The documentary storytelling techniques that filmmakers can learn from writers

You don’t need to be a storytelling genius in order to avoid the most common documentary storytelling pitfalls. You just need to learn when to rely on intuition, and when to bring in reinforcements. In other words, a bit of formal documentary storytelling theory.

What’s the best way to go about structuring your story? And how do you figure out how to fix your story if your film falls a bit flat?

Personally I’ve wrestled with these doubts over the course of story producing and editing many films, and I imagine you wrestle with them too. And I find that I often return to the same question:

When should you rely on intuition to craft your story, and when should you bring documentary storytelling theory into your editing process?


Intuition vs. documentary storytelling theory

The truth is, until just a few years ago I relied almost entirely on my intuition to figure out story. And why not? My intuition seemed to be an excellent compass most of the time, serving to get whatever film I was working on where it needed to get to.


The truth is, I definitely struggled more than I needed to, especially when editing observational films where I was both the editor and the story producer.

I went through more versions of edits than was probably necessary, and took longer to finish films, compared to if I’d had a bit more formal understanding of what makes a story work.


Three key documentary storytelling concepts

I don’t have a formal education in storytelling. What I do have is lots of experience as a professional editor, wrestling heaps of observational footage into compelling stories.

So in this article I want to briefly tell you about three basic documentary storytelling concepts that have really sharpened my own storytelling abilities:

#1: casting

#2: tension

#3: plot points


#1: Casting

Have you ever thought of yourself as a casting director? If you’re a documentary filmmaker, maybe not. You might be thinking, “that’s a feature film thing. Nothing to do with real life. It almost seems… disrespectful to the people in my film.”

But you are. Even in a documentary, each actor has a role in the story. And it’s your job as the filmmaker to be really clear about these roles.

The most important role that you need to cast is your main protagonist. Otherwise known as your main character.

Without going too far down the casting rabbit hole, now let’s look at how difficulty finding your story often relates to casting problems with your main protagonist.


#2: Tension

A common pitfall I see is that filmmakers often fall in love with a character precisely because they’re amazing, charismatic, and seem to have everything figured out.

Trouble is, if you cast them in the role of primary protagonist, and in fact they do have everything figured out – that means that there’s no antagonist in their life. And without an antagonist, your story has no tension. And there’s got to be tension if there’s going to be a story arc.

Or maybe there is an antagonist in the protagonist’s life. For example they’re stuck in a terrible circumstance because of a broken system and they’re determined to change or overcome it. But things are in a stalemate.

In other words, if there’s not much hope things will change, the story is in a state of equilibrium.


#3: Plot points

What does it mean for your story if there’s not much hope for change?

Well, it’s likely that you don’t have any plot points.

There’s tension, yes. The protagonist is pitted against a system. But without plot points, the tension is flat. Like this:

In documentary storytelling, you want to avoid having a flat tension line.

Flat tension line? You have no story arc.

But bring in a plot point along that tension line, and suddenly you have this:


Dynamic tension lines make for good documentary storytelling.


With a plot point, you now have a dynamic tension line. And the makings of a story arc.


Applying documentary storytelling theory

“That’s a great theory,” you say. “But how do I actually apply it?”

Let’s take as an example a 25 minute observational film I edited and story produced, called “Dreamers Mums”.

The director was drawn to a really strong character, Yolanda, and decided to make a film about her.

But we struggled to find the story in the edit because it seemed like Yolanda’s situation was hopeless. She was in a stalemate. Her tension line was flat.


When your story isn’t working, first revisit your casting decisions

Nevertheless, in our first cut, we cast Yolanda as the main protagonist. We figured the story would be about Yolanda taking another woman, Emma – a secondary protagonist – under her wing and shepherding her through a legal process in order to reunite with her family. This was the very process that wasn’t available to Yolanda.

What was our mistake? Casting Yolanda as our primary protagonist, when in fact we were positioning her as a guide.

Two classic examples of guides are Zuri of “The Black Panther”, who guides and protects the protagonist T’Challa; and Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Star Wars”, training the protagonist Luke in the ways of a Jedi master. Key actors, yes, but not the central ones. They don’t have significant plot points of their own.

And this is how intuition alone, without a formal understanding of basic documentary storytelling theory, took us in the wrong direction.

It resulted in our cut having no main story arc. (Remember those flat and dynamic tension lines pictured above?) The secondary protagonist’s story arc was not enough to carry the film.


Is your story lacking tension? Revisit plot points that you’d previously dismissed

So our next instinct was to recut, recasting Emma as the main protagonist and Yolanda as the guide. But that didn’t work either.

Yolanda’s story had a more sophisticated emotional arc, and so the film lost its heart when we relegated her to a guide role.

So what did we do?

Well, we had to go digging again for plot points for Yolanda – ones that we might have previously dismissed. And, if (fingers crossed) we found enough, we hoped they could form a story arc.

And, lo and behold, there it was. Something that we’d previously dismissed as too complicated, too hard to explain, too in the legal weeds, became the key that unlocked our story.

Maybe if we’d been more aware of formal documentary storytelling theory to begin with, we would have gotten to this step a lot faster.

2:22 is the moment in the film when we introduce, in documentary storytelling-speak, the protagonist’s greatest desire. And, also key – her hope for change. Her hope for change is the frame in which the plot points are able to ultimately unfold. Without one of these elements, the film wouldn’t have a strong story.


The key to cracking your documentary storytelling puzzle is often right under your nose.

It turns out Yolanda did have a tiny sliver of hope of reuniting with her own family. We just weren’t sure if the director had captured enough scenes and interview soundbites related to those plot points to flesh it out into a story arc. And if we did have them, we wondered – would they be compelling?

But it was in those plot points – ones that we’d initially dismissed as being too “in the weeds” – where our dynamic tension lie.

Once we unearthed those plot points and committed to them, our dilemma turned from, “why isn’t this story working?” to “we have a good story, now we just have to get crafty with the editing to make it work.”

So in your own editing, remember that your intuition is a critical resource. But ask yourself – is your intuition refusing to share space? Could it stand to humble itself to a few lessons from documentary storytelling theory?

Because if you embrace it, chances are you’ll get much faster to a story – and a film – that works.

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About the author 

Leslie Atkins

Leslie Atkins is a documentary editor and scrappy story sage who wants to save filmmakers from unnecessary agony when they edit on their own. She is lost in translation somewhere near the intersection of visual storytelling, online entrepreneurship, and motherhood. Or geographically speaking, in her adopted home of Mexico City.

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