How To Tell A Story In a Documentary Film?

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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 is representing a bigger story. Keep a journal and write every idea you 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’ll come back to them after a few months. Another good 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.


Research & Develop the idea

When you are working on a new documentary idea, the critical thing to think about is how I can sell this movie and to whom? Let’s face it- you are going to need money to make that movie. A documentary might take years to shoot and even more years to edit- it’s going to cost you. So thinking about your potential finders can help you to understand how your film should look like. It would help if you had a general idea about it, don’t go into in-depth details. Unlike in fiction, documentary films are usually much more flexible with their structure. Still, you need to think about what your documentary financiers might want to achieve from the film? Who is your target audience? And etc.

Your next step is to research the subject of the film. You can’t develop your idea and go to the scriptwriting stage without researching the subject first. While you are doing the research, you can start working on a few very general storylines for your film. 

The next thing you need to think about is your point of view in the story. This is an essential part because this is the message your movie will deliver. I recommend reading the find your own voice article, but 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.

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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 growths 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 and 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 to let them know what kind of film it is going to be.
  • The middle part is the part 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 logic scenes that will prove your message of the film. This will help you to stay focused and not to wander all over the place. When planning the middle part, I would divide it also to a beginning, middle, and end.
  • The climax– The last conflict our main character is going to 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 be following the mood and atmosphere of the film. It should be, as Aristotle said, ‘inevitable’ and ‘unexpected.’

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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 that have an interesting backstory too. Sometimes you might find yourself shooting 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 so you will be more focused on the shooting. That will save you time and money in the shooting and editing stages and will improve your film.


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