Mission, quest, journey, spine, arc, purpose, take-home, thesis, premise…

You’ll hear execs use all of these and more. What they mean is:

“What’s the Story?”

But actually, mission, quest, etc, are subtly different from Story – and the difference is important.

Remember the definition of Story:

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

Words like ‘mission’, ‘arc’, ‘purpose’ and ‘journey’ (in the context of a documentary) refer to the film’s initial set-up and its final outcome. A film’s mission is the basic question or problem that the film sets out to answer / solve. Think of it this way: quest… question… They have the same Latin root; and in story terms, they are the same basic thing.

This leads to two crucial, interconnected points:

  • Something has to change between the beginning and end of your film
  • The final outcome must have a larger significance than the film’s individual sequences

Stories are all about change and transformation.

Documentary stories are no exception. In heart-driven documentaries, the change involves personal growth. At the opposite end of the spectrum, fact-driven films are ultimately about the transformation of ideas; they aim to change what you think. Most documentary films contain elements of both.

This doesn’t mean that your film’s mission should be “seek change”. That’s too fuzzy. The outcome of “seeking change” is not definable or measurable. Hence, the film’s ending will feel murky and dissatisfying.

(Journeys of discovery often fail through fuzziness. If you’re heading up the Zambesi River – or to the supermarket, for that matter – purely “to see what you can find”, then your outcome is nothing more than a list. “I found X, then I found Y, then I found Z.” So what? Who cares? What’s changed? What does your list mean?)

Over-defining a film’s mission is equally dissatisfying. If you set off to the supermarket with the definite aim of buying some bread; then you get there, and you buy… wait for it… some bread… Then where’s the Story? It’s boring.

The essence of a documentary ‘quest’ is a Story with a clear, relatable goal, and a surprising outcome.

If you want to buy some bread, but in order to get it, you first have to understand where bread comes from – and that leads you to an understanding of the industrial processes behind the production of even the most basic foodstuffs… Then, when you finally get the bread, the audience will feel differently about it. Their understanding and their emotions have grown, changed.

The journey is transformational. It has taught them something about what your story means.

A documentary ‘mission’ must be both concrete enough to understand, and abstract enough to for your ending to have meaning.

A side-note:

Your film’s conclusion should echo its beginning.

A film’s ending should be a distorted reflection of the starting-place. Things have changed over the course of the story. We have new understandings and insights. We’ve been on a journey. Now we’re back where we started, but we see it differently.

But it’s important to make sure that this ‘new’ place is recognisable – if it isn’t, then the film’s journey will be incomprehensible, a random walk into uncharted territory.

Your conclusion must be intimately connected to your beginning.

The beginning and end are the same, but the transformation in the ending reflects the journey we have taken. We thought (or felt) one way, now we think (or feel) differently. These before-and-after snapshots only work when there are points of connection between the two.

If you’re stuck for an ending, look at your opening – and mirror it.

So, if an exec asks you about your film’s mission, quest, journey, spine, arc, purpose, take-home, or premise…

…now you know what it is they’re looking for