Story Structure in Documentary: An Expert Approach

I’ve asked filmmakers to tell me how they think about story and structure as they work. Here are a few highlights:


Photo by: everwhereisimagined

James Marsh (producer/director, Man on Wire):  I had a 60-page outline for [Man on Wire]… It has various timelines and you’re flashing back and overlapping them, which is quite difficult to pull off in a documentary film, so I thought it was good to organize it on paper… And, of course, in the course of making the film, you’re alive and have to be very alive to new discoveries, things that might change the architecture that you’ve already created.

Brett Culp (celebrity event filmmaker): I walk away from a wedding with 10 hours of footage, and I’m going to be distilling it into a 20-minute movie. What stays in and what doesn’t stay in?

When I get into the plotting stage, if I know my client and I really understand what this wedding means to them, and what it means to the really important people [there], then that becomes my touchstone.

Deborah Scranton (director, The War Tapes):  For me, making a film is kind of like a diamond shape. You start out, you think, “Okay, this is where we’re going,” and then you’ll reach a point in production… where you feel, “Uh oh, I have something here but it’s not what I thought I was going to have.” At that moment, you have to trust in the story itself, that it will become clear and come back down again to the other end. You can’t force it, and you shouldn’t try to superimpose something on it. You just have to listen. Just simply listen.

Susan Kim (co-producer, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust):  I will write something that to me makes great sense on paper, it’s beautifully structured on paper, and we start putting it together, and it’s so boring! It doesn’t work. So then you start ripping it apart and asking those questions about: “Do we subvert the structure? Do we play with the chronology? Do we shift the perspective so we’re not looking at it from this point of view, we’re looking from that point of view? Have we misidentified the central event? Is that not the real point of this? Is there something else going on subtextually that we have not been aware of, and that is slowly starting to emerge?”

Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side):  Early on in my career, I had a much more rigid idea about what to look at and cover, and what I was interested in. I would tend to make the material fit my idea of the story. The problem with that is that sometimes you end up using a lot of rather weak material, instead of looking at what you’ve shot and realizing, “Man, this is strong,” and finding a way to include that material. If there’s not a kind of balance between those two things, then either the film is all great material but no narrative thrust, or it’s all story and theme and no heat, no passion. The key is finding the right balance.

Excerpted from Documentary Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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