Documentary Storytelling Essentials

These are the essential elements of documentary storytelling:


  1. Engage the audience with a present time story before revealing the back-story.
  1. The present time story engages the audience through the beginning, middle and end of the film.
  1. Define the Palette of Tones: How deep; how dark; how real; how close (POV).
  1. Define the dilemma for the audience (Dilemma is the choice between two things with positive values).
  1. Don’t punish the audience with your research: only include essential information.
  1. Narratives function through core triangles of characters: the audience in documentaries function as one of the characters in the core triangle.
  1. Relationships reveal vulnerability and raise the stakes for the audience; the relationship arcs are catalyzed in Act 2, and correspond to the Descent Stage of the Hero’s Journey.
  1. Documentary filmmakers are on a Journey to find the story beneath the story that wants to be told
  1. Judgment (of characters, events, and situations) freezes the creative flow of the story.
  1. Documentaries can present a wide range of emotional experiences for the audience.  For the main character in your film, ask what is the angriest, saddest, most proud, ashamed, I love you, joyful, luckiest moments in their life?
  1. First clarify the archetypal function and design of the narrative then identify the genre(s) and understand the rules of the genre(s).
  1. Structure is based on the order in which the audience learns and feels things
  1. The documentary story continues after the film ends with participation by the audience in the “things that matter.”
  1. Solution-based storytelling is more engaging for the audience than problem-based storytelling. If issues are presented without potential solutions or positive directions, the audience is often left with a feeling of impotent rage.
  1. Establish the Location and allow it to reflect the emotional states of the audience while watching the film.
  1. Talking Heads: Main characters telling stories about their life is more interesting than when they make abstract, theoretical or conceptual comments. Let your characters “act out” their stories while they tell them.