If someone had asked me about when I started filmmaking to name the most important ingredient of a documentary, I’d probably say Story. But somehow I didn’t really know what that meant. In fact, at first I was rather skeptical of storytelling conventions – talk of “3-act structures”, “inciting incidents”, “raise-the-stakes” moments, they all made me think of some huckster running a weekend script-writing workshop.
I was also coming from a background in sociology – a field that values complexity and accuracy. I couldn’t help being bothered by the constant discrepancy between what “really” happened, and what got shown in a given documentary. When I’d listen to DVD director’s commentaries of docs, they always seemed to talk about how they changed around the sequence of events, or had to leave out really important information because it didn’t fit neatly enough into the story, or how they made a disagreement appear much worse than it really was because they needed to reinforce the “central conflict.” I’d think: why are these conventions so important? Why do you even need a central conflict? (Can’t we just make a film where everyone gets along?)
[Friend of foe?]
It's six years later, and a few hard lessons learned about storytelling, and I already find myself sounding like a huckster running a weekend script-writing workshop. If someone sends me a trailer or a rough-cut to review, I don’t watch for accuracy, I don’t watch for complexity. The first thing I do is scan the edit to see “does this person get Story?”
I'm not quite sure what happened - if I wised up or just drank the Coolaid. But along the way I started documenting some ‘ah ha’ moments I’ve had regarding story – both specifically for this film, but for story in general.
Dramatica: script-writing huckster central
The first idea that really spoke to me actually came from a narrative screenplay book called Dramatica which I stumbled across online HERE.
The key for me had to do with the idea of “Story Mind”: or the idea that storytelling conventions have less to do with following a old formula for its own sake, or following what’s become a social convention, and more to do with a techniques for engage with an audience’s inner psychological processes. Or, as they put it:
- "Story is a model of the mind's problem solving process. This Story Mind does not work like a computer, performing one operation after another until the solution is obtained. Rather, it works more holistically, like our own minds, bringing many conflicting considerations to bear on the issue. It is the author's argument as to the relative value of these considerations in solving a particular problem that gives a story its meaning."
In other words, there’s something about the conventions (3-act structure, the “inciting incident,” the “raise-the-stakes” moment ) that are hard-wired into our psychology. When we as individuals face an emotional or moral conflict, these certain ingredients, unfolding a certain order, roughly reflect what our minds are experiencing on the inside, regardless of what’s occurring on the outside. So if a story needs to leave off lots of details , it’s because our mind generally leaves off lots of details. If a story changes the sequence of events, its because, when we’re reflecting on events, our minds can changes their sequence. In each case, our mind is only interested in the clues that matter most to the central conflict we’re struggling with in that given moment.
The book most clearly applies this idea to the idea of story archtypes – how the different stock characters types (Protagonist, Antagonist, Side Kick, Reason, Emotion, the Guardian, etc.) represent the voices in our head that come to bear in helping us make a difficult decision.
It all makes for a good read (and probably a better weekend-workshop). And I believe it helped me make my filmmaking a lot more engaging. I've learned that if I can create a story that's structured and unfolds in a way that reminds the viewer of a deep psychological conflict they've experienced, then they'll be 10-times more engaged and interested.
But it also begs the question: what are films (especially documentaries) supposed to be about? Are they not about the actual TOPIC of the documentary, but rather about head-trip of the audience member watching it? Should filmmakers resign themselves to the idea that audience members aren't actually interested in their documentary, they're only interested in perspective on their own minds?
I’m still working on that one, but I’m leaning towards a yes on both counts. In a way that's very troubling -especially when it comes to the ethics of the director, who will always need to alter reality in some way to fit their own vision of a story. But in other ways, it seems like not such a bad thing.