Documentaries use scripts that are somewhat different from traditional scripts. Some of the time, they utilize “documentary narration scripts.” But what is a documentary narration script? We’re going to answer that question by looking at some script examples and what makes them work. By the end, you’ll know everything there is to know about narration in documentary films!

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Writing Narration for Documentary

Primer on documentary scripts

Writing a documentary script can be a difficult task. Why? Because you can’t write the majority of it until after you finish researching. Documentaries tend to fall into two camps: pre-planned (Ken Burns’s Baseball, Jazz, etc.) or on-the-fly (The Jinx, Free Solo).

Pre-planned documentaries almost always use narration scripts. On-the-fly documentaries use narration script far less frequently. Before we define documentary writing, let’s analyze some conceptual aspects of documentaries. This next video examines the questions you should ask before writing a documentary script.

Documentary Writing  •  Tips and Tricks for Writing Documentary Scripts by Creative North

There’s no doubt about it: every documentary requires research. Remember: documentaries are about finding the truth in a story.

When focusing on a historical subject, you’re going to want to find that truth before you begin writing the script. 

If you’re writing an on-the-fly documentary, then you’re going to have to wait for the truth to reveal itself. 


How to write pre-planned narration

Pre-planned documentaries: they’re the type of documentaries we’ve typically seen in school. They focus on historical subjects – and they use primary/secondary sources in conjunction with narration to tell a story.

When conceptualizing a historical documentary, consider writing the narration script as you go. It doesn’t have to be in screenplay format. It could be as simple as a V.O. montage or as complex as a research paper.

Whatever it is, just make sure it’s supported by sources.

If you do want to write your narration in script format, consider using StudioBinder’s screenwriting software. It’s free to get started and it’ll help you properly format your document. This next video does a good job of explaining everything that goes into a documentary narration script.

Narration Documentary  •  A Writer’s Guide to Making a Documentary by Film Courage

When you write a documentary script, you play the role of an editor more than a screenwriter. It’s all about splicing content together to tell a cohesive story. Finding the right spot for narration is an important element in the process. 

Types of Narration in Documentary

How to write a ‘shoot-as-you-go’ script

“Shoot-as-you-go scripts” are some of the toughest scripts to write because you never know what you’re going to get. These types of scripts are most commonly used in true crime shows where the outcome of the story isn’t known prior to the show’s development.

Take Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase for example: The Staircase was produced over the course of 14 years – and its story never truly ended. So as to say if the story doesn’t end, it can’t stop being written.

Check out the trailer for the series below.

Documentary Writing  •  The Staircase Trailer

Narration isn’t always used in true-crime documentaries. Sometimes, superimposed text does the trick. In some cases, foregoing narration keeps the pace energetic. Either way, you’re going to want to be purposeful with your documentary’s structure.

Narration in Documentary Strength

The benefits of narration in documentary

There are a lot of benefits to using narration scripts in documentary film production. If you’re making a documentary like Our Planet, there’s no refuting that narration is important.

It’s simply invaluable to have a narrator serve the “teacher” role in the doc. Let’s check out a trailer for the series Our Planet (you won’t want to miss Sir David Attenborough’s narration).

Documentary Voice Over  •  Documentary Narration in Our Planet

What would nature documentaries be without narration? I’d venture to say they’d be less engaging. Narration serves to underscore the educational and emotional tenets of the story.

Don’t forget that documentaries are the intersection of education and entertainment. Keep this point in mind while writing your documentary script.

Documentary Writing

Tips for writing documentary narration

Ultimately, narration scripts serve to guide us through a documentary. They’re not always needed – but when used effectively, they can add focus to a story. If you’d like to write a documentary narration script, then consider the ideas we referenced in this article:

1) Start with research

2) Transcribe your ideas

3) Follow the story, but don’t try to control it

4) Add narration to give the story focus

These tips should keep your documentary script organized. “Shoot-as-you-go” documentaries are inherently unorganized – so writing a documentary narration script can be an invaluable task. And I’d venture to say narration is essential in historical documentaries. Whenever in doubt, review your favorite documentaries, and reference back to this article for tips and tricks!

Up Next

How to Make a Documentary

Want to learn more about the ins and outs of documentary production? Check out our next article in which we examine the process of making a documentary: conceptualization through distribution. By the end, you’ll know more than just how to write a documentary; you’ll know how to film one too. 

Up Next: Doc Production Step-by-Step →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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