Normal life has its dramatic moments, but most of the time our lives are pretty boring. The occasional exciting event is only amazing to us because it’s happening to, well, us. We each have the benefit of years of personal context leading up to that moment, but an outside observer’s emotional response would likely be minimal without an appropriate frame of reference.
With documentaries, we need to get an audience of strangers to care about a subject and willingly follow along for one or two hours. Therefore, it’s up to filmmakers to discriminate between drama-worthy elements and boring stuff. Finding the inherent structure in a tale worth telling means first understanding what makes a story a story, regardless if it’s fiction or nonfiction. It also means less work on the back-end during post-production.
By inherent structure, I mean a story that naturally contains something that resembles a beginning, middle, and end. Usually, this is related to a goal of your main character. The other type of arc could be informational, but for these purposes we’ll stick with the traditional 3-Act structure.
Let’s say, for example, someone who is 500 lbs wants to finally lose weight. The structure could start with that person’s life as it is now, overweight, perhaps unfulfilled, and inactive. The middle could be his struggle to lose the weight, the workouts, his mental and physical struggle, the scale as he weighs himself (a natural way to show the passage of time), and any progress or setbacks.
The end could present a reveal of that person’s weight loss, how they now feel, their new wardrobe, reactions from loved ones, and perhaps if they are on track to keep the weight off. The structure is basically already there. Even if that person fails miserably and gains fifty pounds, that too is dramatic and may lend itself to a more psychological depiction of why the person didn’t stick with the program. Once there is a clear, measurable goal for someone on screen, the potential for success or failure is naturally engrossing for an audience.
Structure does not limit creativity. Twenty different filmmakers would film the above idea twenty different ways. They could each apply their own style to filming, editing, and even the themes they choose to depict. Every house needs a solid foundation, no matter what kind of house you want to build. That’s the benefit of structure. If you can’t find an inherent structure in the story, then you’ll have to contrive one. This can be problematic for a few reasons.
First, the lack of an inherent structure usually indicates that there isn’t a sufficient external goal for a character to pursue, which in turn means a lack of visual conflict and therefore drama. After all, if they’re not trying to accomplish something, why should anyone keep watching? Lacking a tangible goal is a problem when it comes to visually telling a story. Simply put, people doing stuff is always more engaging than them not doing stuff.
Without an inherent structure, it could result in disjointed editing sequences or cheap tricks intended to fool the audience into thinking they’re watching a dramatic story when they’re really just watching a building never fully constructed enough to fully collapse. In these cases, the form has been adjusted to make up for a lack of dramatic content- also known as the lipstick-on-a-pig filmmaking approach.
An appropriate point to understand is that topics are not stories. At least, not yet. Topics can become stories if you are able to discern where the conflict lies and what the structure could potentially be. For instance, maybe you want to make a film about gaming addiction. It’s an interesting topic for sure, but not yet a story, even if you find a subject addicted to gaming.
A filmmaker might choose to track a few different kids glued to their phones and computers. Maybe they each play different games and have diverse backgrounds, but that still isn’t enough. Ideally, you would want something to shake up that world. Perhaps, one of the subjects is made by his parents to seek treatment (the middle) and then we see if that treatment was effective (the end).
Another potential structure for a documentary on gaming addiction could be a kid who refuses treatment because he has a big gaming event coming up that he’s hoping to win. Maybe his parents are then conflicted between getting him treatment and letting him pursue his dream. The gaming event could be the climax of the film where we find out if all of his gaming was worth it as we intently watch him either win or lose. More interestingly, would it appear worth it to him, his family, or the audience even if he does win the whole thing?
On that note, big events that require hours of practice, preparation, commitment, and sacrifice are always inherently dramatic. This is why 98.9% of romantic comedies end with a wedding. Weddings take planning, cost money, have high standards, are a cauldron of emotions, and there’s plenty that can go wrong. Not to mention, many attendees are usually pretty drunk, so things are sure to pop off at some point.
The bottom line is that finding an inherent structure in your documentary subject will save you a lot of trouble in the editing room. If there is no inherent structure, it might be wise to search for other stories that have one. Once you find a story with an inherent structure, use this foundation to your advantage and build your artistic vision on top of it. Your audience, who otherwise would have walked out, will then thank you with applause.
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