Humans apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.
Greek Guy with a Question: So what the heck is that big, hot, flaming ball in the sky? Where does it come from in the morning and where does it go at night?
Greek Guy with an Answer: Well, as I hear tell, there is this dude named Helios. He’s a god. Or maybe just a Titan. Whatever. Anyway, his job is to drive that thing — he calls it the sun — through the sky everyday so we can see what the heck we’re doing down here.
Greek Guy with a Question: Cool.
We don’t like ambiguity. A happens then B happens. We begin making assumptions and apply a narrative structure (although it appears we “discover” it). Something must have caused A then B — a conflict, maybe. Who is the good guy and the bad guy in the conflict that led from A to B (because there apparently must be blame and reward)? What’s going to happen now (plot)? How will it resolve (climax)? What will it mean in the end (denouement) ?
Discovering a/the story is about knowing the classic story archetypes — the types of stories that we have always been telling ourselves to understand the world. These are the classic ways of thinking that we apply to the ambiguous and mysterious events of the world to help us make sense of them and of ourselves.
Without a working knowledge (you already “know” them) of the kinds of stories we have always told each other, making a decision about what a good documentary story will be is a stab in the dark. You might get lucky. You might also make an assumption about how interesting a situation is only to discover that, well, you didn’t quite connect with your audience.
The video below is about how we “discovered” the story of Witness at Tornillo. Or, better, this is how we looked at the patterns of behavior of our central character and recognized them as workable within a particular narrative archetype.
Discovering the Story from Carbon Trace Productions on Vimeo.
It’s worth exploring the topic of narrative structure. What I present here is a simple guide to get you started. The point is to prime you to recognize what it is humans do when they tell stories, to recognize that behavior in yourself, and to apply this knowledge specifically to creating a good documentary story.
In the example above, Carbon Trace Senior Producer Shane Franklin and I went to see the 2018 family separation protests for ourselves. We took our cameras because that’s what we do. We pointed our cameras and microphones at people who were doing things: protesting, speaking, marching, chanting, sign-waving, etc. These are not stories in themselves — not even for journalists who must structure their stories in a way typical for that profession. They “discover” (create) plots, characters, and climaxes, too, according to the journalistic narrative structures they apply.
Since the news had the typical news-like stories covered, we needed something more. And that something more was recognizing some elements of the classic hero journey in the things Josh Rubin did and said while we spent time with him.
Here’s a list of story archetypes that serves me well:
Challenged person makes good: A person struggles against their existential challenges to win the thing they want and gain the thing they need (money, love, etc.). Optional: They lose the thing they want/need before gaining them back through personal growth.
The human comedy: A likable, affable person overcomes hardships while learning lessons important to us all.
Tragedy: The (anti)hero is brought low because of a character flaw.
The rom-com: Person gets love interest of choice. Person loses love interest of choice. Person gets love interest of choice back.
The hero journey: This one encompasses many sub-narrative types (see the 7 Basic Plots below) that may be included in full or in part. The hero goes on a quest to do/discover some important thing. During their journey they encounter help from various people. They must slay some great beast or right some great wrong. They are challenged in the doing of this thing which leads to learning a great lesson or achieving a great boon. They return home with the gift of the thing they learned or achieved. The world is changed — sometimes for the better.
From MasterClass, here’s another popular articulation of story archetypes called the 7 Basic Plots.
Documentary films can begin with issues. Witness at Tornillo is an example. And there have been many good documentaries made that are strictly issue-oriented. But I think the most powerful documentaries tell classic stories — the kinds of stories we’ve always heard, the kinds of stories we’ve always told. So we at Carbon Trace are always looking for the elements of reality that we can structure classically into a good story.
Note from Carbon Trace
Carbon Trace can provide significant guidance in developing, funding, producing, and distributing a documentary film. For high school students wishing to learn more about documentary filmmaking, Missouri State University offers degrees in digital filmmaking, media production, journalism, and other associated areas.
To take part in the documentary education provided through the Carbon Trace Team we encourage you to apply for a filmmaking internship, submit a documentary idea, or apply to become a volunteer using the forms below.
Join Carbon Trace as a student volunteer