How To Tell A Story In a Documentary Film?

book reading

A good story is a must in documentary films. You might have an exciting story, but that’s not enough. If you have a good story, your movie won’t be only entertaining but also unforgettable. Here is a guide on how to develop your documentary film’s story

Find an idea for your documentary film

Observe the world around you. Everywhere you will look, there is a story to tell, and every story represents a bigger story. Keep a journal and write every idea in your head. You never know when you will get back to those ideas, so write the idea in detail. Things that are obvious to you now might not be that obvious when you come back to them after a few months. You need to find your inner voice and nurture it. Another good piece of advice is to start reading newspapers and magazines. If you want to tell a story about real life, you must look for it in real life. It would be best also to have a lot of passion for your idea. 

doing a research

Do a documentary research

The documentary research job is to investigate the documentary’s subject and develop a point of view on the director’s vision and connect it with the subject of the story. Many beginner directors, excited to get started, often skip this stage because it’s a personal story. No matter what kind of documentary you do, you will need to research 90% of the cases. Research is a critical stage in documentary filmmaking, so we will talk about it now.

Who’s job is it to do documentary research?

The director himself usually do the research. Sometimes it can be a researcher or a few (in films with bigger budgets). The problem with using researchers is that they have too much power over your film. They decide what goes in and what doesn’t. If they decide a particular image is good enough to enter your film, the director can check it and see if they are right. Still, if they decide that a specific image is not relevant or useful enough for the film, the director has no way to check it out. So if you use researchers, you have to make sure that they know and understand your vision.

Many documentary filmmakers tend to share this job with the director, the writer, and the producers. The significant advantage here is that it makes the process more intimate and personal.

Documentary research method

The plan you will choose for your documentary research depends on your movie. There are three main ways to do research that sometimes you will find yourself doing a few of them or even all of them.

  • The written words – This method is easy to start your research. It can be the Internet or books and magazines. The problem is that sometimes there are too many books and articles to read. In such a case, you should learn how to read fast. If you have too many books and not enough time, read the beginning of each paragraph and the ending, go through the content, see the relevant subjects, and focus on them. Also, make sure the books and articles are up to date. Check the dates of the books. Your next step can be to find the writers of the books or articles that got your interest. These sources will lead you to other sources, which leads us to the following type of documentary research.
  • Interviews – It can be good to use advisors from a different viewpoint about the subject. The advisors can be academic people or just people with experience in the subject. You will record their interviews, but they won’t be part of the film. Plan ahead who are the advisors you will want to interview and what are you going to ask them. You can also explain to them the film’s outline and get their review on it. Some directors will bring them to a progressive video editing stage to hear their advice. Sometimes, you might want the advisor to be interviewed in the film. Don’t jump to the camera yet. Wait until you are in a progressive shooting stage, and then see if you need him.
  • Field Research – This method is my favourite documentary research tool. Go to the locations where it all happened or to the locations you want to shoot. Try to get the atmosphere of the place and write down everything that pops into your head. You can also go to events that have something to do with your subject.

6 Tips for the documentary research

  1. Good documentary research starts with knowing what your movie will be about. Try to summarize it in one or two sentences. Failing to do so might cause you to lose control over your research and spread away in many directions.
  2. Research with an open mind. Ask questions about your theme. Understand your story and tell it in a balanced way.
  3. Make sure you are telling something new about the subject. Something that the audience didn’t know. Think about what you want to learn on the subject and keep asking yourself what hasn’t been told about this subject yet?
  4. Good research builds on a series of questions with answers and then more questions with answers. Keep digging as much as you can.
  5. Start with basic questions. You must understand the subject you are talking about.
  6. Extended research is not necessarily a good one. When you are working on a piece of information, make sure the information you are gathering on it is relevant to the subject of the film and that the audience needs to know it.


The next thing you need to think about is your point of view in the story. Understanding the point of view in the story is an essential part because this is the message your movie will deliver. I recommend learning about the movie 3 act structure, but for now, I will tell you that you need to look at the conflicts of the story and the main character and think what’s your honest opinion about them. Here are a few points about film structure in scriptwriting.

Writing the documentary script

The documentary story structure has the same principles that every good story should have in any form of art: The three stages- beginning, middle, and end(not always told in chronological order), a character that grows and changes as it confronts obstacles, a point of view, a climax and a resolution. The difference between documentary and fiction is that a documentary film deals with facts, not fiction. I will talk about those things in the “Script Writing Classes” section later on,

but for now, you will need to know that:

  • The beginning is the part that introduces us to the characters, their world, and their central conflict. It is also the part that needs to hook the audience to the movie and let them know what kind of film it will be.
  • The middle part is where you will probably have a lot to write about. Many documentary directors have a problem with writing this part, but you must at least have a list of logical scenes that will prove your message of the film. The scene list will help you stay focused and not wander all over. When planning the middle part, I would divide it also into a beginning, middle, and end.
  • The climax– The last conflict our main character will deal with before the end part comes. It should be a sharp conflict.
  • The end is the conclusion of the film. The ending should still follow the mood and atmosphere of the film. It should be, as Aristotle said, ‘inevitable’ and ‘unexpected.’

The characters

You want your characters to have some journey with obstacles, but that’s not enough. It would help if you had another narrative in their life. It would be best if you had characters with an interesting backstory. Sometimes, you might shoot ten characters with the same story to find the one or two you will need.

 As long as your actor can take action, you can use every character you want. The character also needs to change throughout the film.

Writing a script for the documentary is very hard, but you must have a general idea about it to be more focused on the shooting. That will save you time and money in the shooting and editing stages and improve your film.


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