WHAT DOCUMENTARY STORYTELLERS CAN LEARN FROM SCREENWRITERS
As the recent box office success of films like Supersize Me ($11.5 million, 2004), Mad Hot Ballroom ($6.3 million, 2005) and March of the Penguins ($77.4 million, 2005) lure more documentary filmmakers to seek a traditionally risky theatrical release, audiences are lured too, by the promise that non-fiction cinema can tell stories that are as dramatic and entertaining as feature films. This trend, which began when the acclaimed 1994 film Hoop Dreams began its $7.8 million run, has accelerated in the past five years with the success of films like Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Tupac: Resurrection (2003), and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). All of these well-crafted documentaries borrow from the plot devices of fiction films. Whether the story-driven documentary will eclipse the essay-driven format is debatable, but one thing is clear: commissioning editors from stations like HBO, the Sundance Channel and Showtime want stories.
Whereas screenwriters are free to dream up plot twists for a three-act story, documentary filmmakers must design scenes based on what was actually filmed in real life. These two constraints-”what was filmed” and “real life”–present special challenges. Whether a documentary editor is using a three-act storyboard or some other narrative design, how does she stay true to actual happenings when she must persuade and contort them into climaxes and plot turns? This article will outline the principles of classic three-act narrative structure as taught by professional screenwriters, and it will examine how documentary filmmakers can adapt these structural demands to the randomness of real life.
WHAT A STORY IS NOT
Documentaries do not fit tidily into three acts. Having said that, devising a narrative arc does not mean dividing the film into three parts, and then arbitrarily labeling each part an act. The first, second and third acts look remarkably different from one another, and each fulfills a unique and specific purpose in composing the story. Keep in mind that a story, in the screenwriter’s sense of the word, is not a profile (for example, a film about an eccentric uncle who farms nuts), a condition (human rights abuses in Haiti), a phenomenon (the popularity of multi-player video games) or a point of view (social security should be privatized). Simply stated, a story chronicles the efforts of the main character to achieve his or her heart’s desire in the face of opposition. Screenwriters understand that defining the “hero’s quest” is the foremost dramatic requirement of a three-act structure. Act One sets up the protagonist’s desire (boy meets girl), Act Two presents obstacles that thwart the goal (boy loses girl), and in the final act, the climax reveals whether or not the protagonist achieves his heart’s desire (boy wins girl forever after). Documentary filmmakers would do well to hone in on their protagonist’s desire in their earliest concept paper, a mandatory preamble to rolling tape.
ACT ONE: LAUNCHING THE STORY
The function of act one is to establish the world of the film, introduce us to the characters, and launch the protagonist’s quest. In a two-hour dramatic film, act one (also called the “set-up”) runs about thirty minutes, or a quarter of the film. At the start of the act, the audience is introduced to the film’s setting and characters. A protagonist emerges at the “catalyst” or “inciting incident”, when an external event upsets the main character’s world. This mandatory structural device kicks off the real story, as the protagonist begins his quest to restore equilibrium to his life. For example, in the action movie Jaws (1975), a woman is killed by a shark, and the town sheriff finds her decaying body. This horrific discovery is the inciting incident, or catalyst, because it begins the sheriff’s quest to kill the shark and thereby restore tranquility to the terrorized resort town. While many people use the word “protagonist” to simply mean “main character”, screenwriters define “protagonist” as a character who possesses a yearning or desire for something.
PORTRAYING THE INCITING INCIDENT
The inciting incident plays such a critical function in the overall story structure that Hollywood screenwriters follow a rule: the inciting scene must be visually depicted on screen, preferably in present story time. In other words, the story cannot be launched through exposition (boring) or backstory (too removed). This imperative presents a major problem for documentary filmmakers constructing a narrative arc. Frequently, by the time a documentary filmmaker gets interested in a film, the inciting incident has already happened. Equally problematic, this rousing scene was probably not caught on film. Sometimes filmmakers get lucky. They set out to film one story, and a more powerful story unfolds in front of the camera. In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003), Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain intended to profile Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Suddenly they found themselves in the midst of a coup. They caught the upheaval on camera and it became a visually riveting catalyst for a very different film.
Shaping archival or news footage into an inciting incident is another solution. In Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), the inciting incident occurs a slim four minutes into the lengthy 140-minute movie, when an MTV news clip announces that the bass player has left the band. This incident launches the narrative arc of the movie, as the remaining three members seek to improve their interpersonal act and, by extension, their next album.
If a documentary filmmaker does not have footage of the actual inciting incident, how does she bring it to life on screen? Another common solution is to comb through interviews for a soundbite that reconstructs the inciting incident. Sometimes even a periphery character can recall a particular moment that will change the lives of the characters forever. In Capturing the Friedmans, an 88-minute film, the inciting incident occurs seven minutes into the story, when a postal inspector appears on screen for the first time. He recounts that in 1984, U.S. Customs had seized some child pornography addressed to Arnold Friedman.
If an interviewee is going to relate the catalyst event, an editor should choose an exceptionally charismatic storyteller. Remember, this is the moment the story is supposed to take off. If a lackluster soundbite can’t fuel the launch, an editor may need booster material: narration, location footage, reenactments, animation, etc. Whereas a screenwriter can start the story with a single inciting scene, the non-fiction storyteller must often construct an inciting sequence. As long as the sequence gets the story off the ground, it’s fine to employ a slow burn rather than pyrotechnics.
POSING THE CENTRAL QUESTION
The inciting incident gives rise to the protagonist’s quest-alternately called the “hero’s journey” or “object of desire”-as well as formulating the film’s central question. Will Romeo and Juliet stay together? Will the sheriff kill the shark? Will the Jordan family save their farm? The central question is always some variation of the question, “Will the protagonist reach his goal?” After a long period of struggle in act two, this central question is finally answered for better or worse in act three, at or just following the film’s climax.
Like narrative films, documentaries are at their best when the protagonist’s object of desire and the movie’s central question are concrete and specific. In Troublesome Creek, the family’s larger desire was to survive financially, but their concrete goal was to pay off their back loan and get off the Troubled Accounts list. In The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), the protagonist wants equality for gay people, but his quest is drawn into dramatic focus by his bid to get elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In Spellbound (2002), the central question that causes the viewer to hold his breath every time a child spells out a word is very specific: which child will win the national spelling bee contest?
While casting the right characters is critical in a documentary, many seasoned filmmakers won’t undertake a film featuring even the most colorful cast unless they foresee that at least one character’s quest will provide the film with a narrative spine. In an historical documentary, this is relatively doable with the advantage of hindsight. But the dramatic arc of a verite film, in which life is recorded as it unfolds, is understandably difficult to predict. It’s unlikely that filmmaker Fredrick Wiseman wrote a detailed, three-act treatment for Titticut Follies (1967). Likewise, the Maysles brothers couldn’t have foreseen the dramatic arc of Salesman (1969) before filming. Sadly, these grand experiments in cinema verite would probably not get funded today. At a minimum, commissioning editors and foundations require that a treatment for a verite film describe the protagonist’s quest, articulate the central question, and then envisage the conflicts the protagonist will face during the course of the production schedule.