YOU BETCHA. At least, this documentary filmmaker thinks so.
I’ve heard so many newcomers to documentary work say, “Well, I’m just going to let the camera tell my story.” Yeah. Right. Good luck with that.
Any story–a drama, a comedy, a novel, a documentary, even a fairy tale–has certain characteristics that separate it from being, say, a news report or a conversation. Let’s look at some elements that make a story a story, and have a direct impact on the telling of your documentary, especially its Dramatic Arc.
First off, you need characters, right? Usually we want compelling and interesting people. Or maybe not. I have always contended that even the most boring person can be a fascinating character if presented in a novel way.
Sometimes people think a character has to be a person. Not so. A friend of mine, documentary filmmaker Jack McDonald, directed a great documentary about West Point, entitled aptly, “West Point: The First 200 Years.” From the very beginning we know that the institution itself is the character. We see its buildings from various angles, we feel its presence throughout. Many characters are presented to tell the story, but ultimately, the place itself is the protagonist.
Other considerations include: Where is your story taking place? What time in history? What is the overall time span of your story? Does it take place in an afternoon, or does it take place over centuries? What is the mood you are trying to create with your story–something serious, comedic? Is it an advocacy piece, or an epic tale of transcendence?
In documentary filmmaking you can’t always determine what the “plot” of your story is going to be, but you can shape it. I write a treatment based on what I think could happen, or what is likely to happen throughout the story, using the concept of the Dramatic Arc to plan my shoot. The Arc provides a roadmap for the story. Just as with any journey, you may get waylaid during your travels, pleasantly surprised by people you meet, and experience many unexpected adventures along the way. The point is, you STILL could use a map.
So, let’s say you’ve finished shooting your documentary. You’ve done an amazing job interviewing your characters, getting to know them intimately, following them with your camera into the most private moments of their lives, and capturing all the footage you need to tell the story. You’ve followed your shooting script as a guide throughout the process. So NOW, what do you do?
Here is where the Dramatic Arc comes into play again. (As noted above, the Dramatic Arc can be used when you are putting together your treatment, but for the sake of explanation, let’s look at it after the shooting is done.)
The Dramatic Arc provides a formula for moving your story’s action forward. I am going to use “Concerto for Two Brothers”–a documentary about two highly accomplished American symphony musicians that co-producer Jordan Marshall and I are creating–as an example of how the Dramatic Arc can be used to organize your story.
Here are the elements of the Dramatic Arc:
1) Exposition: This section tells us what kind of world we’re in. It’s the set up. We learn about who the characters are, where they are, and what’s happening.
In “Concerto for Two Brothers” we find ourselves in Winter Park, Florida, in the 1950’s and ’60’s. We are introduced to the Rex brothers–Charles and Christopher, their little sister Cathy, their mother Betty and their father, Charles Gordon Rex, Sr. Immediately, we are aware that this is an unusual family situation. The boys’ father, a brilliant and demanding patriarch, controls their every move. We learn that their father, a paraplegic, was stricken with polio at the age of three. We experience a variety of painful episodes with the boys’ as they are subjected to their father’s control.
2) Inciting Incident: At the end of the exposition, some “incident” happens to propel the story forward. In a sense, from this point on, there is no turning back.
In “Concerto” the inciting incident happens when 14-year-old Christopher, the younger brother of the two boys, talks his mother into leaving their father. Christopher experiences a traumatizing incident with his father that affects him for life. The family separates, with Christopher, his sister and mother moving to Gettysburg, PA, while Charles stays to care for his father.
3) Complication: This describes exactly what needs to happen in your story to keep it moving–it has to get “complicated.” The characters have to deal with obstacles and overcome them, or not…and the story intensifies.
In a documentary, the complications may not be as blatant as in a narrative film. “Concerto” deals with several such complications, some more intense than others. For instance, Charles has a traumatic incident of his own with his father as compelling as Christopher’s. When the brothers go to work for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra they are faced with what to do about their father’s care. More subtle complications arise: the brothers must confront their individual relationships with their father, the way they perceive him, their need to individuate from him and to come to terms with his influence on them, their relationship with each other, etc.
In narrative film, there is usually a major plot twist at this point, where the protagonist thinks all is lost, or everything is fine. This plot twist can arise in documentaries, too.
In “Concerto” the plot twist has to do with the personal “demons” that the two brothers must face and overcome in their individual lives before they can go on to the climax of the story.
4) Climax: We are now at the crest of the arc. The climax can be thought of as the moment of truth, of confrontation, of a last ditch effort by the main character(s) to save themselves. Whatever happens at this point, some sort of change has occurred that cannot be reversed.
In “Concerto for Two Brothers”, the climax comes when the brothers sit down and talk about the two traumatic incidences that they each experienced separately with their father. It is the first time that they have done this, and it is a moving, and life-changing moment for them.
5) Resolution: From the climax to the end, we move toward completion–the goal has been met (or not); the objective achieved (or not).
In “Concerto” the resolution for the Rex brothers lies in a greater understanding of their relationship with each other, and of themselves. Their relationship with their father remains open-ended and the audience is left to ponder the question: “Did the brothers become who they are because of their father, or in spite of him?”
Will “Concerto for Two Brothers” end up the way I’ve laid it out? Probably not. Those of you who have made documentaries know full well that the Dramatic Arc can provide the skeleton for your story, but how you build the musculature to create a dynamic, compelling piece of work, can be done in so many different ways. How it’s going to look when we’re done, is still an unknown. I do know, however, that it probably won’t fold in on itself for lack of structure.
So if you are a beginning documentary filmmaker, or an old hand at the craft, I urge you strongly to consider using the Dramatic Arc to get your story structure in place.
In the meantime, happy filmmaking!
(For more information about “Concerto for Two Brothers” or to make a contribution to the film, please go to: htttp://www.concertofortwobrothers.com )