Tools for Dramatic Documentary

By Frederica Byron

"In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." - Alfred Hitchcock

What Hitchcock means, is that when you start filming a documentary, it is impossible to predict exactly where it will go. It's not like making a fiction film, where you have control over what the characters say and do and how everything looks down to the position of a hair on an actors head. In a documentary, you get days where someone will say something which changes the meaning of everything you've filmed so far and turns your story on it's head. You can't predict it.

That doesn't mean that you can wing it from the start.

Even if your idea ends up being turned on it's head and discarded, you need to have a story in mind when you start. Otherwise, you'll get to the edit suite with a series of shots and interviews, and no idea of how to turn them into a film.

But what makes a good documentary story?

The simple answer is that a good documentary story is just a good story. Any ideas about good fictional story structure can be applied to documentary. 

Here I'm going to look at just a few things that are important to think about from the start when you're creating a documentary.

Documentary Foundation Certificate 1. Know Your Conflict

Whether it's between a director and his cast as they struggle to make a feature in three days (Popatopolis) or the conflict of an architect trying to fight bureaucracy to create sustainable housing (Garbage Warrior), you need conflict in order to make it interesting. A film about a group of people who get on well, have no problems and never argue will not sustain an audiences attention. 

Conflict, in any story, is vitally important so make sure you know what the main conflict in your documentary is.

2. Maintain Tension

Following on from the importance of conflict is the importance of tension. The people within your documentary have got to have something to lose. If they're trying to achieve something, we need to know what happens if they fail. And we need to see how close they come to failure. Those edge-of-your-seat, will-they/won't-they moments are what makes a documentary so compelling. Man on Wire would be far less compelling if it had documented the tale of a man who walked a wire three feet above the ground. 

Keeping the tension will keep your audience engaged, so know what's at stake.

3. Inspire Empathy

No matter what the story, it's characters that drive it. Whether we love them or love to hate them we've got to connect with them in some way. They need to be three dimensional, interesting and people that we can connect with. If you get the right interview with the right person it can turn your story from something mildly interesting into an emotional journey that people can't tear themselves away from.

Never forget that it's the people within your documentary that draw your audience in. 

4. Variation is the Spice of Life

If your story is sad, include happy moments. If it's funny take some time to be serious. Have some ideas from the start of how to use contrast in your documentary to highlight the important moments.

Work variation into your documentary idea, and know how you'll use the contrast from the beginning.

5. Plan, Plan and Plan Some More

Yes, your subject should be 'worthy'. Yes, your subject should be something that interests you. But don't forget that audiences watch films to be entertained as well as to be informed.

If you want audiences to be entertained by your documentary, you need to give them a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. You may not have the same amount of control as a fiction film director, but you need to have an idea of where your story is going before you start filming.

Know where your story is going, that way you can react to what you capture safe in the knowledge that you have a plan.

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About The Author

Frederica works at Raindance, marketing courses and working on anything to do with membership.

She loves Sci-fi TV shows (especially Blake's 7 and 70's Dr Who) has an eclectic taste in films (recent favourites include The Usual Suspects, Dhoom 2 and Kick-Ass)


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5 Tools for Dramatic Documentary