Inspiration, Pro Tips

How to Approach Nonfiction and Documentary Storytelling for Video


As nonfiction filmmakers, we’re often tempted to just get out and film, then later try to shoehorn whatever we’ve shot into some sort of cohesive story (our own version of “fix it in post”). As experienced documentarians will tell you, however, this can result in disaster. So, how do we plan our stories and our productions from beginning to end?

Today’s Landscape

When it comes to writing, the work of journalists, novelists, and poets has been divided and subdivided into dozens of genres. Travel journalist David Miller, for example, created an excellent breakdown created an excellent breakdown of nonfiction writing forms. When it comes to documentary film, most film students get a healthy heaping of Bill Nichols’ six modes of documentaries. My question is, how do we define today’s popular media – unboxing videos, travelogues, mini-docs, and the litany of other eye-catching material that fills our daily newsfeeds? I’m finding that I have less and less patience for one, two, or three-hour-long documentaries, but absolutely love the bite-sized stories that populate my feeds. But why are these engaging?

This Vox piece is a personal story that appears to be shot as one giant selfie. It’s cheap for the content producer, yes — but also engaging, because it’s so personal. I would have never pitched a documentary shot entirely by myself of myself, and I don’t have a four-hour commute like she does, but I find myself watching pieces like this nonetheless. Was this the most impactful narrative in the world? No — it has a good build, the ending kind of leaves us hanging, and no earth-shattering facts were revealed — spoiler alert: people who commute are unhappy. But it’s a story nonetheless, and the narrative is designed in such a way that audiences (like me), can easily engage with it.

Academically, being able to slice and dice existing work into neatly organized bins can be helpful, but sometimes there’s a gap between theory and application. Without the right tools, this can be an unbridgeable (and deeply frustrating) gap. How are people making nonfiction stories that engage with today’s audiences? Videos that are simple progressions of facts are uninteresting. What makes a Tasty video engaging?

Tasty videos are progressions – but are they stories? Where do bite-sized docs and full-blown feature-length projects collide? As nonfiction storytellers, we need to convey facts layered in emotion — we want to tell stories with heart and soul. This immediately makes me think of the Serial podcast, and then more recent crime dramas like The Jinx.

The New York Times said The Jinx combined “truth with the imagination.” How far can we go to wrap fact in story?

This happens in reality television all the time. One of the most notorious tools of the trade is “frankenbiting.” It’s a tool filmmakers use to rearrange what someone has said to suit the narrative. Sometimes it’s just for efficiency, and more or less represents what was said. Sometimes it’s a total fabrication. As filmmakers, we’re not necessarily beholden to the same rules that govern journalism. So, how far is too far?

Narrative Nonfiction

Enter the work of Shawn Coyne, one of today’s most prolific (text) editors. Coyne says that audiences care about stories that convince someone to change their worldview, because they teach us how to deal with a particular conflict or problem (like our Vox commuter friend above almost did). His idea of “narrative nonfiction” is that we can employ techniques used in fictional storytelling in nonfiction.

Coyne splits nonfiction into four categories: academic, how-to, narrative nonfiction, and “big idea.” When setting out to tell a narrative nonfiction story, he advises that writers choose whichever genre most applies to their story, then use the conventions of that genre to tell their story. In the infographic below, you can see how he divides the elements of story, from content to style.

Does every story on the face of the planet fit neatly into a single category? Of course not, so don’t get hung up on which story fits where – the point of using tools like Coyne’s is to specifically get away from academic theory and let your proverbial rubber meet the road. It’s way too easy to get mired in thinking instead of doing.

Coyne’s book, The Story Grid, lays out the tools needed to evaluate your story. One of these tools is called the “foolscap,” which is just paper-industry-speak for a legal pad. A foolscap is a one-page tear-down of your story — a map of the narrative. According to Coyne, the original foolscap was a three-act representation of your story that started with the inciting incident and ended with the climax. His version, in four sections, is used to edit stories that already exist. Using the foolscap method, you can use the first way to conceive your story, and the second to evaluate it once it’s written.

The foolscap is a macro view of your story. Coyne champions the idea that you should constantly move between macro and micro when evaluating your story. In this worksheet, the first section is devoted to the “Global Story” — the very top-level elements of your story. The narrative is then broken down into three acts. It’s a useful tool not only for evaluating your narrative, but also for discovering your type of nonfiction. Laying your story out like this may illuminate elements that you hadn’t previously considered.

It’s also incredibly useful to be able to rely on the conventions of a genre to tell your nonfiction story – it means that you’re not adrift in a universe of endless possibility when making documentary projects, but that you’ve instead got a grab bag of tools, tropes, and conventions to paint with.

As stories like The Jinx have illustrated, documentarians get a fair amount of leeway to creatively tell their stories. One of the most important — and controversial — elements of this leeway is timeline. In my own work, sometimes we have to manipulate the timeline of events in order to be efficient storytellers. Does changing the timeline significantly impact the meaning of the story? Sometimes simply rearranging the order in which a series of events transpires in your narrative can have deeply profound effects on the experience of the viewer.

In approaching your own work, think about how classic narrative structure, along with the tropes of an applicable genre, can help you tell your story better. There’s no need to get mired in the Hero’s Journey or figure out How to Save the Cat — while these are incredibly rich, useful background reading, you’ll learn more about storytelling — and the type of nonfiction you’re looking to tell, by diving into the story you’re looking to create. Being forced to examine your narrative will help you create it, and will get you asking questions that will point you in the right direction.

Gavin Garrison has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, and is currently working on two new documentary series. He received his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California.

Top image: Still from Creative Writing Typewriter by Cricchio