My film is a fishing expedition (say a natural history film, or an ons-doc). So, how can I plan my story?

I’m glad you asked!

Sorry. but you’re wrong. You may not be able to plan the detail, but you still need a clear idea of why and when you are filming. You may be ‘fishing’ – but you are fishing in a pool that you specifically chose in hopes of catching certain types of fish. The fact that you made the pre-shoot choices that you made should help you towards a sense of mission. And I’m sorry to be blunt, but if it doesn’t help you towards a mission, then you’re doing something wrong.

And before you say that you already have a mission, I urge you to read both the Mission page, and also the These Things Are Not Stories page. You may find you still have some work to do.

Any finished film is a product of what you were able to shoot, and what you can make of it in the edit. By the time you get into the edit., your rushes are your story. What you originally planned has very little to do with it. So how can all this stuff about planning your story possibly apply? There’s an easy answer to that:

If you don’t know why you are filming something – then what’s the point of filming it?

Every genre has its own needs, challenges and complexities. Natural history, drama, science, arts, obs-docs, history, travelogue, who care? That simple statement is universal. To claim your genre is different is simply to say that all genres need different approaches. True. But all films have things in common too – and the one thing that all films share is the need for a story.

Think of it this way:

All films are made in the edit.

This has nothing to do with genre. Schedules, techniques and planning may vary. But it’s still true that all films are made in the edit. Before you edit, all you have are good intentions and rushes. Whatever you intended, it’s a sure bet that your rushes aren’t quite what you planned.

In this sense, there’s nothing special about natural history or obs-doc; they’re just more skewed towards the edit than other genres. But even working in an ‘exceptional’ genre doesn’t exempt you from planning your story. It just means you need to be prepared to change your plan when/if you don’t get what you expect. Even if your shoot simply involves getting your crew into an interesting place or situation, and then filming whatever happens…

You still need to know why that place or situation is interesting to your audience.

If you know why it’s interesting, then you have the beginnings of a story – and you can work through the steps I’ve outlined in these pages. Really, you can.

I suggest you start by working out an answer to this question:

If you don’t know why the situation or place you are filming is interesting – then what are you going to shoot? And why?

If you don’t have an answer, you need one. And whether you have an answer or not, the fact that this question even exists means you need to start thinking about Story as early as possible.

Every film has a point. If it doesn’t, no one will bother watching it.

Once you have the film’s core angle and its heart, you can create a story around it.

I mean you can create a STORY.

If you choose not to create a story, that’s up to you. But be honest with yourself. It’s not because your genre is exceptional, it’s because you deliberately chose not to look for a story.

I guarantee that there is a story there. It’s just waiting for you to find it.

When you get right down to it, the only films worth making are films that make the audience care. This is the origin. This is why there’s always a story.

So, yes: your genre is different. So is every other genre. Which means your genre isn’t really different after all.