Jacob Berry writes:

I am writing a documentary screenplay on witchcraft in the American Pentecostal church, which occurred back in the 1980s. I have a problem. I have quoted from books on the subject to prove they actually do this, but I do not know how to weave this into the play to make it professional. Can you help? 

Thank you. It’s a great question, Jacob, and goes to the heart of how to make a story work – so I’m going to talk about how to do this for documentary, and then how you can apply exactly the same principles to drama.

Find the experts

The first step is to do the research – which you have done. That means you do know what the reality is, or was. That’s crucial.

The next step, of course, is getting it across. You’re planning a full-on dramatised true-story with interviews, so you have the possibility of turning to real-life experts, which of course drama can’t do so easily, but there are traps even so.

TV and film audiences are less patient with talking-head interviews, but they still have their place in documentary, if handled carefully. I always look for three interviewees most of all.

Doing the casting

1. The expert – this is the person who can prove she knows what she’s talking about. She’s written the book, studied the field, lectures on the subject (as appropriate).

2. The user – this person is at the sharp end. He has personal experience. If #1 wrote the book about climbing the mountain, #2 actually climbed it. Or, in your case, saw the evidence at first hand.

3. The convert – perhaps the most useful interviewee of all, she started off as an unbeliever and now she’s changed her mind.

However, you’re right, with such a controversial subject you risk sounding one-sided and amateurish, so you also have to include:

4. The implacable opponent – this one is in the other camp. He refuses to believe. This character allows you to have all the audience’s doubts aired on screen. This is crucial because you can be sure they’ll be having those doubts, and by putting them into someone else’s mouth you show that you are professional and willing to allow for other sides to the story.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to find live people to do your talking for you, however you can also have actors read short quotes from articles and books (with permission from the copyright holders of course).

Bring it to life

Now, bring these scenes to life – find imaginative and visual ways of filming them, not just a series of static talking heads. Modern documentary technique is constantly finding new and inventive methods of keeping the story flowing – use as much imagination as fits the story.

When writing the screenplay, make it clear how you intend to visualise the scenes. Be cinematic in the way you create atmosphere and emotion. Without needing to go into camera angles, give the reader a sense of the visual style that you’re aiming for. Get people on the move, put them in interesting places, give examples of dramatically involving film clips or photographs to go with any quotes.

Putting research into drama

You can do all of this with a fictionalised drama too – whether true life or entirely invented. The difference is that your four interviewees become four characters in the story. The expert, the user, the convert and the opponent. Sometimes all four, sometimes only two or three of them, depending on what’s needed.

See how often stories feature a character with expert knowledge about “the facts”, a character who’s personally experienced them, someone who refuses to believe until he’s converted, and someone who will never accept the truth even if it slaps her in the face.

Same basic idea, different format. I hope this helps.