Documentary Storytelling MA Essay – Page 1

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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

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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.

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