A basic definition of Documentary Story goes something like this:

  • a mission which the audience can associate with (the beginning)
  • with a defined, measurable outcome (the end)
  • which we arrive at by negotiating a series of set-backs or unexpected changes of direction (the middle)

A Story needs all three.

Otherwise, you just have a collection of interesting stories. And that’s not the same thing at all.

But note those bits in bold:

  • The audience must associate with the mission – it must become their mission as well as the film’s
  • The outcome must be defined and measurable – because a mission with no clear goal isn’t actually a mission
  • There must be set-backs and surprises along the way – because otherwise the process of reaching the film’s goal is predictable and boring

Let’s be honest here. Documentary storytelling is mostly smoke and mirrors. The initial ‘quest’ is usually artificial; the set-backs, twists and turns are accomplished by subtly managing what the audience expects; and the outcome has often been determined before a frame is shot.

But while your story might be an illusion, it’s an important illusion. It helps drive the audience through the film. It gives them a reason to stay with you, rather than switch over at the end of each sequence (or at each part-break). Story is the carrot that continually dangles just out of reach, the promise that the audience will be satisfied – but only at the end of the film.

Your film can be jam-packed with interesting content, but unless the viewers feel they are going somewhere, what’s to keep them hooked? To use another phrase you’ll hear from execs:

Why do we care?

(There’s more on this here  – you’ll need to scroll down a little.)