Story growth: "The Garden," now up for an Oscar, provided the Documentary Doctor with a puzzle.

Growing a Good Story, Naturally

Fernanda Rossi February 6, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: I’m applying structure models from what I read in screenwriting books but my documentary film is still not working. If my doc doesn’t follow a fiction three-act model, will it fail in the market?

Doc Doctor: Rarely will it fail on all accounts. It’s understandable you might want to apply the model that is abundant and predominant in our culture, namely the three-act structure. However, not all documentaries have a conflict-driven story, the opposition of two or more equal forces. More often than not, documentaries have characters with goals and a series of obstacles, or characters on a quest to unravel or expose some issue. Some are the unfairly vilified essay or topic films, with or without a star expert.

When Scott Hamilton Kennedy invited me to doctor his now Academy Award-nominated documentary The Garden, he told me he had a three-act structure in mind. But he also had a story with four groups clearly in opposition to each other: the farmers, a competing non-profit, the developer and the city of Los Angeles. In spite of this, I favored a more open approach, because even when the basic elements for that model were in place, it didn’t mean that all other requirements would magically happen. After all, we were not making the story up on a blank piece of paper as a screenwriter would; we were working with reality given to us by destiny, the Gods of filmmaking and the cameraperson. Sure, you can always play some tricks to bend the film into this or that structure—but then you’re left with an ethical question to ponder: Can the apparent need of some glorified storytelling device justify the manipulation or distortion of what happened, including the misrepresentation of your characters, who placed their confidence on you as a filmmaker?

If your film has no conflict or there is none likely to happen, it doesn’t follow that your film will be boring, unsuccessful or unmarketable. What distributors and audiences look for is not necessarily a conflict, even when they might use that word, but conflictive issues. In fact, conflict-driven films like The Garden represent only 5 percent of my practice, which spans 300 films. A quick look at the slate of other or past nominations or theatrical releases can render similar numbers. Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore and Michael Donovan, March of the Penguins by Luc Jacques and An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim—all three Academy Award winners with critical success, extended theatrical release and revenue—are not conflict driven, and one can argue that they’re not strictly character-driven.

Therefore if your documentary has no conflict, I invite you to make a bonfire with all those screenwriting books, the notes from fiction workshops and any other cookie cutter structural modeling you’ve been subjected to. Instead, work with the inter-relation of the different story elements: Is there a character or characters? Do they all have the same function? Does anybody have a dream, goal or purpose? If the film is strictly essay, is there an interviewee that carries the main topic? What will the function of the other interviewees be? Is there a balance between reinforcement of information and introduction of new information?

Any template can work with some effort when applied to a finished film. It’s a question of perception and interpretation. Using a template when dealing with a work-in-progress, while tempting for its sense of safety in its many predictable rules, can jeopardize the health of a still uncovered story, or worse, get you entangled in a supposed list of demands that bring the cutting of a film to a complete halt.

Documentary structure has more in common with videogames than fiction, each successive scene introducing new levels of discovery and complication with an uncertain path. So dive into your story like a true heroic avatar and dare to say to those that cajoled you with formulas and recipes, Game Over!

International author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book
Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. _More info and book at