Try using just three short sentences to communicate each idea:

  • A statement
  • A modified echo of that statement
  • A twist

Suddenly, each separate 15 second chunk of your film has its own beginning, middle and end.

This is a really powerful rhetorical tool. You’ll find it in the Bible. You’ll find it in Churchill’s wartime speeches. And you’ll find it right here, in this sentence and the two that came before.

Power comes in threes.

Do not allow yourself more (or fewer) sentences. Unless you know exactly why. In which case, go for it. Rules are for breaking.

Now read those last four sentences again! Rules really are for breaking!

Also bear in mind that you can create nests of three and four.

Let’s look at Churchill’s most famous speech. It starts with 3 statements: “We shall go on to the end / We shall defend our island / Whatever the cost may be” – but with a nest sub-set of three statements nested within it. I have added indents to help clarify what’s going on:

  1. We shall go on to the end. (statement)
    1. We shall fight in France, (sub-statement)
    2. we shall fight on the seas and oceans, (modified sub-echo)
    3. we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, (sub-twist)
  2. we shall defend our Island, (modified echo)
  3. whatever the cost may be. (twist)

Clever stuff. And then he twists the whole idea of threes:

  1. We shall fight on the beaches, (statement)
  2. we shall fight on the landing grounds, (modified echo)
  3. we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, (a second modified echo; we’re getting that ‘delayed climax’ feeling… The NAZIs have crossed the sea, they’ve landed, they’re getting closer and closer… Churchill’s voice is rising, the tension is building…)
  4. we shall fight in the hills; (modified echo: aargh, stop teasing us!)
  5. we shall never surrender; (oh, yes, yesYES!!!)

See? You can even stretch to five – because we expected three. And Churchill is not done. Next, he has three lines, each nested into three:

1. and even if,

which I do not for a moment believe,

this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, (statement)

2. then our Empire beyond the seas,

armed and guarded by the British Fleet,

would carry on the struggle, (modified echo)

3. until, in God’s good time,

the New World, with all its power and might,

steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old. (twist)

Powerful stuff.

Now look at the whole thing again, with particular reference to the bits I highlighted in bold. In the largest perspective, Churchill’s entire speech is three ideas! In summary, it says:

  1. We shall go on the the end… (statement)
  2. We shall fight relentlessly… (modified echo – and the rising five sentences reinforce the ‘relentless’ idea)
  3. And if we fail to win, the New World will save us. (twist / conclusion)

A master orator at work.

There’s a lot more one could say about this speech. Its use of myth, its use of the notion of fate (borrowed from drama), the way each successive line brings the battle closer to home, until the NAZIs are implicitly on our doorsteps, then a final widening of perspective, implying that our individual personal struggle is in fact universal, and also acting as deus ex machina (again, borrowed from drama)… There’s even the deliberate use of the cadences of psalms; the entire speech reads like an Evensong.

But we’re talking documentaries here, and documentaries don’t need to dig quite that deep.

The take-home is simple:

Use the power of three

Use it in your narration. Use it for your key ideas.

And, young Padawan, you’ll be a narrative Jedi in no time.