Basic Documentary Structure

Documentary structure is often determined by the film's subject. The flexible nature of the documentary structure still has room for some constant elements-elements that are required in any type of storytelling format.

How To Structure A Documentary

Whether it's an epic drama or an insightful documentary, all films should tell a story. While documentaries often follow a story determined by a subject, that story still needs to be told using elements that make sense to viewers. Here are some of the most important:

  • Beginning. Middle. End. Like all movies, documentaries need to fit into the basic structure of beginning/middle/end. The beginning should make a statement or establish the parameters of your story. The middle should provide detail, either to support the opening statement or to outline conflict and resolution. The end should tie the elements of the story together-to prove your statement or resolve the over-arching conflict established in the beginning.
  • Off the hook. Like a good novel, a good documentary will start with a scene or scenes that immediately capture the audience and make them want to continue watching. Whether it's a powerful visual or an intriguing dilemma, the opening should leave your viewers hungry for more.
  • Stay on track. As the middle of your documentary proceeds, it should be consistently organized around a simple structure. Some example structures include: anecdote/reflection, comparison/contrast and cause/effect.
  • Providing insight. In order to tell your story, you may have to provide significant background information. While it is possible to provide background with narration, interviews with experts of principles in your story will have more impact.
  • Rising tension. As the middle of your documentary evolves it should contain multiple instances of conflict and resolution. These occurrences should escalate to a climax near the end of your film.
  • The end? Your material should suggest an ending for your film. Although your documentary should come to a logical conclusion, it may not be the end of the story for your main characters. Find a way to signal that this particular passage may be over, but that real life rarely comes with a neat sense of closure.
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