Film & TV

Writing a Script

Ken Burns

Lesson time 18:51 min

For Ken, writing a script is an essential step towards organizing and shaping a film’s story and structure.In this lesson, he explains how to leverage all the narrative tools at your disposal—from interview bites to narration—in order to craft your script.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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Good documentary writing does the opposite of what bad documentary writing does. Bad documentary writing makes it less. It makes it castor oil. It makes it something you know is good for you, but not good-tasting. It's eating your vegetables, you know. The good writing permits it to be a whole other fluid dynamic amidst other fluid dynamics that, in their aggregate, creates something that permits you not to have a one thing, but a more than one thing, that celebrates perspective, that tolerates contradiction and undertow in characters, that is willing to not just be, this is, but, this may be also this. And there's something incredibly liberating, and there's-- you know, there's something incredibly joyous when that happens. And it isn't just the writing. It's the writing and interplay with first person voices, and how we edit those down from the whole journal, and the images, and the newsreel, and the sound effects, and the music. And all of the elements that go in there, they are all in interrelation to have all those elements in play, and to not say, oh, you can't use that element because it's not cool, or it's not right, or it's-- it's historically not good, is to limit your possibilities as a filmmaker. Put everything in, and if you don't like it, then take it out. You don't need to do any interviews anymore. You don't need to do first person voices if you don't want to. You don't even need to do narration if you don't want to. But you're going to have to do something, And filmmaking is always symphonic. That is to say, it's multiple instruments working at the same time. [PIANO AND STRING ETUDE PLAYING] For us, our films, for the most part, are written, which means that we depend, as the central skeletal structure of our film, a written narration. And I remember coming into the documentary world, inheriting the sense that direct cinema, the cinéma vérité, experimental works, were much more closer to art or to cinema than anything that was narrated. And I had a kind of initial suspicion of that, because I think I've always enjoyed literature. I've always enjoyed, you know, good nonfiction and fiction. The idea that that narration is-- the voice of God is somehow not good, and not as pure as other forms of cinema is just crazy, because most of our literature is based on third person narrative exposition, and that's pretty good. And in some of the earlier films-- I did not invent narration in films. I just figured that it ought to get a different kind of treatment, that it could have a dimension that could be at moments considered literary, and literature, and that it would not just be connecting the talking heads, connecting the dots of a didactic, expository, educational film. I cannot tell you, in an industry where quite often people are suspicious of words, how much they are central to who we are. And I would say, don't be afraid of them. It's how we're communicating right now. [PIANO AND STRING ETUDE PLAYIN...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Very detailed info for those who are trying to get to the next level of the craft.

I've been trying to conceptualize and develop the seed of a project idea. This course has helped my visualize the next steps and a finished product.

Ein Dokumentarfilm ist mehr als die Summe seiner Fotos, Videos und Invterviews. Ken Burns unterhält mit seiner sympathischen Art und vermittelt dabei jede Menge Filmtheorie.

I have done a 2.5 year documentary on the Khomani San Bushmen in the Kalahari, South Africa, and I have taken so much from research, to script to photos to audio from this. I have always been a fan of Ken Burn, now I am a true believer!


A fellow student

“Wait, I’m 11 episodes in and I just realized this isn’t Christina Aguilera.” —Prestigious and Enlightened Commenter Who Just Looked Up From Instagram

Jennifer C.

He is amazing. I am teaching doc class to kids this week and have not stopped writing down tips and quotes. BUT I am still so confused about the first draft. When is the first draft written and is it just based on research? Then it get morphed after filming starts and clips are gathered?

Christa A.

The ending of this lesson about history is so powerful, full of emotion and passion. It made me love Ken's work even more, and inspires me to tell stories that evoke this kind of commitment to getting under the surface.

Russell Warren K.

Thank you Ken, for doing so many years of hard work and for sharing your journey and insights so we may follow.

Shayne O.

Some powerful images used to convey the message not necessarily requiring explanation.

A fellow student

Great Lesson! But even knowing from further lessons about blind assembly and video follows auido, I still don´t understand how a full script can be written without any informations about, what we actually see. I think a fictional script follows the same rules but there we always read what happens and what we see on screen. Why isn´t that the case here? I mean in your final film you may have sequences without any spoken words for a couple of seconds. How do you know what happens on screen IF for instance you don´t have a voice over / narrator?

Emilija V.

Amazing. I am just generally interested in filmmaking, and did not know about Ken or his movies before, but in this masterclass, the way he puts things about filmmaking into words and metaphors hits right to the center and I get it so well, that I just sometimes want to hug my laptop. Great teacher.

Garrett W.

Strong ending Professor Burns!!! (from a "Rochesterian," City of Douglass) My team is really digging into the Script now; this is very timely for me as I do my best to lead, encourage, shape and form this film.

Mia S.

"The excavation of history is a detective piece, and in that archaeology, you don't get necessarily every shard of that piece of pottery that you're putting together. And so you can't fully show what that is. And so we have to figure out ways to, in our language, communicate that it isn't absolutely true, we just think it may be. You can't say, 'They did this,' or 'They did that,' you can say - 'He may have been looking for,' right? That's the kind of wiggle room that we do. We can't actually prove it, because that person is no longer around and all the evidence suggests exactly that, but because we don't have that final piece in the puzzle, you have to say 'may have been' or 'would have been,' and there's lots of ways in which when people write us letters and say, 'You said this,' we say, 'Actually, it may have been that.' And we did that quite consciously. And if we get to a point where we're uncomfortable, that it's too suggesting - even the 'may have' is not a big enough qualification - we'll take it out. It's better to err on that side than it is to sort of feed people's misconceptions. The first full chapter after the introduction of the Civil War series is a chapter called 'All Night Forever,' which is about the reality of slavery. We did not want any of our viewers to misunderstand why the Civil War came. There's lots of different causes and stuff like that, but there's one main principle reason that it happened, one main cause. And that's the existence of chattel slavery. So for us, with the power of a Negro spiritual that we have playing, and this unbelievably leveling neutron bomb of a quote by Frederick Douglass, it then suggested that our prose could be more straightforward. That we didn't have to add anything to it; in fact, if we did it would become purple and overripe, and hard to justify in the face of the power of the Douglass quote, the power of the spiritul, the power of the images you're seeing - human beings in shackles, whose backs have been scarred from lashes, who are treated and prodded like they're animals; wedding vows that are changed 'till death or distance do you part.' It's a time when restraint in language is in itself poetic. And then the narrator intones in a very straight fashion: '"No day ever dawns for the slave," a freed black man wrote, "nor is it looked for, for the slave it is all night - all night forever." One white Mississippian was more blunt: "I'd rather be dead," he said, "than be a nigger on one of these big plantations.". ... The child who survived to be sent to the fields at 12 was likely to have rotten teeth, worms, dysentery, malaria. Fewer than 4 out of 100 lived to be 60.' That's it. And it's just straight, and that just is the radioactive, the kryptonite that just begins to alter what everybody's view of what the Civil War was about, which is this noble disagreement between northern states and southern states and states' rights, and nullification and the economic and social and political differences. It's about that. It's about that in a country that had proclaimed that all men are created equal, 4 million human beings were owned by other human beings. When we get into a discussion about slavery, we abstract things. I don't know how many times people have said, 'Well you know, slavery would have died out in a generation and a half.' OK. So be a slave for a generation and a half, you willing to do that? How about just for a generation? A decade? No? How about a year? A month? A week? A day? An hour?' The abstraction of the reality of our historical past - particularly with regard to slavery - is abhorrent. It permits us to treat human beings who live lives as full as we do to be abstracted into some force. So it's not as if people weren't powerfully aware of the moral injustice of it back then; and yet, we just abstract it. And we assume that, 'Thank goodness we're not, so therefore there's no humanity,' and that continues to this day. We still stop at the color of the skin and not the content of the character, as Dr. King said."

Mia S.

"The important thing for us is that whatever is written is not written in stone. It is not the guide that informs shooting and editing; it is something that is evolving along with the detective work that's finding the archives and the talking heads, along with the emerging structure of the film that has nothing to do with the script and everything to do with the script, and it is a really complicated dynamic that goes on. The thing that's so important that we insist upon from the very beginning is that the writer be free to write all the things that they think should be in there, and those are things that we've suggested, too, that should be in there - and to write them for however long. That writer cannot be worried about whether there are images to illustrate; that's not the writer's job. The writer's job is to just write that scene. So inevitably, the process of work on the script involves cutting it down, editing it, and good stuff, too - it just doesn't fit, as you begin to work in pictures in an hour or a two-hour time limit, what you can do. And so we've got episodes that go over those limits because they work. But for the most part we're trying to make sure that we have a coherent narrative, so we will undergo many, many drafts of the script. I'll read it first, from the writer. I will change a few words, we'll submit to some historians, they'll give some notes, we'll do a rewrite there, we'll share it more broadly, I will then record it, and as I'm recording it, those words will change again because things that you read are not the same as things that are spoken. We will then do a blind assembly, meaning we will put the words up against nothing except a few talking heads that might have arrived in in the course of shooting and begin to see whether the structure sounds right, feels right. It's not a radio play because you are seeing the talking heads all chopped up into their many jump cuts, and you're hearing this imperfect narrator - me - read the words. But we get a sense - and on a big series, we might do two, even three blind assemblies before we say, 'Let's go to adding picture.' We are constantly revising, constantly reworking. Sometimes it has to do with just nuts and bolts, changes and facts. Or we're just going to make it better; that might mean taking something out or rewriting it, or we've restructured a scene and that requires the rewriting or something to make sure the thing flows. And it isn't until the very end that we finally say, 'No more.' And there are thousand million things that you can do that you have to do and be willing to do all the way through the process until you go, 'Whoa, that's working.' In the beginning is the word, and the word is throughout but it is not written in stone."