Making It Real: 3 Lessons from Documentary Storytelling

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

For many years, documentaries were not a form of storytelling enjoyed by mass audiences. Occasionally, a musical documentary of interest to viewers would break through the sea of science and educational fare that ruled the genre.

A few decades ago, all that changed. Documentaries have become one of the most exciting and engaging forms of storytelling in our culture. In a natural progression, this form has moved from the big screen to serialized storytelling. HBO’s documentary series The Jinx and Netflix’s Making A Murderer have been the subjects of much discussion around the water cooler this year.

Here are three characteristics of documentary storytelling that should be found in any strong narrative, regardless of genre.

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1. STORIES ARE ABOUT CHARACTERS

There have been two approaches to incorporating characters into documentary storytelling. The first is to feature the subjects of the doc as characters themselves. Many documentaries have been created around fascinating people whose stories are compelling, sometimes odd, but true.

Amy tells the story of Amy Winehouse, a character that many were familiar with but a person that many were not. Soaked In Bleach and Cobain: Montage of Heck both center on Kurt Cobain, revealing aspects of his humanity we had never seen before. Focused on a more uplifting character, He Named Me Malala tells the story of the young woman who was shot for standing up to the Taliban.

The Wolfpack tells the story of a talented band of brothers kept from society who found a way to express themselves and overcome the massive challenges they faced. The men in this story rival any fictional characters that have ever been created. In Finders Keepers, we see an eclectic duo fighting over the right to own a human foot. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

The second method is to feature the documentarian themselves as the main character in the story. In these stories, the filmmaker enjoys a great deal of screen time, as is the case in Michael Moore’s and Russell Brand’s documentaries. However, sometimes the filmmaker is not seen at all, but rather lets their perspective and point of view drive the story, as is the case with Rashida Jones’s Hot Girls Wanted.

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2. CONFLICT IS ESSENTIAL

The single element found in modern documentaries, differentiating them from the docs of the past, is the heightened level of conflict. For years, the central conflict of this genre was non-human. Lions battled gazelles. Elephants fought to protect their young. It wasn’t until human stakes were introduced that larger audiences began showing up for these stories.

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets looks at the state of racism in our country through the lens of a single incident involving the shooting of a young black man. Cartel Land explores the murderous landscape of the drug trade in Mexico. Rape crimes on college campuses are taken to task in The Hunting Ground. While life and death are not quite the stakes in All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, the conflict is just is real. Watching the destruction of cultural artifacts under the boots of our ever-progressing technology strikes an emotional chord in many people.

Aristotle once suggested that there were only five conflicts available to us in storytelling. Man could battle another man, nature, society, himself, or what we have come to call “the machine.” Even today, most compelling stories, be they documentary or narrative, center on one of these conflicts.

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3. SET UPS AND PAYOFFS HOLD THE AUDIENCE

Many people have good ideas for cinematic stories. It’s the execution where most fall flat. Learning how to set up scenes and then pay them off is an art form all to itself.  A strong documentary is paced with inhales and exhales just as a narrative feature would be. Sometimes, these set ups include letting the audience in on a secret or a joke before the characters in the story are aware of it. Other times, the set up might include an insignificant person, place, or line of dialogue that rises to importance later in the story.

In Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, we watch setup after setup leading to whether the payoff will be a verdict of guilty or innocent. In The Resurrection of Jake the Snake Roberts, we see set ups that provide opportunities for Jake. Some of the pay offs include positive outcomes for Roberts and others do not. Essentially, the movie is a set up to see whether the wrestler can get his life together by the film’s conclusion. With serialized documentary storytelling, it is of utmost importance that each episode end with a setup that will bring the audience back next time for the pay off.

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Many people are surprised to learn that most documentaries are scripted once the footage has been captured. The elements that make docs strong, interesting, and compelling are the same elements that we have access to as scriptwriters. Learning how to use the tools we are familiar with as well as how to develop new tools strengthens our skills as writers and storytellers. So, go watch a doc. It just might improve that script you’ve been working on.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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