Documentary Storytelling - practical guide and comparison to fiction storytelling

"The source of all arts in the human psyche's primal, pre-linguistic need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony, for the use of creativity to revive a life deadened by routine, for a link to reality through our instinctive, sensory feel for the truth. Like music and dance, painting and sculpture, poetry and song, story is first, last, and always an experience of aesthetic emotion-the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling... In short, a story well told gives you the very thing you can't get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experience becomes meaningful with reflection in time. In arts, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen"
(McKee 1999:111)


The following is a essay was written for my MA. The first 3 sections lay out the essay. The essay starts properly at section 4 so you may wish to skim or skip the first 3 as they may feel rather academic.

As part of the research for this essay I interviewed online (video) editors and throughout this document cite them. They are:

  • Bini, Jon - who has worked with Werner Herzog on over 15 of his films (Including Grizzly Man) and numerus documentaries and feature films (including there is something about Kevin).
  • Atkins, Mark - who has worked with nick Broomfield (Biggie & Tupac,Kurt & Courtney) and edited factual TV programmes and Feature Documentaries.
  • Sundlöf, Stefan - editor on Into Eternity.
  • Hankin, Richard- editor of Capturing the Friedmans.
  • Flextone, Daren - editor no My Life as a Turkey and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.
  • Steve, Philips - editor of David Attenborough gorillas and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.

The original essay had many footnotes which are not included here, if you wish a full copy or please Contact Me.


For my research project I chose to look into the subject of story and narrative construction in documentary picture editing.

The fundamentals of storytelling were laid by Aristotle around 335 B.C., these have been extended by others such as McKee but it is one of the oldest disciplines within media and is largely culturally agnostic, many seeing storytelling being hard wired in humans. Due to the maturity of this subject it is books, rather than journal and periodical articles, which have the insight in terms of the fundamentals of storytelling. In terms of documentary storytelling it is directors and editors who have the insight and there is only really one book that covers it (Bernard 2011). I have been unable to find anything written about storytelling from the context of the editor apart from the odd chapter in books on editing and these generally focus on drama

This seems odd as almost all agree that story and narrative are an important part of contemporary media, but as McKee points out 
Trends in literary theory have drawn professors away from the deep sources of story towards language, codes, text-story seen from the outside. As a result, with some notable exceptions, the current generation of writers has been undereducated in the prime principles of story” (McKee 1999: 16).

Research Question

My main research question is:
How does a documentary picture editor turn the material they are given into a narrative?

To answer this question I drilled down and will be using the following questions:
What are the fundamental principles of story?
How can these principles, which stem from drama, be applied to documentary?

These questions were chosen because each builds on the previous and feeds into the next.

Question 1 is an investigation into 'classic' storytelling. This starts from Aristotle’s work on drama in Poetics and uses Robert McKee’s book Story (McKee 1999) to navigate the topic with some help from Alexander Mackendrick’s book On Film-making (Mackendrick 2004). It is a book which is very well respected and has few critics. The main criticism seems to be that he has no screen credits on the big screen although he has written for TV (D'Agostino 2010).

Question 2 looks at story in the context of documentary, one of the texts I have used here is Documentary Storytelling (Bernard 2011) which is one of the few books on the subject. It does draw on McKees' work by using some of his ideas but I feel it only scratches the surface. It does not discuss how ideas in classical storytelling from people like McKee, or to what extent they must be modified and to what extent and how his ideas should be modified.

Research Method

Previously I have interviewed documentary editors and one of my questions concerned constructing narrative. For this research as well as using these previous interviews, I have carried out additional interviews with documentary editors focusing on story. My research will primarily comprise looking at books on storytelling and editing and interviews with documentary editors. These interviews are thematically structured with the discourse of interviews constructed jointly by interviewee and respondents (Mishler 1886:ix).

Story Structure is Story

Various authors have tried to define a set of basic plots, Brooker defining seven (Brooker 2004), but for McKeen there is only one plot, The Quest. An event throws a character’s life out of balance arousing his desire to restore balance, sending him on The Quest, which he may or may not achieve, for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism.

“This is story in a nutshell... To understand the quest form of your story you need only identify your protagonists Object of Desire. Penetrate his physiology and find an honest answer to the question 'What does he want?' ” 38 (McKee 1999:196).

In documentaries this is often the case, to a greater or lesser degree, but it is often issues in society that you are penetrating rather than an individual’s physiology. Also they often concern very large groups of people rather than a single or multiple protagonists. I will argue that for documentary the there needs to be softening and relaxing of story structure, although where it is found it should be used.Story is defined by its structure (Aristotle 1997, McKee 1999). This section will talk about how story is structured working from the scene to the container for everything, the story.

Reversal and Value Change

Before we look at the elements of story structure it is necessary to understand the idea of Reversal and Value Change for it is this that delineates the boundaries of all elements of story. Value Change is a binary change from one thing to the opposite. This can be from nerves-confident, relaxed-tense or dead-alive or hope-fear. 

“All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are story values” 17 (McKee 1999:34). Value Change generally happens to the character, a Reversal is similar but of bigger magnitude and significance.” Although it may centre on a character it affects and focuses on the whole story.

From here we get the general principle that for it to be a story something significant happened, there must be a reversal. “The most powerful elements of emotional interest … reversal of the situation” 12 (Aristotle 1997:12). It is not that if there is no reversal it is a ineffective story, it really is not a story at all.In documentary I see this reversal as often happening in the audience rather than the on-screen characters. I see documentaries often focusing on understanding the world to a greater degree than drama, and sometimes more directly. A good documentary will excite the audience about something and may make you want to know more. For me a great documentary is one that does this and changed the audience, preferably significantly creating a reversal of attitude or a paradigm shift of ideas.


A scene is a set of actions which happens in more or less contiguous time and space, which causes a significant value change condition in a character’s life. (McKee 1999: 33-35) “The effect of turning points is fourfold: surprise, increased curiosity, insight and new direction.” 13 (McKee 1999: 234). The ‘value change condition in a characters' life' may sound dramatic but is not necessarily so. It may be simply at the beginning of the season it is dry outside and after it is wet. Seemingly insignificant story events must always be meaningful in the context of the story, they cannot be trivial. The value changes are achieved through conflict (McKee 1999: 33).

A scene is a section of a narrative in which there is one clearly defined purpose and intention.”  (Mackendrick 2004:47). This purpose should move the story forward and should be unique (i.e. if you have two scenes with the same purpose one must go). We must decide the primary thing the scene should say and cut after that, even if the next thing is interesting. (Sundlöf A16)

Scenes are actually a microcosm of story, each scene having a beginning middle and end. “Like a short film, because sometimes the best short films are ones that feel like that part of the bigger story.” (Flextone B17). You cut each scene as if no other scene is next to it, its totally isolated (Atkins A14).In a feature the average scene lasts two and a half minutes. If we have a one-minute scene then there could be a four-minute scene. Generally it takes a camera between two and three minutes to drink up whatever is visually expressive in a location, “Longer than this expressivity drains away the film becomes visually dull and the eyes lose interest” 16 (McKee 1999:291).

Principles of transition

The audience must be smoothly moved from one scene to the next. This linking is done by what they have in common or opposition. This can be done through many different elements such as visually, through sound, idea, theme or an object. (McKee 1999:301)

The end of the scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be (narrative drive)” (Mackendrick 2004:41). Passing the batten is a term that is used, the outro of one scene must relate to the intro of the next. For example “I’ve had it with gambling, I lost my wife, I lost my house, I lost everything. Pause, cut. Then if you had the footage it would be quite fun (to have next scene) of him wander into some sleazy gambling place/casino ... Its all about relating thought.” 47 (Atkins A14).

Rhythm and tempo

  • Rhythm is set by the length of a scene. How long are we in the same time and place?
  • Tempo is the level of activity within a scene via dialogue or action or a combination.
As a story unfolds both rhythm and tempo progressively increase. Scenes become shorter and activity more brisk. “We want to use cinema’s sentry power to fill the audience towards at climaxes ... By telescoping rhythm while spiralling tempo, so that when the climax arrives, we can put the brakes on, stretch the playing time [for climatic scenes], and the tension holds.” (McKee 1999:291-293)


A sequence is a set of scenes telling a more or less continuous story of an event that is a piece of your biggest story. It should have a beginning, middle and end and have unique job to do in your overall story, and move it forward. Like scenes if two sequences are doing the same job one must go. It generally consist of between two and five scenes with the most significant events at the end of the last scene. (McKee 1999: 38).In documentaries I see sequences can sometimes be like chapters. Each sequence can be looking at a different subject or sub-theme. In COLLAPSE (2009) a number of different elements of society are explored, which together it is argued will lead to the collapse of society. Each element can be seen as having its own sequence. As a sequences is a block of related scenes, the block is generally moved together, this abstraction is useful when working with structure. (Bini B5-B6).


An act is a series of sequences where the end of the last scene has a major reversal more powerful than any previous reversal, (McKee 1999: 41) or significance event.

Aristotle states there is a relationship between the length of the story and the number of major turning points necessary. These major turning points relate to act climaxes. Student or experimental films of about 20 min can be told in one act. I see many short issue type films, the type that often appear on YouTube, as being of this type. It is possible to tell stories with two major reversals but hour-long TV or longer films require three.

The foundation of the three act structure, and McKee stresses this is a approximate foundation, not a formula, is the first act is typically around 25% of the telling ( around 20 min in a 120 minutes feature). The last act is the briefest of all. Twenty minutes, or less, in a feature. The second act is the longest. (McKee 1999 218-219). As a guideline this means the first act is 25%, the second act is roughly 50% and the final act is under 25%. The reason this does not make up the 100% is a resolution is not actually part of the third act. There can also can be an epilogue. I find in documentary this is often a discussion of what the main characters are doing now (ARMADILLO (2010), WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (2006)).This is not to say we should not have more than three acts. THE THIEF THE COOK HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989) has eight. It depends on the number of significant reversals. Generally for most full-length TV programmes and features there are three. Each reversal must be a true reversal from negative to positive or positive to negative. As you have more acts the impact of each reversal is reduced but for a full length work three are necessary to tell a powerful and meaningful story. (McKee 1999: 222).

Act Structure in Documentaries

There seems to be something about three act structures that is built into the way we receive stories, however many documentaries do not fit neatly into this structure but an approximation of it. There are ways of creating compelling stories without this structure, what Madison Smartt Bell (Bell 1977) describes as 'narrative design'. (Bernard 2011:55).

I see the three act structure often being used in documentary and many of the texts I have studied and editors I have spoken to recommend sticking to it if possible. (Flextone B12, Meech B14, Bernard 2011:330) I did find that when pressed the editors could be a bit vague about exactly what the acts were and what should happen for an act to end (Meech B17). The idea was generally thought as being positive but some prefer to use it very loosely “A person, so you get to know this person, does something that's the action of the film, it resolves itself in this way. So you can sort of made the argument that pretty much all films work in that way but I never think in terms of ‘at 30 min and this should happen’.” 98 (Bini B6).

Although the three act structure seems to work well in documentary, there are many times when a documentary works without three acts. COLLAPSE (2009) does not have a three act structure but it does build. Aristotle seas episodic plots as the worst (Aristotle 1997:18) and I would agree with him. A documentary works best when it has a narrative that is progressive going from somewhere to somewhere. Documentaries that simply tell a set of related stories can work but they can seem like a series of films rather than one cohesive whole.

Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident starts the chain of events that is the Story. It must be a specific dynamic event, not something vague. It must rapidly upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life. It happens or is caused directly by them. The protagonist must be aware of it and that their life is out of balance, for better or worse. Generally it is a single event that happens to the protagonist or is caused by them. Sometimes it can be two events, a setup and a payoff. (McKee 1999:189, Bernard 2011:55). 

Generally the Inciting Incident should occur in the first 25% of the telling. It can be very first thing that happens but should not be more than 15 minutes in else there is a risk the audience will become bored. Alternatively a subplot may be needed to keep audience interest. (McKee 1999:200-201) The protagonist must react to the Inciting Incident fairly quickly as when something radically upsets the balance of equilibrium and control the audience wishes the balance to be restored. Ideally the Inciting Incident should arouse an unconscious as well as a conscious desire. Thus complex characters suffer intense inner battle because the two desires are in direct conflict. The character may think he wants one thing but the audience senses that deep down there is and unconscious desire which is the exact opposite. (McKee 1999:191).

“The sudden incident of the central plot must happen on screen- not in the back story, not between scenes offscreen. Each subplot has its own Inciting Incident, which may or may not be on screen. “ 35 (McKee 1999:198).

The placing of the Inciting Incident is crucial; it should be as soon as possible but not before the moment is ripe. We may need to know something of the protagonist to give this Inciting Incident power and to enable it to hook the audience. “The only reason to delay the entrance of the central plot is the audience’s need to know the protagonists at length so it can be fully react to the Inciting Incident. If this is necessary, then this setup sub-plot must open the telling.” 43 (McKee 1999: 223).

In documentary I feel it is not necessary for there to be an Inciting Incident in the way described above; the Inciting Incident and Premise may be the same thing. It may be a question or set of questions in the filmmaker’s head, rather than an incident. The question could be why did something happen or how was it allowed to happen. It may be that is is not something that can be shown onscreen. There may have been an incident but it may of occurred before filming started. In a lot of the cases we are more concerned with what the film is about – the theme -rather than with an Inciting Incident. The above rules of placement still apply, we still need to know what the film is concerned with early on. This is often dealt with through interviews, commentary or even dramatisation as exposition.

Point of Attack / Beginning

Not to be confused with the Inciting Incident or Tease the Point of Attack is where the filmmaker enters the story. It's generally agreed that this is one of the hardest decisions to make over the course of production. In fact, it's often made and unmade many times before the right Point of Attack is found and “you can't imagine why you ever tried anything else... When you begin your film is a crucial decision, because it sets your training motion and draws the audience into your story and it seems.” 34 (Bernard 2011:56).

Finding the Point of Attack in documentary can be a case of finding the thing you are most interested in in the footage. In a way this can become the hook, “most of the times I want to get right to the heart of what I think it is about.” 19 (Bini B8). It can be very obvious but sometimes you have to do the first assembly to get basic feel, to have broad strokes of what you've got, but then “if you are not sure where to start it becomes pretty apparent.” 12 (Flextone B15).

After the tease you then tend to have a scene where you 'set out your stall', saying what is about and introducing your characters and presenter. You have to explain your geography, where you are, who you are with and what it's about. You also need to explain information isn't obvious to the audience and this has to be done in an entertaining way. (Philips A18).

I have seen many films where you start at the end; you know what has happened; a structure where the whole film is dramatic irony. I think the reason this works is because it makes the audience think more about why something has happened rather than what will happen next. I see documentary audiences more inquisitive about the world than drama audiences. Often in these types of films themes are introduced early. You may also want to introduce themes before going deeper into the characters. INTO THE ABYSS (2011) there is an interview with the death-row priest to give you an idea of theme and then the policeman walks you through the ‘official ‘view the story. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) starts with home movie footage with a voiceover by David Friedman talking about his father, introducing ideas of family then tells the official police version of the story before going deeper and bringing the other more complex story.One way to draw an audience in at the beginning of the film is to create what Sundlöf refers to as negative space, “it is what is not said explicitly,… what you don’t hear, what you don’t say, sometimes the left out. You want to get people to ask questions, good questions, and want to continue.” 33 (Sundlöf A19). In CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) this is done by David saying that there were things about his father that he would not talk  about. With INTO ETERNITY (2010) it is a sequence going into a tunnel with someone saying 'you should not come here'. Negative space is a way of making the audience ask questions they formulate themselves, rather than asking them questions directly.

What is Story

The story is simply one huge master event. When you look at the value changed situations in the life of the characters at the beginning of the story, then compare it to the value change at the end of the story, you should see the arc of the film, the great sweep of change that takes life from one condition at the opening to a change condition at the end. This final condition, this and change, must be absolute and irreversible.” (McKee 1999:41)

McKee defines story as a group of scenes, each having a minor reversal, which are grouped into sequences, with the last scenes of the sequence having a moderate reversal. These sequences are then grouped into acts, will each act having a major reversal in its last scene. As Acts progress each reversal, or climax, must be more significant than the previous, with the last climax defining the story.

For me going back to the idea of reversal, another way of looking at this is to simply say if nothing happens it is not a story. If nothing happens (i.e. there is no reversal) you do not have a drama (or documentary). At best you have a abstract art film, a dry educational text or an instructional manual.

Archplot, Miniplots and Antiplots

In classic design stories are built around an active protagonist who struggles against mainly external forces of antagonism to restore their desire through continuous time through a consistent world based on causality and ends in an absolute and irreversible change. (McKee 1999:44)

Classical Design / Archplot

  • For Duality, Closed Ending, Linear Time, External Conflict, Single Protagonist, Consistent Reality, Active Protagonist


  • Open Ending, Internal Conflict, Multi-Protagonists, Passive Protagonist

Anti-Structure / Antiplot

  • Coincidence, Nonlinear Time, Inconsistent Realities

Most TV and feature drama does tend to fall into the archplot category but I have seem documentary moving often away from this. I would attribute this to the lower budgets, making higher audiences less necessary 16 and the need for a more creative approach due to the constraints of documentary making.

Multiplot films are also less than classical and more than minimal. (McKee 1999:56) I see this fairly often in documentary which are often told by taking multiple characters, telling a story from each, all around a central theme or Controlling Idea. “Most importantly, the stories should inform each other, meaning that at some point they should connect to form a coherent whole and advance a single overall storyline.” (Benard 2011:59).

In documentary the onscreen protagonists can be passive, In THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988) they are locked up on death row and passive in that they cannot do anything to free themselves. I would argue that is this case the filmmaker is an active protagonist. Filmmakers exposing injustice are generally actively involved in the justice system. If the film is persuasive enough this could lead to the victims’ plight being improved or others not suffering similar injustice.

Documentary and Narrative Structure

Use Story fundamentals where possible

There is something in dramatic form that is really powerful. This is why as storytellers it behooves us to understand the potential of that structure (Kim) (Bernard 2010:304) so we should look for ideas from dramatic storytelling in our footage and when we find it use them “I think if it's there we would be a fool to chuck it out, storytelling at the end
of the day is hardwired into us, we can't help it” (Flextone B14).

One of the essential components of drama is tension, which does not have to be the local conflict between people on the screen. “It is rather tension in the imagination of the audience that leads to feelings of curiosity suspense and apprehension.” (Mackendrick 2004:11)

In documentary we are looking for the standard story elements “but you're probably not consciously looking for that stuff...that's the beauty of just looking at footage, rather than having to invent character, you have a reaction to the people.” (Bini B3).

The softening of story fundamentals

Story does not have to fall into three act drama, and it definitely does not mean creating artificial tension that is imposed from without. Story comes organically from material and how you structure it. (Bernard 2011:11).

One way of looking at documentaries as a series of questions. To keep narrative Ben Edwards – 2012 – Page 14 of 34momentum you do not want to answer too many of these too early. “I think if there is one thing as a general narrative rule is not to have too much resolution in any particular part of the story until you are wrapping up the entire story.” (Hankiuns A16)

“I like films where anything is possible, where rules are so broad that anything is possible so long as you're telling a story and engaging the audience on those levels. Storytelling and characters, I find you can get away with a lot of things.” (Bini B7-B8). LIFT (2002) being a good example of this where these is no Antagonist or Climax. One of the differences between drama and documentary is in documentary you don't necessarily want to introduce all significant characters 18 at the beginning. Sometimes you want to introduce some characters very late to keep momentum, memorable characters that aren't directly related to the main story can be useful for this.  (Bini B4).

One of the murderers in INTO THE ABYSS (2011) comes in fairly late.

I like creating things like little subtexts 20 in the audience’s minds,... like moments where I imagine the audience is the thinking in the back of there mind 'I wonder if they have him or not, how come he hasn't been in it', they keep mentioning him but he hasn't been in it and then you call him up. 'Oh shit there he is' so that is creating drama, that is an example of creating an entrance for the character, I want that character to make an impression on you. If I shove him up there right in the beginning with Michael Perry he may not make the impressions he does on you.” (Bini B4)

One very popular and often successful narrative structure in documentary is a multi-character story 21 , for me this works best when linked via a theme or Controlling Idea, such as US NOW(2009), where the characters can be diverse and never meet. The characters are used to demonstrate the Controlling Idea in a less direct way than in drama. “You should work on stringing those characters together, hopping generally between three of four different stories.” (Flextone B10) “You want to follow them through their story and they should have changed by the end, because the audience
change with them, that's what you would like, they come out feeling a bit different about
something, that's the ideal scenario.” (Flextone B13).

A variation of this, which I think works well, is to have multiple characters on different stages of the same journey and interweave these stories. MURDERBALL (2005) has characters who play quadball 22 at an international level and also a character who has been recently paralysed and is starting on his journey as a quadball player.

Story Design

Crisis, Climax and Resolution

Each act should end in a crisis with each act having a greater crisis than the last. The crisis of the final act is part of the Obligatory Scene. (McKeen 1999:200). From the Inciting Incident the audience has been anticipating with increasing vividness the scene where the protagonist will become face-to-face with the most powerful forces of antagonism in his existence. “This is the dragon, so to speak, the guards of the Object of Desire.” (McKeen 1999:303) “The dilemma confronts a protagonist who, when face-to-face with the most powerful unfocused forces of antagonism in his life, must make a
decision to take one action or another in a last effort to achieve his Object of Desire.”
39 (McKeen 1999:304).

The climax as result of the crisis, the last major reversal, does not need to be full of violence and noise but rather must be full of meaning. The reversal of value change from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony. This major shift should be absolute and irreversible and move the heart of the audience. Without it you
do not have the story. (McKeen 1999:309)

The resolution, the last part of the story, refers to any material left after the climax and has three possible uses:

  1. To climax and finish any subplots.
  2. To show the full impact of the events of the story, specifically the climax.
  3. Even if the first two uses don't apply, all films lead a Resolution as a courtesy to the audience. For if the Climaxes moved the film goer, if they’re laughing hopelessly, riveted with terror, flushed with the social outrage, wiping awaytears, it's rude suddenly to go to go black unroll the titles. ” (McKeen 1999:312-314)

It is noteworthy that the editors I talked to did not talk in these terms. Bernard prefers to use emotional peak rather than climax and turning point rather than reversal, although resolution is used. (Bernard 2011:58-59) These undulation and freak-out factors (Atkins B28) are important as documentaries must not be flat, but sometimes rather than reversals we have peaks and troughs. This could be seen as the turning down of the intensity but I do not think this is the net effect. I believe that the fact that documentaries are based on actualities, and that the audience know this, at least partly makes up any turning down of intensity. In drama you may often get lost in the story, but in documentary in many ways you are in that state permanently. Resolution, on the other hand, seems very much a key part of documentaries. They are often biased on real life resolution, often affecting real lives, of an altogether different quality than that of drama.

Premise and The Controlling Idea or Theme

The Premise is the idea that inspired the writing of the story. This is rarely a closed statement and often an open questions such as ‘what happens if? ‘(McKee 1999:115) In documentary I see the premise can be a question you're trying to answer; however approaching it head-on is often not a good idea, so Controlling Idea seems a great way of finding a more subtle way of approaching the subject.

Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. poverty, war and love, for example are not themes; they relate to setting and genre.” (McKee 1999:115) Bernard still uses the term theme and sites poverty as examples (Barnes 2011:17).

McKee prefers to use Controlling Idea which, like theme, names the story’s route or central idea, but it also implies function. It may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change. It has two components, value plus cause. It identifies the positive or negative value change of the story as shown in the last climax, and identifies the chief reason why this value change has changed to its final state. (McKee 1999:115).

Once you discover your Controlling Idea, respect it. Never allow yourself the luxury of thinking,‘it's just entertainment'.” (McKee 1999:129)

Although to me McKees' Controlling Idea seems much more powerful than the use of theme, finding a Controlling Idea in documentary may not be possible. I see reverting to theme as a possible pragmatic solution. This does not mean that you should not make every effort to try to find a Controlling Idea.

I also do not think that the two are mutually exclusive. The controlling Idea may be the main driving force behind the story but there may be other 'underlying themes' which give the story extra depth and texture. The complexities of real life can make Controlling Ideas difficult to find in documentary and this may be why Bernard does not use them.

Progression of Idea and Counter-Idea

Progression is achieved by moving in the cycle between ideas and counter ideas from positive to negative changes, with the end of the final act having the largest reversal. (McKee 1999:119-20).

As the story develops, you must willingly entertain opposite, even repugnant ideas. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony. Seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly. ... Ultimately they express what they deeply believe, but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue and experience all its possibilities.” (McKee 1999:120-21).

In documentary this is even more important as they can be issue-based “including the contrary evidence that you uncover, when it does impact your central story or arguments, can often strengthen that argument. In part, this is because it demonstrates respect for the audience’s intelligence and inspires trust that they're not being manipulated.” (Barnard 2011:85).

Progression in Documentary

In documentary I see progression sometimes involving the audience finding out progressively more and more about events or characters, both on and off-screen. In THE WHITE DIAMOND (2004) drama is created by slowly revealing the back story of the cameraman who lost his life in a previous attempt to fly the balloon over the rainforest canopy. This is revealed by telling the story several times, each time revealing more details of the story. “That it's a trope, and I don't mean trope in a bad way, it's a thing that one does in editing to create are we going to keep people watching so
you look for tropes... some sort of device.
” (Bini B6).

Progression in documentaries is often about taking people on a journey which challenges their preconceptions. For example, a dad with seven kids, people will make “assumptions about that person, so before you even start you want to counteract this” (Meech B18), and I see this as a reversal happening in the audience.

Character and Characterisation

Characterisation is the sum of all observable characteristics, everything notable through careful scrutiny. Sex, race, intelligence, sexuality, accident, choice of home, car and address, values and attitudes. Beneath the surface of characterisation is character, regardless of appearance, who is a person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we
find? Is he loving or cruel? Jealous or selfish? True character is revealed in the choices human being makes under pressure, the greater the pressure the deeper the revelation of character. “The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire.” (McKee 1999:100-

The revelation of true character in contrast or contradiction to their characterisation is fundamental to all fine storytelling... People are not what they appear to be... Taking the principle further yet: the finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.” (McKee 1999:103-104).

This changing of the characters character over the story is known as the Character Arc.

Character Arc

Arc reflects the way the character is transformed by the events of the story, in documentary you should never, for the sake of good story, assume you know what a character is thinking or feeling or assume a transformation has occurred. (Bernard

In documentary it can be difficult to find the arc but not having one is problematic “even though [we have] a great character, even though it's a real story – it feels a little jerryrigged. It doesn't feel like it quite unfolds; it feels like you see the hands of the filmmaker moving the pieces. (Pollard).” (Bernard 2011:324)

Character in documentary

In documentary, I see the treatment of character can be more analytical rather than observed through their actions. It may be going deep into a single character to understand them, as in GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S.
THOMPSON (2008) or looking at a group of characters to see how an event or events have affected them. In INTO THE ABYSS (2011) What “it gives you is [the] characters, their tragedy, their story, the tragedy of to the victims, the tragedy of the guys who actually did the murder.” (Bini B7).

In many documentaries I have seen interviews are often a significant method of investigation and create a different dynamic where the contributors talk directly to the audience through the filmmaker. Therefore in documentary we often see characters through the eyes of others, although for the documentary to work well the contributors should be strong characters themselves.

In documentary I see two types of character, there are main characters presented in the traditional narrative way,' from the inside out' and the characters which are just plot carrying characters, which you do not really need an emotional connection with or make them powerful (like the 'foil' in drama). Using INTO THE ABYSS (2011) as an example:

Plot Carrying Characters - the policeman at the beginning who walks you through the crime,. “I think that the difference in a good and bad film is that in a good film you do have some emotional connection with them, they feel like people.” (Bini B2). These are characters like the protagonists and the antagonist who you want to introduce as you would in narrative film and you want to make an impression.

Main Characters – The two murderers “I really wanted to help get inside them, you wanted to try to present their side of it. It's difficult to explain I wanted to give you a sense of them, perhaps beyond what you just saw.” (Bini B2).

The protagonist

Generally the protagonist is a single character, although it can be driven by a Duo [or a group]. For Plural-Protagonist, both must share the same desire, and in their struggle to achieve it they must both mutually suffer and benefit. The story may however have a multiple protagonists, but if they do not share the same desire and mutually benefit and gain from the struggle it becomes a multi-plot story. (McKee 1999:156)

The protagonist as author or audience

“When translating into dramatic form a story that has been written only for reading, the first character to be removed is often the author himself.” (Mackendrick 2004:16).  There is however a form of documentary which is heavily authored and in this case I would argue that the author can be seen as protagonist. Authored documentaries such as BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE(2003) have the filmmaker as a protagonist searching for the truth.

Although not narrated, CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) in ways is similar, but by not having the voice of the filmmaker, I would argue that the protagonist is the audience. In the case of this film the audience is being taken on a similar journey to the filmmaker. “We were trying to recreate in the film our own experience of making the film ... we would start with one set of information and one set of assumptions, and then we would learn a new thing which would change the way we thought about everything ... and that just kept happening, over and over again.” (Hankin A17).

In this case I see the reversal is in the audience or the author, from them not knowing something to them knowing something. As the documentary goes on, what the audience/author finds out should build in intensity as the reversals happen, in the same way as drama. “In other words it's like the audiences is the protagonist and the change
takes place in the audience. “ (Bini B5).

Exposition: Show, Don't Tell

Exposition is information that grounds you in a story: who, what, where, when and why. This gives the audience members the tools they need to follow the story that is unfolding and, more importantly, it allows them inside the story.” (Barnes 2011:15). In drama, exposition can be considered anything that is said instead of being shown through action. (Mackendrick 2004:5) Skilful exposition means making it invisible. As the story progresses the audience absorb it unconsciously, and we no longer think of it as exposition at all. (McKee 1999:334, Mackendrick 2004:22)

To tell a story with the greatest emotional impact you should present the audience evidence or information in a way that allows them to experience it for themselves. This is often described as 'Show, don't tell.'. “Too often, films tell us what we're supposed to think through the use of heavy-handed narration, loaded graphics or a stacked deck of interviews.” (Bernard 2011:27-28) Or as Aristotle puts it acted, not narrated.” (Aristotle 1959:24)

Two basic principles to follow are:

  • Never include anything the audience can reasonably and easily assume has
  • happened.
  • Never pass on exposition unless the missing fact would cause confusion.

You do not keep the audiences interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.” (McKee 1999:336).

In documentary for me the above is still an ideal to aim for. One of the big differences between documentary and drama is the use of interviews (unless you are engaging purely observational documentary). It is still better to 'show don't tell' but it is often necessary to deliver exposition through interviews. I see a good interview as one that is full of emotion and possibly create empathy, so all interviews are not just exposition.

Exactly when you deliver the exposition is crucial. You don't want to give away too much too soon as it will seem irrelevant and soon been forgotten, or even diminish the impact of the reveal. Withhold information that is necessary and you may have a confused or frustrated audience (Barnes 2011:15-16). For me the trick is to withhold information as long as possible and deliver it just as it is needed. Generally you do it just before the action so the audience can understand it. Often it helps to say things twice if it's important. For example so one might say something in an interview and you can reference that in narration later. There are bits of information that you highlight which are crucial but it has to be done poetically and with style. (Meech B21).

More importantly, 'show, don't tell' means respect the intelligence and sensitivity of the audience. Invite them to bring their best selves to the ritual, to watch, think, feel, and draw their own conclusions. Do not put them on your knee as if they were children and 'explain life'” (McKee 1999:345).

A Good Story Well Told

In the previous sections we discussing what I would referred to as story plumbing, the fundamental building blocks used to construct story. This section aims to talk about what makes good story; how do we turn these fundamentals into something which is really human. “'Good story' means something worth telling that the world wants to hear.” (McKee 199:20). “It is easy to tell people what a story is; it's very difficult to tell a story. When films tell stories, when they engage you in the process of story, then they work. (Burns)” (Bernard 2011:258).

For McKee it is the telling of the story, not the theme or subject, which is of primary importance. “Given the choice between trivial material really well told versus profound material badly told, the audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.” (McKee 1999:28) For McKee good story has many facets, for me two which seem particularly poignant documentary are:

  • A fascination with the sudden surprise revelation that bring major
    changes in life
  • A healthy suspicion that things are not as they seem (McKee 1999:21).

People don't want to see a statement. They want to see action. And action is a fight; its people fighting for what they want, and you don't know who's going to win. That's why people watch sport. For example, MAN ON WIRE (2008), we
know that Philip Pettit is going to successfully walk across the World Trade Towers, but if you break that into separate battles of his achieving that, you don't know how each thing is going to turn out.(Kim)
” (Bernard 2011:305)

The majority of the writer's labour goes into designing story. Who are the characters? What do they want? Why do I want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences? Finding the answers to these questions and shaping them into story is the overwhelming creative task in drama (McKee 1999:19) These are also the key questions in documentary, and wherever possible the fundamentals of drama should also be applied.

Cohesiveness and Clarity

Obscurity is seldom a virtue, if a point is worth making them there's no harm in making it clearly. “To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film” wrote Truffaut. Failing to make a point clearly is likely to irritate and confuse an audience, because the audience need expository information in order to appreciate and understand the situation and characters they are presented with. Failing to do so may drastically weaken the audience’s enjoyment of the story. “Clarity is the communication of essentials and the exclusion of the non-essential” (Mackendrick 2004:32). There are various levels in a story but I feel you need a backbone, which is something that is easy to understand. “Even in the most experimental film you want something that the audience can connect to” (Bini B7) .

I always like to think 'If I was the audience what questions would I want answering?' and try to answer these questions “Yes I think that's a good way of looking at it, I don't think I consciously do that, like make out a list of questions, but definitely that was going through my mind. Especially on clarity issues” (Bini B5).

I see a big relationship between clarity and cohesiveness. I see cohesiveness being created through clarity. For real cohesiveness you need to be clear on all significant elements, and if an element is not significant it should not be in the story. This means you need to be clear about everything. Therefore, the more you try to bend the truth for your needs, the less cohesive you story becomes, and as the waters get muddied your story loses power.

“One thing I have learned is you can never be too simple” (Meech B22) “but to get to the simple that can be a very complex process, you can tie itself in knots. It's being deceptively simple I think that's key. Nothing just falls into place like that. But that's the real skill as well; known what to leave out and know which stories to leave out.” (Flextone B16).

Building Narrative

You can start with scenes that you think might be problematic, so you know if you can make them work, (Flextone B10) or with the characters, as that is where the story is, “Its a no brainier.” (Atkins A14) This involves cutting the sync  first, some call it the radio edit. “It’s really about getting the narrative through laid down, as the first thing from beginning to end, and that would be the first assembly without paying much attention to the visual side of it.” (Hankin A14) if you are not sure about what the structure is, one approach is to do the first assembly chronologically. “I just want to get it down, get my arms around the story, chronologically before experimenting with any other type of structural approach.” (Hankin A14). Using Paper Edits to plan a film from transcripts tends to lead to a film stuffed with wall-to-wall talking but by using
some visual material in the first assembly something different can happen (Rabinger 2009:216)

If anything can be removed, and the story still works, you should almost certainly remove it. “I love this bit, I love what they do, I love what they say, ... but do we need it, will we miss it. Then you take it out of you look at it and you don't miss any go home, that flows so much better.” (Flextone B16).

Great tools for helping with this are post-it notes, transcripts and chronologies.

The Poetic not Accountants truth

Documentary for many if not most, is the search for truth, Cinema Verité, but which truth? Herzog argues that “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth” stating “It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” but “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.“ (Herzog 1999).

Sometimes [I have an argument] with people in the audience who stand up and say, ‘why don't you just give it to us straight? Why don't you take out all this junk? ‘I feel like what they're really asking me to do is to show somebody at a blackboard with a pointer (Gibney).” (Bernard 2011:287) What Gibney is referring to here is what Bernard refers to as ‘chalk and talk' films, which tend to be dry, heavily narrated, filled with facts and painful to sit through (Bernard 2011:1).

To understand the need to go beyond is the ‘accountants truth‘ and into the ‘poetic truth' we can look at Mackendrick example of filming dancers. “The results may be a record of a fine piece of dancing, it will most probably be unsatisfactory when presented as a substitute for the experience of live and present dancers” (Mackendrick 2004:xxxivvv) And beyond even poetic art “the greatest work is ultimately interactive because it causes you to think and argue, and it doesn't necessarily give you a sealed package. (Kin)” (Bernard 2011:302).

It seems fitting that Aristotle refers to the Storyteller as The Poet. (Aristotle 1779:35).


One thing that becomes clear is that there seem to be documentaries where the classic story structure is present, and there are those which require a different approach, the building of narrative from material. Karel Reisz suggests drama is concerned with creating a plot, but documentary is concerned with the exposition of a theme. (Dancyger 2011:327) Although this is an extreme view for me this is a good approach where a archplot, ainiplot or anitplot can not be found. We should not subvert the material for the sake of finding a traditional story. If one does not exist we should start looking at themes and taking the audience on a journey of discovery, a quest for the truth. Editing by many is seen as putting shots together but with some experience this becomes almost trivial. Where there is no traditional story the real skill is in demonstrating themes, or controlling ideas, by finding them in the material and structuring this material into a new type of ‘acts’. In this case the three part 'act' structure is not one of reversal but deeper and deeper exploring of a theme, the audience as the protagonist, where the reversal is a change in them. I would argue that there is a reversal in the audience . Act One is often exposition and telling the official conservative story. Act Two is going deeper and looking at the cracks in this conservative version of the trough, and with Act Three we go deeper into the complexities. The final part, which in drama is the resolution, can be trying to see what this means to us, what we have learned and possibly how we can use this knowledge.

In terms of the research questions, McKee, Mackendrick and others, have made investigating the fundamentals of story the easiest part. There has not been room to cover everything but I have included the main elements, concentrating on the ones I feel particularly relevant to documentary. Documentary storytelling does often require 'softening' of these classic drama-based theories, but does not contradict them. Talking to editors has given me some insight and helped to identify relevant differences, and some possible approaches. To understand documentary picture editing you must understand the fundamentals of storytelling and how it can be twisted, changed and extended to suit documentary. I feel that rather than exploring these classic ideas further, looking at alternative narrative construction as discussed by people like Madison
Smartt Bell (Bell 1997), and analysing successful documentaries to see how they create tension and progression of story outside classic ideas, are the avenues to pursue. Part of this could be to build a taxonomy of documentary and look at how taxa of documentary can best approach story.


  1. Aristotle, ed. Potts, L.J 1959 The Poetics, Aristotle on the Art of Fiction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  2. Aristotle, ed. Koss, R 1997 Poetics, New York, Dover Publications Inc.
  3. Bell, Madison Smartt 1997 Narrative Design, New York, W. W. Norton & Company
  4. Bernard, Sheila Curran 2011 Documentary Storytelling, 3 rd Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  5. Brooker, Christopher 2004 The Severn Basic Plots, London, Continuum
  6. D'Agostino, Gianluca 2010 Baaria, the holocaust of Italian Cinema and the Hollywood
    narrative formula, American Chronicle, consulted 1/5/2012
  7. Dancyger, Ken 2011 The Technique of Film & Video Editing 5 th Edition, Oxford, Focal
  8. Herzog, Werner 1999 Minnesota Declaration, consulted 3/3/2012
  9. Mackendrick, Alexander 2004 On Film-Making, London, Faber and Faber Ltd.
  10. Mishler, Elliot 1991 Research Interviewing, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press
  11. Rabinger, Michael 2009 Directing the Documentary, 5 th Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  12. McKee, Robert 1999 Story, London, Methuen Publishing Ltd.

As part of the research for this essay I interviewed online (video) editors and throughout this document cite them. They are:

  • Bini, Jon - who has worked with Werner Herzog on over 15 of his films (Including Grizzly Man) and numerus documentaries and feature films (including there is something about Kevin).
  • Atkins, Mark - who has worked with nick Broomfield (Biggie & Tupac,Kurt & Courtney) and edited factual TV programmes and Feature Documentaries.
  • Sundlöf, Stefan - editor on Into Eternity.
  • Hankin, Richard- editor of Capturing the Friedmans.
  • Flextone, Daren - editor no My Life as a Turkey and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.
  • Steve, Philips - editor of David Attenborough gorillas and numbers documentaries and factual TV and Wildlife programmes.