Just about anyone will tell you that having a solid foundation is the key to success in any endeavor. The same is true for documentaries. Solid storytelling structure is the foundation to getting viewers not only involved in a story, but also deeply invested in its outcome as well.
There are literally thousands of ways to tell a story. But before you get too overwhelmed with choices, it's good to know that almost all stories follow a common structure that can help you find your starting point. As such, we will be looking at the elements of structure including shots, scenes, and acts. Next, we will dig further into how each act of the three act structure is defined.
Documentaries are no small feat. They can take lots of time, money, and most importantly, dedication. The work ahead can honestly sometimes look as daunting as scaling Mt. Everest. Even so, the best way to tackle any large project is a little bit at a time. As such, knowing how shots, scenes, sequences, and finally acts work together can help you to both see your project through and give it the connectedness that it needs.
The first level of structural element is a simple shot. A shot is essentially the part of the film between two cuts. Even though it is more common for a documentary to show a series of shots to tell a story, a single shot can also be cleverly used to reveal something important in a story. For instance, the documentary Planet Earth uses one shot timelapses multiple times in their film to show changing seasons or returning life.
Putting multiple shots together in the correct way results in the next element of structure: a scene. A scene is a consecutive group of shots in a single location. However, that is not all a scene contains. Scenes should also have a beginning, a middle, and an end much like any good story arc - albeit a minor one. In the documentary Spellbound, which follows a number of contestant's journey to the National Spelling Bee, we see Angela Arenivar at the state spelling bee. The scene begins by showing who some of the contestants are, then showing a shot of her parents watching in the crowd and finishes with Angela getting contgratulated by her parents after she wins the spelling contest. This was a good example of a scene as it established a point: Angela's spelling abilities were good enough to get her to the National Spelling Bee.
In the last element of structure, an act, we see a major turning point in the documentary story. In each act there is increasing tension and momentum An example of this is in the last act of Deep Water, where we see Daniel Crowhurst, the captain of a failed expedition, realize that there is no way he can trick the newspapers of England into thinking he sailed the entire world. As a result, he decides to disappear forever rather than facing the shame of coming home. This portion of the film works as an act because it built the tension until the hero could not turn back and then showed us a resolution that gave the film a finality.
When thinking about the structure of a storyline, it can be easiest to break it down into three overall parts. While not every story fits perfectly into three acts, it is a common and effective way to share a story in an impactful way.
The first act of a good story is used to establish the main characters, find how they relate to others, and what kind of world they live in. It usually runs for ¼ of the film. It's other purpose is to introduce a turning point and show you what is at stake for the main character. A good example of this is in the documentary Protagonist that follows the story of three people's lives: Hans Klein, Mark Salzman, Joe Loya, and Mark Pierpont. In the first act of this film we find out about the relatively innocent childhoods of our four main characters. However, at the end of this act, we start to hear about some shocking moments of reality in each man's life that demands a resolution. In the case of Joe Loya, we realize that his dad is abusive. In Mark Salzman's life we see a propensity towards violence. For Mark Pierpont we find he is struggling with his sexual identity, and lastly with Hans Klein we find that he has a real hatred for government.
In the second act, which is the longest of the film, we see the pace quicken, more complications emerging, reversals in the plot, and rising stakes. This act is longest because it gives us the most information about the story. Going back to our previous example of the documentary Protagonist, we start to see the events in each man's life worsen as Joe becomes a bank robber, Mark Pierpont denies who he really is, Mark Salzman enters a new level of martial arts, and Hans Klein becomes an internationally wanted terrorist.
In the final act of the three act structure, we see the character coming to a breaking point in which everything he or she does catches up to them. It's at that point that the story gets resolved by having the character either fix the problem or become defeated by it. In this manner in the documentary Protagonist, Mark Pierpont actually decides to turn his back on his faith, Mark Salzman quits his life's dream of a martial arts career, Joe goes to jail and becomes a motivational speaker, and Hans Klein gives up his life of terrorism and shares his secrets with police. As a result, the third act in dramatic structure is usually where both the climax and the denouement occur.
Structure is the spine that holds a story together. Because of this, understanding shots, scenes, and acts along with the elements of a three act structure will help you to find and develop an excellent story that grabs your audience.