Documentary Storytelling

This article is a section of my MA Dissertation - Copyrighted by me, strictly no reproduction, even in a modified form, without permission.

3) Story Structure is Story

This article is a section of my MA Dissertation - Copyrighted by me, strictly no reproduction, even in a modified form, without permission.

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.

To understand the quest form of your story you need only identify your protagonists Object of Desire. Penetrate his psychology and find an honest answer to the question 'What does he want?'”  (McKee 1999:197).

In documentaries this is often the case, to a greater or lesser degree, but it is often issues in society that I see being as penetrated, rather than an individual’s psychology. 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.

1. 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. Examples are from nerves-confident, relaxed-tense, dead-alive or hope-fear. “All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are story values” (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” (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 can happen in the audience rather than the onscreen 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.

2. Scenes

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.” (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 conflict1 (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 A18)

I see scenes as 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 B16). You cut each scene as if no other scene is next to it, its totally isolated (Atkins A15).

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 scene1. 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” (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 object1. (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. (Atkins A15).

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 sensory 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 scene], and the tension holds.” (McKee 1999:291-293)

3. Sequences

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 together1. (Bini B5-B6). I see this abstraction as useful when working with structure.

4. Acts

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 the most significant 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 can be 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 work1 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 B11, Meech B18, 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 B18). The idea was generally thought as being positive but some prefer to use it very loosely “So you get to know this person, [they do] 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.’” (Bini B5)

Although the three act structure seems to work well in documentary, I have seen times when a documentary works without three acts. COLLAPSE (2009) does not have a three act structure but each does build on the previous. Aristotle seas episodic plots1 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 stories, rather than one cohesive whole.

Inciting Indecent

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 to them, 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 but sometimes it can be two events, a setup and a payoff1. (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 subplot2 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.3 “ (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.” (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 Premise4 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 Tease1 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 train in motion and draws the audience into your story and it seems.” (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.” (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.” (Flextone B14).

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 A19).

I have seen many films where you start at the end; you know what has happened, a structure where the whole film is dramatic irony2. 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 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 crime. 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 in the other more complex story.

One way to draw an audience in at the beginning 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.” (Sundlöf A20). In CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003) this is done by David saying that there were things about his father that he would not ask 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.

5 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.

6. 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 necessary1 and the need for a more creative approach due to the constraints of documentary making2.

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.

7. 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 momentum 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 characters1 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. 2(Bini B4).

One of the murderers in INTO THE ABYSS (2011) comes in fairly late.
“I like creating things like little subtexts3 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 story4, 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 quadball5 at an international level and also a character who has been recently paralysed and is starting on his journey as a quadball player.


This is the bibliography for the whole essay, not all sources are cited in this section.

  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 Ltd.
  4. Bernard, Sheila Curran 2011 Documentary Storytelling, 3rd 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 5th Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  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, 5th Edition, Oxford, Focal Press
  12. McKee, Robert 1999 Story, London, Methuen Publishing Ltd.