I'm new to documentary writing and would like to write a script for a short film. The subject is a local free medical clinic for folks who don't have medical insurance. It's run by a local ER doctor, and operates a few times a month out of a local church.

How do I go about writing a documentary about an afternoon at the clinic? Do documentaries have scripts? Thanks for your help. Much appreciated. If I've written this question in the wrong place, please advise as to where I should move it to. Thanks :)


I have only limited experience with this, but I imagine that the first step would be to film as much of the behind-the-scenes action as you can. Get the staff used to having a camera crew around. As you film, look for patterns and themes. Conduct interviews, and ask lots of questions.

When you are done with this step, you should have a better idea of how the clinic really works. You'll know which kinds of things you've seen are common, and which are anomalies. Figure out which of the clips you've collected need to be in the final production, and which are destined for the editing room floor.

In my mind, the script writing would happen only after all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. The script becomes something that ties everything together, and presents an overarching theme to the viewer, instead of a seemingly random hodgepodge of clips, leaving the viewer wondering what is going on.

  • 1
    Not all the puzzle pieces. Assemble what you have, spot pieces you still miss, things that could be clarified or done better, and then create the missing material. Essentially, create 80% "by hunch" and fill remaining 20% with "scripted".
    – SF.
    Jan 27 '14 at 10:12
  • 1
    @SF - Perhaps so. This is how I was envisioning it, though: Let's say that during your research, you learn that the clinic gets very busy on Saturday nights, often with very bad injuries (car wrecks, gunshot wounds, etc.). The narrator might read one or two lines from a script (The clinic gets very busy on Saturday nights, often with patients who are badly injured) and then the documentary would show some of the more bloody patients being wheeled into triage. In this case, the script came from the research findings; beforehand, the writer may not have known about Saturday the night spikes.
    – J.R.
    Jan 27 '14 at 10:31

First, Who is the audience? Patients without insurance. Okay...everything from alzheimers to pregnancy? What is the objective of the piece? Goals? What is the tone of the piece? eg: Hard, soft? What kind of services are provided at the clinic? Who is eligible?

Interviews you say need to be done? With whom?

What are the no more than six messages you want to convey? Will you need animation for any part of the project? Will it have on-screen or off screen narration, or no narration at all?

Music? Make sure it is rights free, or put it into your budget to produce or buy music beds.

Remember when interviewing patients or staff you MUST get their approval to use their voices and images. Similarly, you MUST get the camera person to sign off their rights. If they do not sign off, they own the video, not you, even if you have paid them.

Then shoot the video based on your audience, theme and tone mentioned above.

If the video is aimed at patients alone, keep it short. 5-10 minutes. Also ask yourself how the video will be seen? Online? As new patients enter the ER for the first time? A lot of videos end up on the bookshelf collecting dust without a plan on how they will be used. Also keep in mind, video has a shelf life. The girl in the mini-skirt will someday look kinda dusty and musty. Or the Dr. with huge side-burns and polyester shirt will look like a character in a pimp movie.

Make sure to get necessary 'B' roll footage such as exteriors, or in an interview, some shots of the interviewer nodding. This kind of stuff can always be thrown out, but it is good to have.

You can edit the video by yourself with all the tools available. Unfortunately there is a learning curve. So it might be best to get someone involved who has editing experience using a non-destructive editor like Adobe, Sony Vegas, Apple, or on the Linux side of things, Kdenlive.. Lotsa choices.

Once you have all the elements you think you need, write the script from the outline you have created.

Once in the editing situation, you may find you want to use some fancy effects suggested, or perhaps move 'scenes' around.

  • Hi and welcome to Writers. Could you also cite certain sources that you might have used to compile this answer? Or is it personal experience? Jan 31 '14 at 12:19

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