Understanding the basic documentary story structure is the first step in making more compelling short form videos for the web. There are essentially four sections you want to be able to capture while doing interviews and gathering footage for your film: the question, the backstory, the conflict, and the resolution.
In the video at the bottom of this post, director Mark Bone shares his intro to better storytelling in film, explaining these four crucial steps in just five minutes.
Step 1: The Question
Regardless of your short film’s topic, it’s important to start with a question to establish what it is that your characters want. In Bone’s short film Mile by Mile, the question is established in the first thirty seconds when his main character establishes that he wants to be the first Canadian to complete a 10,000 kilometer race across Africa. Establishing what the question is in the first 10 percent of the film will signal to viewers why they need to keep watching.
Step 2: The Backstory
In this section you give your viewers a bit more of the reason for telling the story. But backstory only matters to viewers once you’ve established what your character wants. A big mistake that new filmmakers often make is to lead with backstory, rather than establishing the central question that the film will address. This section will give your viewers a bit more insight into how your film’s main characters arrived at their current moment.
Step 3: The Conflict
This is where you will introduce the struggles and hurdles your character might face as they attempt to achieve their goals. Conflict is what keeps people watching. Without it you run the risk of people tuning out and then turning off your film. The struggles don’t have to be purely physical though—this is a great section to dive into the mind of your main character and explore any mental hurdles they might be struggling with while working towards their goal.
Step 4: The Resolution
The fourth and final section is where you will wrap up any loose ends—a resolution can either be a celebration or a chance to mourn what didn’t happen. Many documentary filmmakers start hinting at what the resolution might be as they explain the film’s conflict—which usually makes the final resolution less satisfying and gives viewers less of a reason to keep watching. Not knowing what is going to happen next is what will keep your viewers hooked. Even if your documentary is based on something that happened a long time ago, you should keep your viewers guessing about how it might resolve until the very end.