A one-hour documentary story should be made up of a series of Big Ideas.

Whether your ‘hour’ is 60 minutes or closer to 40, your film should explore around 5-6 broad emotional or intellectual areas. This divides your film into conceptual chunks of about 7-10 minutes.

One of these ‘Big Idea’ chunks is your introduction. This is where you set up the whole trajectory of the film. You introduce the subject matter, turn it into a mission, and hint at what’s to come (including the conclusion).

So, now you have 4-5 Big Ideas left to play with. These will form the body of your film. Each of them should be a new way of looking at your subject. It should dig into a new question, add a new dimension to your argument or exploration. Each should build on the one before.

(The conclusion doesn’t count as a separate Big Idea. It’s a hugely important part of your film, but it’s not anything new. It’s a summary, a reflection of the intro, t’s not a Big Idea in itself. That’s why conclusions can be so short.)

Big Ideas can be deceptive. They’re not to do with the detail of your story; they’re to do with what your story means, what it is fundamentally about.

Obviously, this has a factual component. In a show about forensics, for example, each big idea might be a separate line of evidence. But the point is that each Big Idea contributes to the way your story develops. Each big idea should build on the idea before. (Links work the same way, but on a smaller scale.)

Perhaps your film follows a journey that lasts a number of days. You might think, therefore, that each new day it a newBig Idea… Wrong. It’s not important to your film that it’s a new day: what’s important is that the new day brings something new; a new way of looking at things, a new insight… If the new day doesn’t bring a new way of thinking about the film’s core subject, then your audience will get bored. They’ll wander off to raid the fridge, or ring a friend, or they’ll hit fast forward, or change channel.

At the risk of being repetitive:

What we’re talking about here are new ideas, not new information. It’s all about new meaning.

And that’s very, very important.

(By the way, ideally the last of your Big Ideas should be a twist – a radical shift of direction – that helps the audience look at your subject matter in a whole different light.)

Big Ideas are a great way to organise your thinking. They form a bridge between your billing (you did write one, didn’t you?), and a full-on treatment / outline / running order. They give you easy-to-think-about chunks of meaning that you can move around, like model planes on one of those war-room tables. They create a narrative structure that your sequences can plug into. They tell you which sequences will work, and which won’t – and why.

Think in terms of your film’s Big Ideas, and you have a great tool to help you plan your film – and to get you out of trouble in the edit.

Big Ideas are good news. There are just two important things to remember:

  • Your film needs 5-6 Big Ideas. Big Ideas are what makes your story move forwards, whilst keeping it fresh.
  • 5-6 is the right number. Less, and your story will drag and feel slow. More, and it will become an undifferentiated mush.