Documentary Story, Structure, and Style

The Fundamentals of Documentary Story, Structure, and Style

When I first started in video, I spent nearly all of my time learning the technical aspects of the craft. I obsessively studied cameras and editing software and tried to use them in a wide variety of ways. Though this approach helped me learn how to shoot and edit things fairly well, it was incredibly limiting because I wasn’t learning what or why to shoot and edit things.

My success in learning how to shoot and edit was my failure in learning how to tell a good story. At the time, I thought story to be this esoteric, almost magical thing that you were born to either understand or not understand… and I didn’t understand it.

Even in college, when I had the chance to produce and direct my very first documentary, I didn’t really understand how to tell a good story. Though I’m incredibly proud of the documentary, I wish that I had a better understanding of documentary story, structure, and style at the time so that it played as more than just a statement of historical facts.

It wasn’t until I graduated college, moved to Los Angeles, and started working in television that I started to study storytelling… and that’s when it dawned on me.

Storytelling is a technical skill, just like shooting or editing, and with a pretty basic understanding of the fundamentals we can upgrade our work in a pretty significant way.

The Fundamentals of Documentary Story, Structure, and Style

“You need a healthy dose of the extremes: the clouds—the high-end philosophy of what you believe—and the dirt—the low-down subject matter expertise that allows you to execute against it. Forget about everything else. Know the philosophy, know the details, and ignore everything in the middle.” –Gary Vaynerchuk

Before breaking documentary into its parts — story, structure, and style — it’s important to get some perspective on the craft.

The most powerful thing about documentary film and television is its ability to capture and convey reality and truth. This would be the clouds. To pursue the the truth should be the philosophy of any documentarian. We’ll get into this a little bit later.

The actual process by which the documentarian pursues the truth would be the dirt. There are a number of tools available to documentarians in this pursuit of the truth, but the two basic components of a documentary are:

  • Interviews. The most simple (or complex, depending on how you look at it) tool in a documentarian’s toolkit is the interview. I’ve run into three types of interviews as I’ve navigated my way through documentary television: formal (INTV) interviews (sit-down interviews in a controlled setting), on-the-fly (OTF) interviews (stand-up interviews in the field), and in-the-moment (ITM) interviews (short interviews in the field which usually take place “in-the-moment” while the subject is doing something). Regardless the type of interview, the goal is the same. Interviews in documentaries provide exposition or information about a process the viewer is watching, or they provide deeper insight into a subject by exploring their inner thoughts.
  • Vérité. Also known as reality, sounds ups, sound on tape, or b-roll, vérité can take on many forms but, essentially, anything that is not an interview is vérité. In a typical documentary scene, the viewer will see some b-roll shots, a sound up or two, and then an interview will come in to give context to what the viewer is seeing and move the story forward. In between interview bites will be more vérité, and the story will unfold in this sort of alternating current. The best documentaries will do this seamlessly, layering vérité and interviews in a way that seems organic, as if the story is trying to tell itself.

Many documentaries feature narration, but I’d consider it similar enough to interviews in its intent to provide exposition to the story that I don’t think it deserves its own category.

It’s important to consider the two basic components, interviews and vérité, of documentary production when thinking about the bigger picture: story, structure, and style.

Documentary Story

The biggest mistake I made in Activist State, my first documentary, was that I focused on the historical facts of the topic I was exploring rather than the emotional stories that motivated the event.

See, retelling historical facts does make for a story, it just doesn’t make for a good story.

To this day, I watch that documentary with simultaneous pride and regret. Pride because I was only 19 years old when I made it and it’s not bad for a no-budget documentary. Regret because the subjects, the actual interviewees, had great emotional stories that I failed to capture and convey.

I should have focused on individual stories, providing historical facts as they were necessary for context. I should have woven these stories together so that, after a viewer completes the documentary, they’ve gone through a journey in order to understand a larger event.

More importantly, I should have given each character or subject in the documentary a beginning, middle, and end. This structure is essential and is the key to compelling characters.

My favorite book on story, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, goes into great detail about the various stages in a mythological story and the types of obstacles each character faces along the way. While I don’t think reading The Writer’s Journey is necessary for beginners, I think it’s the best resource on storytelling for intermediate or advanced documentarians who want to improve. Other books that I really like on the topic are Story by Robert McKee and Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. Both of these books are focused on screenwriting for narrative film, but their thoughts on story, structure, and style are invaluable for anyone interesting in storytelling.

The starting point of all of these books? An analysis of beginning, middle, and end. A character starts out one way (beginning), they go through an event (middle), and they end up another way (end). And it’s not just the main character (also known as the protagonist or hero) that goes through this journey. In the best, most impactful stories, all characters go through a journey.

It doesn’t matter if a video is 5 seconds long or 55 minutes long, if each character has a beginning, middle, and end, the video will be more impactful. How? Because this structure helps tell a story that conveys truth: truth about the character and truth about the world they inhabit.

Too many filmmakers are focused solely on conveying truth and philosophy without any story, but that kind of thinking is totally backwards. Story is truth. Story is philosophy. Stories convey these things naturally, without even trying.

If a filmmaker wants to tackle lofty, existential ideas, they should be focused solely on story so that these ideas are teased out over time. They should be focused on the beginning, middle, and end.

Documentary Structure

So, we’ve established that characters should have beginning, middles, and ends, but how do we accomplish that? With a well-thought-out structure, that’s how.

In a typical film or television show, the beginning is roughly 25% of the story, the middle is roughly 50% of the story, and the end is roughly 25% of the story. Let’s break each one down:

  • The BeginningThe protagonist and his/her world is established. Some sort of set up occurs, often giving the protagonist a choice: is he/she in or out? In most stories, the protagonist decides that they are in, launching them head first into a transformative journey, a series of obstacles known as the middle of the story.
  • The Middle. The protagonist has decided that they are in and starts their journey. At first, everything is fine. It’s great. But then they hit some obstacles. These obstacles can be external, internal, or both, but are often prompted by the journey itself. The middle of the story is marked by a moment of doubt or reflection, has the protagonist made the right choice by going on this journey? As if things couldn’t get any worse, while the protagonist must now meditate on an existential question, more obstacles continue to appear in front of the protagonist and they become more difficult in nature.
  • The End. The protagonist faces one final obstacle and is forced to answer the question they asked in the moment of doubt or reflection. Do they win or lose? Succeed or fail? Conquer or collapse? In most stories the protagonist will overcome the final obstacle but, in my opinion, the answer to this question is almost irrelevant. More important is what happens next. What has the protagonist gleaned from his/her journey? How have they grown? How will their world be different in the future than it was in the past (the beginning)? These are important questions that most stories illustrate.

Now, depending on the length and complexity of the story, the number of characters and obstacles varies greatly.

Documentary Style

The structure — the beginning, middle, end — is a standard that has been passed down for thousands of years. It is tried and true and can be found in almost all good stories. It is the framework upon which everything else in a story is built.

That’s where style comes in. I mentioned the two basic components of documentary, interview and vérité. These are tools used to build a documentary’s structure, and the way in which they are used is the documentary’s style.

Some documentaries, called cinema vérité, tell stories with very few or no interviews. The documentarians may still shape footage into a story using a beginning, middle, and end structure, but they leave the story more open to interpretation by the audience because they aren’t using narration or interview to tell the audience what to think and feel.

Other documentaries tell stories with tons of interviews or narration. They shape footage into a story using a beginning, middle, and end structure, and tell the audience exactly where they are in the story at any given time using exposition. Sometimes they go as far as telling the audience how to think and feel with the narration or interview.

Most documentaries fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, using a combination of interviews and vérité in a structured way that tells a story.

Again, the way in which these tools are used is the documentary’s style. There is no right or wrong style, there is only personal preference.

What Is Your Storytelling Style?

Given what I’ve shared about story, structure, and style, which styles do you prefer? Can you find the structure in the documentaries you’ve produced or consumed? What truths are being captured and conveyed in these documentaries?

I find it incredibly helpful to watch films when I am studying filmmaking and try to apply the lessons that I am learning to the work I am watching.

That said, my goal is to get you out there making more movies. Spend as much (or as little) time as it takes to grasp a concept and then get out there and start producing.

Film and television production is a delicate balance of theory and practice, and too much time spent on one activity is time taken from the other.

I’ve shared the basics of documentary storytelling so you have a foundation upon which to build. In my next post I’ll start exploring the equipment filmmakers are using to tell these stories.

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2 replies
  1. Christine Koehler
    Christine Koehler says:

    I’ve never written a documentary, but I now see that it is very similar to writing a screenplay. The three books; Save The Car, Story, and The Writers Journey are all part of my library and I refer back to them while writing a story and mostly when I’m beginning a new one.

    One particular program that came to mind while reading your blog was Intervention. Each character has a begging, middle (their journey through their drug/alcohol use) and their ending. (Going, or not, into rehab) Very emotional.

    This is a great blog, Jonathan!!! It makes me rethink a future documentary….


    • Jonathan Craig
      Jonathan Craig says:

      Thanks, Christine! You nailed it, and in fact Intervention is one of my favorite shows because they are so good at storytelling! Let me know if you start working on a doc again, I’d love to follow your projects.


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