This post was written by Jeremy Berger.

Documentary filmmaking can become overwhelming, especially when you don’t know how, if, or when the story you’re trying to capture will end. Understanding story structure, and how your film adheres to it, can help. 

Let's say your subject is honest, a beloved family man, and attempting to build a community garden against the wishes of a well-funded developer. He is also a coke fiend, gambler, and QAnon conspirator. 

Ah… good luck?

People are multidimensional and contradictory and sometimes have explanations for their actions. Sometimes not. 

Capturing "reality" becomes challenging when we try to take account of the entire picture of someone’s life. Are we capturing the subject’s flower garden? How does Q play into that? Does he take his family to the casino? How’s a gardener affording all that cocaine?

The story is not reality. The story is "an account of events, either fictional or non." The story is a way in which we explore and account for reality, but it cannot (nor arguably should not) capture every single minutia of a subject’s existence.

So let’s talk about the story.

Hoopties_final.01_27_20_03.still009'Hoopties'Credit: Gravitas Ventures

Story Experience vs. Creation. 

We experience stories linearly. There is a beginning, middle, and end. Its creation however is best thought of as cyclical. Someone wants and/or needs something, so they venture into the unknown to retrieve it and return either successful or not. 

If this sounds familiar, you have probably already heard about the Hero’s Journey or Monomyth. While I certainly enjoy jumping into the works of Joseph Campbell, I think Dan Harmon might weigh in better. 

Pretty straightforward, but of course Rick and Morty is an animated work of fiction. How does this apply to documentaries?

Let’s look at four stages of the cycle, and see how they apply to nonfiction. 

Act I: Life out of balance.

The first act of any three-act story structure is where we establish our characters, their wants/needs, and what prompts/forces them into the unknown to retrieve it. Let's look at The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters for example.

Seth Gordon’s incredible 2007 documentary The King of Kong is a great study of the craft of storytelling. In the first act, we are introduced to, ironically, our antagonist Billy Mitchell. He’s held the record for the highest score of Donkey Kong for twenty years and has used that success to build himself a small business empire. Friends and family line up to extoll his virtues as a winner, a victor, and even hint at the cunning nature of his success.

We then meet Steve Wiebe, a kind-hearted, highly intelligent, and deeply loved by his friends and family. But despite being so multi-talented, he’s had a string of tough breaks, and everyone wants to see him succeed. 

What we have set up here is the ‘normal’ life of these two characters. In a fashion reminiscent of Star Wars, we meet an overpowering antagonist against a humble protagonist. Our protagonist’s life is out of balance and needs course correction.

This is where we encounter a "call to action." The call to action is an event that opens the way for our protagonist to grow, by entering an unknown world, having an adventure, and undergoing change to succeed. 

Act II (a): Challenges and temptations.

II… a? Don’t worry, I will get to that in a moment. Act II (a) has a name that Blake Snyder might have better capitalized on, calling it the "Promise of the Premise." This is the fun bit, kind of what drew the audience to see it in the first place. 

In our film, Hoopties, we were telling the stories of people racing the 24 Hours of Lemons, an endurance car race where all the vehicles cost less than $500. We had set up Act I as an introduction to the characters, a call to action (how they found out about the race), then began Act II at the race itself. So for Act II (a), we delved into the race and its characteristics.

How it is started, pitfalls encountered, zany punishments for misbehavior… again, fun. 

Hoopties_final.01_37_56_22.still011'Hoopties'Credit: Gravitas Ventures

The Abyss

The Abyss is the event that breaks Act II into two parts. It is the moment of significant change, where the journey of our heroes takes a different course. The best example of this would be, traditionally, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Judy Garland) goes through challenges and temptations after crossing the threshold into Oz (Frank Morgan), gathers allies, battles enemies, and finally finds what she sought: an audience with the great and powerful Oz. 

Then Oz sends Dorothy to burgle an old woman in her home which ultimately leads to said woman’s death. 

The Abyss is where your protagonist gets what they sought, and is set on a different path. It is of such narrative importance that several films are actually named after characters introduced in them. Alien, The Wizard of Oz, and Jaws, just to name a few. 

One of my favorite films from Errol Morris is 1999’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.I first saw this film with my father, who shared with the protagonist the career of being an engineer. Up until The Abyss, my father was out of his chair, wondering how he had never heard of this man, that he should be given a humanitarian award. After, however, he had himself a seat. The story of this man’s life was not what we thought it was. Its path had taken a turn.

When Was The Golden Age of Hollywood?'The Wizard of Oz'Credit: MGM

Act II (b): Transformation and Atonement

Transformation and atonement is where the protagonist doubles down, and finds that what is necessary to succeed is to change. They marshall their resources, confront their inner demons, and prepare for the ordeal ahead. 

In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, Luke (Mark Hamill) and company escape with Leia (Carrie Fisher)and the stolen Death Star plans after paying the heavy price of losing their mentor, Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness). They rally with the remaining rebels to bring down the Death Star, the ordeal which is heading their way. 

It is the same for documentary. In Tim Wardle’s excellent Three Identical Strangers, we spend Act II (b) getting to the bottom of why three identical twin brothers were separated at birth and confronting the lifelong consequences of that action. 

Star_wars_sound_design'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope' (1977).Credit: 20th Century-Fox

Act III: The return. 

Having faced the ordeal, the protagonist returns to their normal life, now, with a new understanding, have either won or lost. In classic Monomyth fashion, the protagonist is now the "Master of Two Worlds."

This is a time for your protagonist to reflect on their journey, and for their allies and adversaries to do the same. What did they win? What did they lose? Was this worth it?

James Marsh’s third act for Man On Wire does exactly this. Telling the incredible story of Phillipe Petitie’s tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, he gives the third act over to his characters to reflect on this adventure of theirs, for better or worse. 

Story vs Chronology

In structuring all of this together, we must remember that documentary storytelling is about our characters but for our audience. Making decisions about when and how we reveal information about them as it relates to their endeavors is how we make these beats happen. 

Let’s say you have a young woman playing to be a world champion poker player, going against players of higher esteem and experience. Let’s also say that she has been battling intense alcoholism. While editing, you can tell the story of her meteoric rise through the ranks culminating in her penultimate victory before the big game (the abyss).

How does she celebrate? With a Diet Coke perhaps?

That’s a neat connection point into the recounting of her battle with addiction. In reality, this battle may have been fought by the time you got there, with your protagonist already a year into her sobriety and regularly attending AA meetings. But for the audience, this is unknown territory. The change that we want out of the story, of her struggle and eventual victory over her demons, happens for us according to the path of the story, which fulfills those benchmarks and expectations, even though it was fought years ago. 

This is conjectural, of course, a fictional example of an ideal situation. But if we keep in mind our characters and the honest portrayal of their highs and lows, we can begin to determine how to start crafting our stories while we shoot, writing reality as we go. 

This post was written by Jeremy Berger.