Documentary Storytelling

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

4) Story Design

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

1 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 away tears, it's rude suddenly to go to go black unroll the titles.23” (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.

2 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.

4 Character and Characterisation

4.1 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 2011:19)

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)

4.2 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).

5 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 andgain 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).

6 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).


This is the holography for the whole essay, bot 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.