TV documentary scripts are a lot like jigsaw puzzles

Writing a television documentary script is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  You have a lot of little pieces that need to fit together in just the right way to see the bigger picture.  The longer the show or segment, the more complex the puzzle.

When you get the materials to write a television documentary, there’s a lot you need to take into account.  First and foremost, you need to know what you’re trying to build.  The only way to do that is by studying the overall picture and the pieces you have to work with by looking for distinct sections of color and shapes within the puzzle to help plan your overall attack.  In TV terms that means watching the footage, listening to the interviews, picking your favorite moments and clips so you can start to think of the structure and how you intend to piece it all together.

When it comes to actually building it the first things to consider are the interview clips, which are like the backbone of the puzzle.  Some of the clips are shot with a wide angle; others are medium or closeup shots.  The best television is dynamic, where the viewer doesn’t notice the edits between the different angles, but yet are somehow compelled to watch the seamless visual display in front of them.  There’s always a desired pace that you’re going for which is dictated by the overall creative and content of the show.  The faster the pace, the more edits you want – making it seem even more dynamic.  Television has come a long way in the last couple of decades.  It used to be that we were satisfied watching a nicely framed subject talk about whatever we’re interested in.  Today our shorter attention spans and our more highly tuned television-viewing palette demands more when it comes to editing.  It has to be seamless or else we’re taken out of the viewing experience when we see a bad edit or hear a disjointed thought.  On one level, the sequence you’re seeing needs to be continuous – as if you have many frames of view without even realizing it, but editing between these cuts only works if what the person is saying flows well.  These are the shapes of the jigsaw puzzle.

The picture on the jigsaw puzzle needs make sense too.  Some of that comes together by cutting between various angles in clips, but there’s also b-roll, which is what you see over the flowing thoughts.  And there’s actuality – where you see people in action advancing a story.  All of these visual and audio elements need to connect together just like the pieces of the puzzle – each with their own small portion of the design creating the bigger picture.

The way our mind works to ignore the seams between the interlocking pieces to see the overall picture, in television writing – comes together by telling a compelling story.  If the story we’re telling by using all of these elements doesn’t grab you and make you want to pay attention, watch, and listen, our minds wander and start noticing the gaps between an otherwise well told story.

The last important part of putting a puzzle together is patience and perseverance.  The a-ha moments where you start to see the big picture only happen if you take the time to put together two pieces here, another few pieces there, and then connect them all together in the end.  You might eyeball a piece and think it belongs in a certain spot, but the only way to find out is by trial and error.  Generally you can tell on paper if the pieces come together, but occasionally you won’t know until you see it in the edit suite.  Finishing a puzzle takes time, hard work, and a lot of stick-to-it-ivness to keep pushing it forward, but when it’s done – seeing the final image or story is a damn gratifying experience.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, it’s time to get back to my script… I think I’ll start with the edges.