Writing for reality TV and documentary

US-based Australian producer, Brian Armstrong (Red Rock Films) talks the modern art of not writing documentaries for the American networks.

Armstrong mainly talked about how to write narration and structure documentaries for today’s television world, and to provide the latest trends from an American perspective. He was also shamelessly promoting his recent book, The Exotic Booze Club, which mainly follows his exploits in making docs for Nat Geo around the world.

So why the not in the secret art of not writing?

Because, according to Brian, if you do it right the pictures will say it all. It’s not a new philosophy, but it’s even more relevant in programs with a ‘reality’ feel. You get information in these programs, but you shouldn’t notice that you’re getting it.

What is a non fiction TV writer?

Well, no-one is just a writer in factual television any more. It’s very rare. Across Discovery and Nat Geo there are very few people just dedicated to writing. Usually they are also the creator, the producer or director, and particularly the post producer.

Often there are the field producers who go out and get the footage, and then the post producers wrangle that footage into a final program. It’s the post producer who has to save the footage if everything didn’t quite go to plan in the field. Which it usually doesn’t.

Brian gave a couple of examples, such as a doc he did on lava coming out of volcanoes, only when he got there the lava wasn’t flowing. What to do? Turn it into a doc about what happens after the lava has flowed. Simple, really.
How do you write for the news?

Brian stressed that there are number of ways of telling a news story, and the tools you can use include images, sound, effects, music, interview/dialog, and narration.
He noted that today, the average news story is like 45 seconds, when it used to be more like a minute and a half.

“You don’t have great storytelling, but texture,” he told us. ”When you start watching, the audience’s attention is high and then it starts to wane. So you put something in like an interview and you get the audiences’ attention again. Then at the end of the story your interest is piqued. But if you go beyond that ending, then audience interest levels plummet. You have a short time to wrap up and get out.”
Other tips are that there is no room in a news story for any ‘ifs’. As the man said, if your auntie had balls she’d be your uncle. Nuff said, right?

The other tip is that the passive voice is a big no no in the US right now.

Current Affairs

Current affairs stories are five to seven minutes long. In these stories, characters start to play more of a role. Brian told us about when he was head of Current Affairs in Perth, he did a story on some scientists who invented a device to clear out the noise in radar. It allowed you to see turbulence. “You could see the stealth bomber,” he said. But the story went to Sydney and they didn’t like the characters. So it never went to air.

So a good character is an important way of telling a current affairs story. But what’s a good character? Well, one who is sympathetic. They are good at what they do. They have an incredible tale to tell. They are funny. Characters have got to be larger than life, someone you would want to have a beer with.

You can introduce some twists. Brian described a story where a man in Western Australia found a gold nugget, but instead of telling the world he took it home and buried it in his back yard. After a year the lease for the land where he’d found it came up for sale, so he bought it very cheaply. Then he announced the gold nugget he’d found, and sold the lease at an incredible profit.

Half Hour Reality

What is reality?

For Brian, it’s a character or characters with something at stake driven by a mission to a visual pay-off. How real is reality on TV? As we all know, not very.
Brian talked about a reality TV show on in the US called Cash Cab. You hop into a cab in New York and there are hidden cameras everywhere. You’re on Cash Cab. You win money or you’re back to zero. Brian naively asked the producers how many people jumping into the cab proved to be good talent for TV, and received a blank stare in response. Everybody jumping into their cab was picked for the job. Nobody randomly got in. It would be a waste of time.
So the person who writes the script of a half hour ‘reality’ TV show has an influence that is both important and immediate.

Brian showed us an example of a shooting script which described, in dot point form, what was going to happen. It described the characters, the main storyline and the secondary storyline, the first act structure, and so on.

Brian reminded us that no plan ever goes to plan. Things change. But the script gives you a basis to work on, and shows you what you haven’t got and need to replace.

From Shooting Script To Edit Script

For Brian, if the writer can crack the first two minutes in your structure, you are gold.

In first two minutes you have to introduce your host, the character, set up the mission, the challenge and the stakes. You have to introduce the back-story, ground us in the location and get into the action as soon as possible.
He played us a clip about wood-ducks landing in the water from a nest high in a tree which was entertaining and funny. Brian they explained that the structure was the key to this story segment. It set up the premise, told the story of the first chick to emerge from the nest, then the rest, and finally told the story of the last bird, the reluctant one, described in the narration as ‘There’s a chicken within every duck.”

We saw how it’s important for the words of the narration to match the pictures, not conflict with them. How you don’t need much narration, and it is all story driven.
That’s the art of not writing – the better you are telling the story, the fewer words you need.

Story trumps all, said Brian. Lay out your storyline, the major strands, and see what you need to shoot to tell that story. If you haven’t got it all, you’ll need to go out and acquire what you need.

As far as narration goes, he had a few more tips.

Don’t start paragraphs with But or And. It’s the desire to link one section to the next, and a script can wind up full of paragraphs that begin with But or And. But – you don’t have to. And – it’s rarely needed.

You can improve your writing by killing the passive voice. Such as: “A balcony has collapsed beneath a family.” Should be “A balcony collapsed beneath a family.”
“Major flooding is expected” can become “residents expect flooding.”

Brian also vowed death to all dependent clauses. So instead of: “With quite an audience assembled, the vaccinations get under way.” We get – “The villages gather. We start vaccinations.”

According to Brian, when you pay attention to passive voice and dependent clause, it becomes clear how many there are in the programs you watch.

Writing A Pitch

Brian told us how he writes a pitch document for the US environment. The central point was that it has to be brief. He also had some interesting tips, such as avoid stories about horses, and about fire. Apparently every commissioning editor in the States is utterly convinced that they won’t rate. He doesn’t know why. He just knows that if you pitch a story about fire or horses, they won’t buy it.


Brian described their pitching process, which recalled Stephen Harris from American TV channel A&E who at an earlier AIDC made his audience rise to their feet, put their hands on their hearts and swear to make a pitch every week.

“We begin with a paragraph,” said Brian. “We will go to a network with five or six paragraphs every couple of weeks.” This is because those networks know his company and he has a track record. “Usually you get a no, but sometimes you score some interest, and they will ask for more.”

In that case, Brian’s team writes a one pager, which may spill onto a second page, or even three. “This is something they can take to their boss to see if it’s viable or not.”

If you make a sizzle tape, don’t fork out too much moolah for it. Use Skype for interviews, for example, rather than travel – you can easily go through ten grand making a sizzle tape that goes nowhere.

If they still like it, they’ll ask for a sample script.

“Most of what we do is full commissions,” he said. “It’s so much easier. In Australia, I can see that people are scrambling to put money together from here or there. It’s so time consuming.”

He described how Travel Channel gave them $10,000 to put a tape together for development.

You need big characters. And a compelling visual story obviously helps, driving towards a big payout at the end.

One thing the channels are looking out for is the opportunity for multiple episodes if it turns out to be a hit.

“Give it a sexy title.” He showed a pitch document called “Erections In Paradise.” It’s about building shacks in Hawaii. Dream homes in heaven on earth… “The title will change but you’ve grabbed the commissioning editor’s attention!”

Apparently they don’t want to see you putting a lot of work into a pitch document, so keep it to two paragraphs and the title, and a graphic and four little pics. If you have a host, mention them as a host ‘option’, in case they hate that host.

“In Australia you hear ‘we’ve already got one like that,’ or ‘another network is doing that,’ as a way of saying no. But in the US, if another network is doing something, then the others have an appetite to match them, in case it turns out to be a hit. And if it’s a hit, they will want similar shows to program around them on the schedule as companion pieces.”

All in all this was an informative session on a little known field of expertise close to this scribe’s heart, the art of writing. Brian is right that these days people believe that nobody wrote it, or it wrote itself, particularly the reality end of the factual spectrum. But those inside the business are well aware of the importance of story, structure and character, as well as the power of narration.

by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Monday 4 March, 2013


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