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 5-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.

The inly beauty of Ken Burns. How generous can you be?

I am more aware and a bit better a person , Thank You

Your MasterClasses are usually pretty good and I have taken a few of them. But this one by Ken Burns in by far my favorite. Thank you so much for this wonderful learning experience from a master creator.

Being that this is an intro class, I think it covered the basics of what it takes to be a documentary filmmaking, and the list of grants is beneficial. I would like to see it paired with a class that is a little more technical. What are the tools you will need to produce a film? Go deeper into the process of making a film.


Mary S.

What a wonderful class! I have seen his documentaries on the Civil War, World War 11, and the Vietnam war multiple times. I am now watching them again with a different perspective on the documentaries. I am looking at their development and his approach to the subject matter. Each time I learn something new.

Phil N.

Creating a documentary is "symphonic". The producer is truly a maestro pulling in the strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion when appropriate. I know how complicated it is to put still images to a musical score. Now add narration, moving pictures, ambient sound and a story-line. You are better than Beethoven!

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.