No matter what part you have in a documentary, good storytelling is key. Whether you're pitching an idea to an investor, directing a camera crew, or editing the final piece, story connects everything together and makes the project worthwhile. As a result, knowing how to produce a story with a good theme, dramatic arc, proper motivation, and emotion is incredibly important. However, a story just doesn't feel right if not told in a proper way so learning how to give one a dramatic arc can make your story full of impact.
As with any new endeavor starting with the basics is the key to understanding every concept that lies ahead. As such, we will be looking at how theme , motivation, and the exposition, rising action, turning point, falling action, and denouement of a dramatic arc work together in order to produce riveting storylines.
Every good story starts with a solid theme and documentaries are no exception. Great documentaries will have a powerful underlying subject that reoccurs throughout the film. For instance, though Bowling for Columbine was a documentary exploring the reasons for the shootings at the school in Littleton Colorado, the underlying themes were human indifference, gun control, racism, and the problems of America. Of course themes don't always stem from the people in the documentary. Even though Earth is a factual story about different areas of our world, it still had themes of environmental activism and the human qualities in nature. Overall, theme is what a movie is all about, so they give a documentary cohesion and an type of emotion.
At the same time, it is also important to know where a documentary's action is derived from, or what drives the story along. Oftentimes, the story is either plot driven, such as in Jonestown where the action is derived from the impending death of the townspeople, or character driven such as the documentary Grizzly Man which is driven by the antics and tragedy of it's subject, Timothy Treadwell. At the same time, the motivation of a documentary can come from an essay – when a documentarian seeks answers to events in our society. In New World Order, Luke Meyer seeks to understand more about conspiracies in America. Choosing what subject drives your documentary can make it easier to know what to shoot and who to interview.
Though theme and motivation are an integral part to any good story, arguably the most important concept to know about shaping a great story is the dramatic arc. The dramatic arc is the structure of how a narrative is told. It's called an arc because of it's tendency to follow the natural rise and fall of conflict in the story. There are usually five points to a dramatic arc which are all crucial to an engaging and free-flowing story.
The first part of the dramatic arc is the exposition. The exposition allows an audience to get inside of a story and gives background information needed to properly understand it. Expositions introduce an antagonist, a protagonist, a setting, and a basic conflict. In the Devil and Daniel Johnston the filmmakers give the exposition at the beginning of the film through a slideshow presentation about the subject, Daniel. The basic idea is to give the audience what they need to know and nothing more. Too much information given too quickly will make the documentary too heavy at the beginning and will take the desired guesswork out of the audience's hands. Instead, you should make the audience want to know what is happening in the story and subtly clue them in as to what is going on. In the Devil and Daniel Johnston, the filmmakers cleverly omit enough information about Daniel in the beginning slideshow to make the audience want to know more about how his life progressed. Throughout the film, they show clips of audio tapes that Daniel recorded throughout his life in order to introduce more complexity to their character. It is also interesting to note that Daniel is a good subject here because of his active role in making music and trying to either harm or change his life. If he were passive and let others direct the way he should live his life, there would be no real reason to watch Daniel. Instead the action would come from his parents or his friends.
The next important aspect of a dramatic arc is the rising action. The rising action's purpose is to build up suspense towards a turning point in the film. This is usually where a conflict or struggle between opposing forces occur, giving interest and purpose to the story. A good example of this can be found in Pray the Devil Back to Hell where the Liberian women, finding themselves caught in the midst of a bloody civil war, struggle against the warlords to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict that was shattering their country. At the same time, in order to keep the attention of the audience, a story may sometimes need a second conflict in order to keep the tension that encourages the audience to want to know what happens next. In the same story, the women are not only struggling to put their country back together, they are also struggling to stick together themselves. This secondary tension raises the stakes of the documentary and causes the audience to engage in the story more. Lastly, the opponent in the story should be a worthy adversary. Even though setting a record in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong seems like a silly goal, there can be no doubt that for Steve Weibe, being the best at the game requires a nearly impossible task of beating the current record holder, Billy Mitchell who's score has not been beaten for some time.
The most important part of any dramatic arc is the turning point or climax. This is a film's point of highest tension or drama and marks a change in the protagonist's affairs. In the documentary Deep Water, about a man's struggles to sail around the world, the turning point happened when he decided to complete the journey even after realizing how hard and lonely the trip would be. As a result, though the turning point is often the final showdown of a film, it does not necessarily happen at the end of a film nor is it always a physical battle.
During the next part of the dramatic arc, the falling action, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist unravels which usually contains a moment of final suspense during which the final outcome is in doubt. For instance, in Daniel Johnston's story, the filmmakers show how Daniel's family finally comes to terms with his mental illness and learns to embrace him for what he is. It is usually this portion of the dramatic arc that shows the resolution of the story.
In order to let the audience digest and make sense of what they've just seen, it is necessary to include a denouement in a dramatic arc. A denouement is what happens after the conflict has been resolved to the protagonist or antagonist. In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, we see the improved lives of the Liberian women and how much better the country is once they've put down their guns and learned to forgive one another. This helps the audience to feel as if they can cleanly leave the story since they are assured of how the protagonist's life will likely turn out.
Good themes, proper motivations, and emotional dramatic arcs are important tools to making an engaging documentary. By using these tips and techniques for making an engaging arc in your story, you can make a documentary that is both engaging and that can touch the lives of those who watch it.