Most documentary projects don’t come with a built-in story.

Remember the broad definition of a story I gave you earlier:

  • a mission which the audience can associate with
  • with a defined, measurable outcome
  • which we arrive at via a series of set-backs or unexpected changes of direction

I went on to say that a story requires all three. What I didn’t say is that most of us, most of the time, are lucky if we start with even one of them.

It’s more usual to start with not much more than a subject area: perhaps the science of road construction, or the wildlife of Bolivia, or the history of philosophy…

You got the commission because the subject area is interesting, or emotionally compelling, or important, or new, or spectacular – or all of those things. There’s lots to say, and lots to see. Now it’s up to you to turn it into a film that feels coherent and compelling.

Four key decisions will help you turn a grab-bag of strong content into a meaningful story (click on each heading for more):

If you haven’t heard this from an exec at some point in your TV career, then you are either incredibly lucky, incredibly skillful, or you’re new and you’ll hear it soon enough. I leave it to you to decide which of these is you. But bear in mind that even the most skillful producers had to learn; so somewhere along the line, someone really should have said this to you. If they didn’t…? Well, lucky you.

It’s a vitally important question.

Why do we care?

What is it about your fabulous content that makes it… well, fabulous? Here are some possibilities:

  • Is it important for people to know about it?
  • Will people find it fascinating?
  • Is it the first time anyone has filmed it?
  • Is it only possible because of new technology?
  • Have you negotiated unique access?
  • Do people have a proven appetite for this kind of content?

If you answered yes to one of these (or even to all of them), then I’m afraid you still have some work to do.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all good things for a film to have. They are all good reasons for you to care about the project…

…but are they reasons for your audience to care?

They’re not.

Filming something just because you can is not a compelling reason for the audience to watch.

The only exception is if your planned content is utterly unique and already a subject of public interest – if you have sole access to the American President, say.

The important thing to decide as a film-maker is:

What’s at stake?

What I mean is:

What’s at stake within the film?

And by that, I mean:

What’s at stake within the film that the audience will care about?

As a general rule, audiences watch a documentary in order to be inspired, informed, surprised, shocked, to see into a hidden world, or to be taken on an emotional journey. (There’s more, but that will do.)

Your answer to the question “Why do we care” should speak to these most basic needs.

‘What’s the angle’ is a multi-part question.

  • What kind of ideas will your film explore? This is partly a question of genre: is it an arts film, or drama-doc, or science, natural history…?
  • Whose eyes are you looking through? Is the film about children, or philosophers, or animals, or drainage engineers, or feuding families…?
  • What makes your story new? Is it newly discovered information, never-before-seen footage, unique access, a surprising twist…?

There is always at least one filter through which we watch a film.

That sounds obvious, but it’s helpful at a deep level. It constrains your choice of theme, and it constrains your narrative purpose.

(Though please note that your chosen angle isn’t the same thing as narrative purpose. Making a film because “it’s new” is a recipe for dwindling viewing figures. OK, so it’s new… You still need to frame your material as a story. That’s how you motivate your audience to stay with you.)

Is your film driven by ideas or emotion?

For all the best documentaries, the correct answer is: ‘Both’. What’s important is the balance between the two.

If a film is struggling at rough cut stage, it’s often because the answer to this question is not entirely clear.

Your rough cut gets rejected because (say) it doesn’t seem concrete enough. OK, so you go back and make your heart-driven film more journalistic. You submit another rough cut… It gets rejected because now your film is not emotionally engaging… Round and round you go, locked in an eternal cycle of rejected rough cuts. Groundhog day.

The truth is, this question should have been nailed a long time ago. There are many reasons why that sometimes doesn’t happen.

But there are ways of thinking about it that might just help – and the earlier you start the process, the better.

  • Are you aiming (primarily) to move your audience emotionally, and use factual information to enhance that mood?
  • Or are you aiming (primarily) to inform your audience, and use emotion to enhance their understanding?
  • Is the outcome mainly personal – or is it mainly intellectual?

Think of it this way:

Two people discuss your film in a bar.

Will they say, “I loved it when…” or, “Isn’t it incredible that…”?

It’s a handy question to ask. It helps address any problems your film may have, or may encounter in the future. It’s a question you should aim to answer before you plan a single day’s shooting.

It’s not an either-or question. Films about knowledge are at their best when they engage the audience’s emotions. Films about emotions work best when we understand the facts that lead to the circumstance. Either way, you need to be sure where your film sits on that spectrum – and you need to be sure that your execs agree. Otherwise, they’ll reject your rough cut simply because it’s not what they expected.

You’re aiming at a moving target. Small changes can have big consequences. This is nowhere more true than in the head-heart decision. If your film is an information-driven detective story, or a personal emotional journey, then life is relatively easy. But the closer you are to the middle of that spectrum – the more finely balanced heart and head are in your film… the harder it is to get that balance right. Any attempt to fine-tune the story can throw things wildly off-track.

If that sounds familiar – then you need to sit down and discuss the film’s core identity. Perhaps you haven’t yet nailed what kind of story you are trying to tell – and therefore what kind of mission you need. Without knowing that, you can’t set up the film. You can’t even write a convincing tease or intro. And your conclusion will be fuzzy at best.

Knowing your audience helps you work out what kind of content you should emphasise. It also helps set your style and tone.

If you want your film to appeal to everyone from kids to grandmothers, if it’s on a populist channel on a Saturday night, then it’s best not to get too educational. Likewise, there’s not much mileage in being touchy-feely if your audience is niche and already well-informed.

Forget your deep artistic ambitions:

What kind of experience does your audience want?

This question is separate from the head-vs-heart debate. Emotional pieces can be very high-brow. Fact-driven films can have huge mass appeal.

Either way, knowing the ‘end users’ of your film is vital. It governs every element of your story.

There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ story. Just ask yourself:

Am I telling the right story for this audience, on this channel, in this slot?

Learn what your audience expect. Give them what they want – but then play with it.

Story-telling is always a balance between predictability and surprise.