Every filmmaker needs to ask one simple question when making a film…what will make a person want to watch it? The answer is the story arc. The story arc will make or break your documentary. Never forget as you shoot and edit your movie that there is nothing that matters more then how you tell the story and how you will keep the viewer interested. Keeping a person curious while being entertained is your job as a filmmaker. It’s really all that matters when telling any story and especially when you are telling it through a documentary.
I want to start by talking about the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is a proven template for story telling that Joseph Campbell learned from researching and studying stories from the beginning of time. He suggests that every story needs their hero (protagonist) to go through a journey of events and circumstances that take him from his ordinary world into a series of learning experiences that brings him back to his ordinary world at the end of the story with knowledge that changes the way he understands the world.
I wrote a screenplay in 2014 that was based on a true story about when I hitchhiked across the country a few days after I graduated from high school, back when hitchhiking was pretty common. Anyway, I was picked up in a stolen car by a con artist who broke out of prison. We ended up staying together for a week hustling our way from town to town. After hearing about my story, a filmmaker who co-wrote the screenplay with me made the independent film, The Doo Dah Man, in 2015.
I decided to go back and reacquaint myself with the Hero’s Journey format while writing the screenplay to see where our story stood against Campbell’s template. I was surprised to see that the hero, who was me in real life, experienced all the stages of Campbell’s theory of storytelling in the Hero’s Journey. What was most interesting about it was that we were almost done with the script before I checked our story against the Hero’s Journey guide and to my surprise found that the pattern of our hero’s journey matched up exactly with Campbell’s story telling theory.
This would not surprise Mr. Campbell since that is exactly what his point is, all heroes have to go through certain character stages in a great story. Instead of going over his outline for the Hero’s Journey in this blog post, I would prefer we talk about the importance of a good story arc and how it relates to a Hero’s Journey. You can find out more about the Hero’s Journey format in a simple Google search.
The problem is that in a documentary we don’t write the script. Especially in a DIY Cinema Verite doc when you let the story unfold in real time. Don’t fret this though…life is filled with surprises and complications that can turn every hero’s journey into a decent story arc if you are patient. With that said you need to find ways to bring your hero through an adventure that will transform his world in a way that the viewer will either change themselves from the experience of watching the doc or at least relate to your hero’s changed world based on the story behind the documentary.
So how do you do this you ask? Look for potential conflicts, set backs and learning experiences that your hero may experience. Things may come up in your hero’s journey that as a filmmaker you may feel are unimportant and may choose to ignore and not film. But sometimes these situations that seem unrelated to your main story are exactly what the viewer needs to truly learn about the character. Always be open to the possibility that something like an unexpected phone call or doctors appontment that doesn’t seem important to the story may have a great impact on your character’s journey.
Remember that when you edit your film you must keep your hero’s journey changing and moving with unexpected outcomes and conflicts that hold a viewer’s interest. Surprise your viewer anyway you can with an unexpected twist in your story. The way this is done is in the editing. Whatever you do, do not edit your documentary in chronological order. You must tie the scenes together with conflicting or contradicting elements of your story that work together and are interesting to watch. Remember, the best way to connect a scene is with “But” not “and.” “Buts” connect stories in ways that keep a story fresh, interesting and unpredictable while “ands” drag out additional information that may be interesting on its own but does not reflect importance to the story that your viewer is following.
Your documentary story arc doesn’t have to have a perfect transformation in your hero’s journey like we see in narrative movies. But your doc needs to have an ending that brings closure to the struggle or conflict your hero battles with throughout the film. The viewer needs to feel something at the end of your documentary that either changes their world beliefs or be able to appreciate and understand your hero’s changed world.