Documentary Storytelling MA Essay – Page 2

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

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 drama…how 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).

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3