Documentaries – or Real Stories as we like to call them at GoodChat – are sometimes seen as the dull cousins of fiction. Not for us.
We think that real stories have the power to be as dramatic and moving and entertaining as the best scripted narratives. And they’re among some of our most shared and viral videos. To make audiences laugh and cry like a great work of fiction, documentaries need to use all the same tools. Specifically, they need these four ingredients.
Documentaries don’t need ‘interview subjects’. They need characters. Characters that the audience can relate to and empathise with. Characters with hopes and fears, passions and quirks.
Sure, in a two-minute real story you may not have time for much in-depth character development. But at the very least your audience needs to identify a fellow human on screen.
Put simply, you need someone who will speak from the heart, with gravity and humour, about their own experience.
Just like in fiction, documentaries can draw on timeless principles of narrative structure.
A classic story arc might look like this. A character tries to achieve something, comes up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles but ultimately succeeds (think Frodo and his ring or E.T. and his home). Even better if the character undergoes some significant change over the course of their journey.
In fiction you can write story arcs. In documentary you have to find them in the real world. And when you start looking, they’re all around you. Especially when, like many of our clients, you’re doing amazing work to change people’s lives.
When you find that real-life story, try looking at it through the lens of a Hollywood screenwriter. Look for turning points and climaxes. From the start of the ‘journey’, the obstacles along the way to the transformation by the end.
At their dullest, documentaries are a series of talking heads with some extra footage slapped on top to hide where the interviews have been edited.
Documentaries at their most engaging have scenes just like their fictional counterparts. Scenes are like mini stories themselves and they move the larger story forward. They should contain new information and surprising revelations about the characters and their journey. And they should be visual – the audience wants to see the story unfold in each scene.
But just like too many scenes and too much plot can make a feature film difficult to follow, you want to avoid cramming too much into a short documentary. More information, more ideas, and more characters doesn’t not necessarily mean more impact. In fact, it usually means the opposite.
Theme is why a story matters. The message or central ideas. Often this is the starting point for clients that approach us to make real stories. Their work matters and they want to share it with the world.
This a great place to start but to make a story resonate with as wide an audience as possible, you need to work out why it matters to everyone, beyond the specifics of the particular story/project/program/organisation/charity.
What is the universal thought at the heart of the story that matters to us all? If you can crack that, then the character and their story will travel far and wide.