Advanced Video Camera and Editing

Developing the Story for Your Documentary

Additional Reading: Advancing the Story by Deborah Halpern Wenger and Deborah Potter


Finding Your Story

  •     Read, Look, Listen - Take a stroll and simply keep your eyes and ear open. Read bulletin boards in grocery stores, town halls and churches. Be inquisitive and ask questions about what's going on to retail clerks, hair stylists, baristas, etc. 

  •      Timeliness, impact, proximity, controversy, prominence and novelty - decide who your audience is and then whether your topic is relevant. How can it be made relevant?

  •      What is the central theme – what’s the story about? - Know what the question is and use your story to find answers. Don't enter the story with pre-conceived notions. Be open to where it will take you. 


Plan Ahead

  •      Learn about your topic – research - This pre-production element is one of the most vital stages in your production. Essentially, do your homework. Knowledge of the subject will hep you find the focus and determine the angle. Knowing the subject well before you interview will also help you win credibility among your sources. Depending on the subject and the production timeline, it's not unheard of for many documentarians to become "mini-experts" on their chosen topic. 

  •     Talk to people - the best tool is still the phone. Personal communication is a way to gain trust from potential sources. Treat the call like a pre-interview to help you gauge whether the source should be included in your documentary.  

  •      Look for fresh angles - tell the story like it has never been told before. What other ways can you tell the story? What other points of view are there? 


Developing the Story

  •      Start broad and narrow it down - always in research, you learn as much as you can before developing the focus. 

  •     The “So What?” Test - what's the point of the story? How is relevant to the audience? 

  •      Sketch out Story Maps - writing the treatment (a narrative description of your story) helps tremendously. Picture in your mind's eye how the documentary will be seen by an audience. How does it begin, what's in the middle, and how does it end? Break down the story into scenes and assemble them together to fit the narrative. 


Story Elements

  •      Answer the Five W’s and the H - maintain journalistic integrity. Try to be objective. Don't try to fit facts with your own pre-conceived notions. 

  •      Find the Character - what impact does the subject have on a person(s)? You will gain an audience when they are sympathetic to your characters, when they can relate to what your characters are going through. 

  •      Find the Place - establish where the story is taking place. 

  •      Know the Emotion - capture the feelings in characters by using close-up shots. Choose sound bites that express feelings, experiences, and insights. 

  •      Know what’s at Stake - what is the conflict in your story? What is the goal that your characters are trying to reach, and the obstacles that get in their way of obtaining this goal? 

  •       Find details that help us understand the elements better - what seems insignificant at first can play a larger role. 

  •      Tension or Surprise – turning points, milestones - perhaps these are "eureka" moments where the characters learn something sends them in another direction towards their goal. 



  •      Primary and Secondary - interviews with people who have had direct experience of the topic are considered a primary source. The documentarian is also a primary source if they witnessed first hand an event related to the topic. Any other source, such as a press release, is considered secondary, which are often useful to help confirm information that is acquired from primary sources.

  •      Online Sources, Lexis-Nexis, Factiva,,

  •      Diverse Sources,,, Diversity Toolkit at the Radio-Television


Source Credibility

  •      You need to verify the information – see where the weight of the  evidence lies

  •      Seek out original documents - diaries or journals allow insight into the character of your sources.

  •      Evaluate how well-informed is the source - it's important to seek other sources to confirm whether the information from the primary source is accurate.

  •       Can you confirm the info from other sources? 

  •       How representative is the person’s perspective? Is it possible for your audience to relate?

  •      Has the source been reliable before? Is your source connected with a history of bad information?

  •      Are you using the source because they are willing to speak with you right away? Don't settle on the first person you come across. Continue to find other sources. 

  •      What is the source’s motive? Be cautious of those who will seek to use you to get their own agenda across.

How to Interview – Use the Right Words

  •      When you set up an interview tell people that you’d like to talk to them on-camera. Ask them if they've ever been on-camera before and help them understand your needs as a documentarian. 

  •      An unwilling source should be reminded that the public has a right to know. Remind the source that it's better to hear the story coming from them rather than have the reporter attempt to paraphrase. 

  •      Anticipate concerns such as

a.     they don’t have time - your focus will be informed by your research. If the source is vital, remind them that they are the expert and to get the story right it is essential that they appear on-camera to set the record straight.   

b.     afraid the story will make a person look bad - Be sensitive to using only one person's opinion against another. Find other sources and make sure that the information is accurate. At the same time, give the person who is being accused a say in the matter. 

c.      they don’t know what to say - this is where the pre-interview is helpful. Start by having a phone conversation and use your people skills to warm up the person. Use more open-ended questions.

d.     they are hard to reach - depending on your production timeline, sometimes you need to be patient. But don't leave emails only. Make phone calls and leave voice messages. if they work in an office, check with the reception desk. If all else fails, visit in person and say that you were in the neighbourhood. 

  •      Establish a Rapport with the person - give them a reason to trust you. Show that you have integrity, that you are not driven by some agenda, except to get at the truth, and to tell a good story based on accurate information. Let them know that are protective of your sources. But most important, show that you've done your homework and that you know the subject well-enough to "talk shop" with them. 

  •      While setting up, chat with the person about an unrelated subject - find an ice-breaker that will help the subject feel relaxed and that they are in good hands with you. Don't be all business with them, but ask about their day, how long they've lived in their community, what they think about the new pedestrian underpass, are they a dog or cat person, etc.

  •      Get a mic level while they’re chatting - it's preferable to get these sound checks when the person is using their normal conversational voice. 


Interview Questions – this shows you’ve done your homework

  •     List the questions, but include other info about documents, images, video that you want to obtain - during the interview, keep notes about possible b-roll that you can acquire later. 

  •      Best questions are open-ended and non-judgmental - avoid questions that elicit "yes" and "no" responses. It takes a bit of experience to come up with questions that get the person to answer in complete sentences. 

  •     Opening Question – sets the tone (ice-breaker) - start with an easy question, perhaps one that asks the person to describe what they do. 

  •      Avoid broad or vague questions - such questions may elicit long responses or forces the person to guess where you're going with the line of questioning. 

  •      Save some general questions for the end - the responses from these questions could help clarify the information you have obtained in your research. 
  •      Summarise the conversation - make sure you leave knowing that you understand fully what the person has said. It also shows that you've been listening, rather than just asking a list of questions. 

  •      Closing Question – “What else is going on?” Give the person the opportunity to say something that they weren't asked directly. 

  •      Ask for the person’s name and attribution – get correct spelling at the end. It's important that you hear them state their name in the recording so that you know how it's pronounced. 

  •      Finally, take a moment to record some room noise to use when editing. Ask for 20 seconds of silence.

During the Interview

  • Be quiet while the person responds - avoid utterances of, "uh, huh," and other sounds that you might normally make in a conversation. Also, when the person finishes their reply, pause for a second or two before you ask the next question. Try not to step over their words so that you end up with a "clean" recording. 
  • Be a good listener - maintain eye-contact and occasionally glance down at your notes. Don't adhere to only the questions in your notes, instead asking follow-up questions or to get clarifications on something the person just said. 
  • Give the person a chance to respond - although you're steering the interview with your questions, don't lecture the person or try to impress them with how much you know. Ask a direct question without spending loads of time trying to set it up.
  • The Non-question Question - this often occurs when a person finishes their reply and the reporter doesn't say anything. The person then thinks that they haven't fully answered the question. They then try to fill the pause by adding more to what they said, which sometimes contains the better sound bite. 


Note Taking

  • Get down the important details - helpful when knowing what else to ask, who to ask, and what other research you need to conduct.
  • Write down key words, important facts, details - helpful when you start scripting. 
  • Make notes of good bites against the TimeCode - when you hear a good bite, glance at the timecode display in the viewfinder and write it down. This will help you later when you want to find the bite.
  • Get correctly spelled names, titles and contact info into your notes and on camera – listen to how the name is pronounced!
  • Don’t crowd the notebook with too much information – find that which supports your focus!
  • Get it Right! Make sure you have accurate information and that you can accurately relate this story. Helps when you summarise the conversation while the person is still there, giving them the chance to offer corrections. 


Finding the Focus

  • Answers the question: What is this story really about? What's the theme? 
  • What’s the point of the story?
  • Know the concept, a character or emotion
  • Ask yourself – “Why do I care about this story?”
  • Ask – “Why should the audience care?”
  • Ask – “So what?”


Focus Statement

  • Boil down your story into a single sentence


Mapping out the Story

  • Write out things you’re going to reveal - consider breaking the story down into scenes.
  • Each layer should build on the one before
  • What are the "moments" - sometimes considered revelations, turning points, when characters learn something new or they have epiphanies. 


Writing the Story

Don’t cram all the facts – be selective using good news judgment.

  • Choose a central point or theme – Focus
  • Audiences like to figure out things for themselves. Don't give everything away. A little bit here, a little bit there, helping the audiences discover for themselves as the story progresses. 


Write in an Active Voice

  •  Put the most important part of the sentence at the end - the most important words that you want to embed firmly in the audiences' minds.
  •  Declarative sentences: subject-verb-object
  •  Keep it simple - the audience can follow only so much information at once.
  •  Use specific details – facts - in your reporter track. 
  • Take out adjectives and adverbs - avoid dramatic or grandiose patterns that sometimes interferes with what you're trying to say. It only draws attention to itself. 


Types Story Structure

  • Inverted Pyramid - used in print versions of stories most often when reporting news. But rarely the kind of structure one would use in a documentary. This structure begins with the most important information and progresses to the least. 
  • Hourglass - similar to the inverted pyramid, but suited more to broadcast. This structure begins with the most important information, but then transitions into a story told in chronological order, broadening to a summary conclusion. 
  • Diamond - very much an ideal writing style in news packages and documentaries that often begins with an anecdote, introducing a character who helps illustrate the topic. This type of structure lends itself well to personalising the story to show the topic's wider influence on people. The story usually ends by returning to the character.
  • Christmas Tree – also ideal for documentaries, this structure uses multiple "turning points" that contain moments or surprises. Such a structure helps the writer build up tension and release. 


The Proposal and Treatment

Developing the Story

Shooting the Documentary

Independent Filmmaking