Documentary Storytelling MA Essay – Page 3

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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.
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