A Rough Guide to Writing a Screenplay for a Stonehenge Documentary

I see that my previous post dealing with the perceived shortcomings of the Operation Stonehenge series has already received a record amount of visitors for this fledgling site, so it seems that a few people at least have some kind of interest in composing their own script for a documentary dealing with Stonehenge or perhaps some other subject. If you’d like to have a go at it yourself, but don’t have any idea where or how to start, here’s some extremely basic guidance as to how to prepare a document that a production company might consider.

Alternatively, you could abandon any idea of preparing a script and instead submit a document telling their Head of Development how and why you think a documentary of whatever length on Stonehenge would have a mass appeal and get commissioned, as well as pointing out to them those materials and individuals worthy of inclusion and those you feel are irrelevant, so if this the course you wish to pursue, I wish you every success with it.

Otherwise, if you’ve never seen a script before, then I imagine there are thousands online, but I would personally suggest at least browsing through this one, which was one of the versions of the film Apocalypse Now. As you’ll see, all screenplays start with the two words FADE IN at the top left hand corner, while as far as I’m aware, all screenplays – whether for drama or documentaries – are written on A4 paper, or in an A4 format. The lines are also single-spaced, so this could hardly be more straightforward.

When you’re about to describe a scene that takes place indoors, then it’ll be prefaced with the abbreviation INT for Indoors; the other option is EXT for Exterior. As a reflection of the lighting conditions in the scene, there will either be DAY or NIGHT, but if you’re worrying about how to describe scientists poring over a piece of bone in a darkened laboratory by day, for example, then just write DAY and detail any relevant lighting conditions in your description of the scene.

When scenes change, they either DISSOLVE into another, FADE OUT, FADE IN or CUT TO, but ultimately, this will decided by a director and/or an editor after the film’s been made, so I wouldn’t lose a great deal of sleep over directions such as these, because the most important thing is to place engaging content on the page for the benefit of a reader, rather than worrying about precisely how something will look on a television screen much further down the line.

The abbreviation V.O. stands for VOICE OVER, a device wherein the audience hears someone’s voice as images appear before us on the screen. As you’ll notice in the Apocalypse Now script, on virtually the first page, we see Captain Willard on the screen staring out of a window at a busy Saigon street, but we still hear him in voice over, because he narrates the entire film as well as speaking, acting and appearing in it.

Bearing this in mind, you may think that your screenplay and documentary would benefit from an unseen narrator, a device used in Operation Stonehenge and in numerous other Stonehenge documentaries. Alternatively, you might think it best if you have a presenter who addresses the camera, interviews relevant people and visits certain locations, with the voice of this man or woman alone providing the programme’s narrative, as was the case with Time Team.

In this case, you might make use of the abbreviation O.S. which stands for OUT (of) SHOT, which means that your presenter’s voice can be heard even if they’re not visually captured on camera in a particular scene; one reason for this could be that that they’re standing close to someone else on whom the camera’s concentrated, but it’s a fine dramatic distinction and it’s not one I’d worry about, not least because the director on the day is going to decide how something’s filmed.

As for the content of your script or screenplay, it falls into two parts, one being the written direction for what a scene might look like, the other being the dialogue, which is the information we hear, rather than take in visually. When describing something that the viewer will see, I can’t do any better than to provide the Apocalypse Now screenplay in the link above, because to my mind, all the writing it contains is masterful. I imagine that many people reading this will have seen the film, but if not, then I suggest you find it and watch the stunning opening sequence, one version of which was captured very well in a minimal amount of words in the script I’ve linked to. On this occasion, all anyone really needs to write is something like:

“We see a long row of swaying palm trees close to a beach as we hear the soft opening strains of The End by The Doors. Helicopters scud past us, then the trees erupt in flame from a massive napalm strike; as the inferno dies down, more helicopters creep through the smoke as we continue to hear Jim Morrison’s soulful, prophetic words until the bleak scene fades.”

If you have in mind something similarly evocative for the opening of your documentary, then if I were you, I’d try to convey it in 60 or 70 words rather than lapse into Lovecraft’s mesmerising but occasionally verbose style of prose, for example. The same principle applies throughout, because the object of the exercise is to conjure up the clearest and most engaging vision in as few words as possible, whether through direction or dialogue. As I understand it, one page of A4 formatted in the way I’m describing translates to roughly one minute of screen time, but obviously, this will vary from page to page depending on a wide variety of factors, so if you want to write something an hour long, then this will be roughly 60 pages of A4 written to the format I’ve described here.

I could add a thousand caveats, nuances and suggestions, but these are the bare bones of the matter and to my mind, they’re very simple indeed. So, you may wish to create a programme or series that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer. You may feel a global audience are baying to be shown the intricate workings of something that goes ‘beep’. You may be outraged that some archaeologist or specialist hasn’t had the exposure they deserve and you may have some vision of Stonehenge or perhaps Silbury Hill that you’re convinced will enthrall the world, so all you need to do is to open Word or some other programme, then put your thoughts and your story onto the page in the fashion I’ve described. If nothing else, this now offers you a third option, instead of being confined to seething in silent fury or else venting your frustration online at the quality of Stonehenge documentaries.

As I said in my previous post, there’s a seemingly insatiable appetite for Stonehenge-related material and no shortage of production companies, so I wish you the very best with your magnum opus and I look forward to seeing your vision appear on the screen in due course. After all, it’s surely better to light a candle than to curse the darkness?

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