stand in stark contrast to relics that once embodied the essence of the Ottoman Empire. 

Contemplative and well-cared-for parklands lie sandwiched between manic urban sprawl, and, at sunset, old-world culture gives way to a fast-paced and contemporary nightlife. 

Grandiose coffee houses, quirky sidewalk cafés, popular ice-creameries as well as dark, smoky dens populate its pedestrian boulevards. 

Deeper into the heart of the city, museums showcase the cultural, religious and military heritage of the country. 

Belgrade is far more than a mere destination – it’s a memorable experience encompassing an entire palette of sights and sounds. It pulses like a heartbeat. It thrives on the enticement of the great food and entertainment it provides to visitors from all over the world.

{Conclusion}

Fast becoming its own global brand and sharing it with everyone, this ‘white city’ is embracing a future filled with style, affluence, and accomplishment. For Core Credit International, the time to become an enthusiastic financial partner-in-growth, has arrived.

Ladies and gentlemen — welcome to Belgrade!

<<oOo>>

Of course, if you find a hard drive on your desk with a note asking you to write your corporate documentary script using the supplied stock and interview footage, your approach will change. You’ll have less wiggle-room because the visual material you’ve received will dictate your written content. The overall structure will also be guided by the inclusion and placement of interviews.

man writing documentary script
image: Shutterstock

In such a case, your research will entail watching, taking notes — if not transcribing the footage — and then composing your narrative accordingly. Even though this is both labor-intensive and time-consuming, you’ll thank yourself afterwards. The footage may well inspire you and thus make the whole writing process easier.

Final thoughts

For convenience, you’ll probably use a dual-column, documentary script template. If your word processor of choice doesn’t have one, they’re freely available online. Write the script in one column, and jot down the time codes of the accompanying video sequences you want to use (tagged with descriptions and cuts) in the other.

While you write, never lose sight of the bigger picture and establish your core message early on. Creating curiosity is always good; it will keep your audience watching.

We wish you every success with writing your documentary scripts. After all, we want you to speak for yourself!