Here’s a familiar scenario:
An exec sits in the back of your cutting room (or reads your shooting script)…
…and tells you that the mission isn’t clear, or asks what the quest is, or the spine, or the purpose, or the ‘take-home’, or the thesis, or the journey, or the proposition, or the arc…
The jargon varies. The issue remains the same. What they’re really asking is:
What’s The Story?
Story-telling is a key part of what we do as film makers, but not everyone finds it easy.
A major aspect of my work as a script editor is helping people find their story, structure their material, and make the film’s narrative really sing. I’m good at it, in part because I’ve been doing it so long, in part because I have a mixed background in science TV, drama (I used to be an actor), and long-form narrative fiction (novels). These pages are designed to help you become good at story-telling too.
First, a simple caveat:
There isn’t a single ‘system’ that can help you create a story – and you shouldn’t believe anyone who claims they have one.
My aim in these pages is to offer a few tips of the trade and rules of thumb that may help you understand what documentary story-telling is all about. Understanding the problem is usually a good first step towards a solution. These pages give you a few places to start.
The principles of documentary storytelling apply equally to films about personal journeys, about cosmology, ancient history, wildlife, you name it. (In fact, similar principles also apply to drama, novels, other forms of fiction, and other genres of TV – not to mention large corporations and governments.)
In an ideal world, you’d go through the processes I outline here before you shoot a frame. But it’s not uncommon for a script editor only to get their first look at a film during fine-cut; and often only then because there’s no time for another rough-cut, and the Powers That Be are demanding a stronger story.
Use the links on the right to navigate. Or if you prefer, browse exactly the same links below:
- Why do I need a story? (some people reckon they don’t: this explains why they’re wrong)
- These aren’t stories (things that people think prove they have a story… when they don’t)
- What is a story? (what exactly is a story anyway?)
- My genre’s different (some people think none of this applies to them, they’re wrong)
- Finding your story (some tips to help you start)
- Writing a billing (how writing a promo / blurb can help you)
- Missions and quests (what they are, and how to create them)
- What’s the big idea? (why every film needs 5-6 big concepts)
- Theme (underpins your story but isn’t a substitute for story)
- Links (why links add as much to your story as sequences do)
- Sequences (how sequence construction helps drive your story)
- Style and tone (notes on language, how to polish a script, how these relate to narrative structure)
- Reversioning 1 (the first of two pages discussing how to convert between American and British genres)
- Reversioning 2 (enough said)
- Hints and tips (a grab-bag of things to try if you’re stuck)