How to Rate Your Doc's Story Potential

Karen Everett March 24, 2009

"We’ll fix it in post," may work fine when you forgot to white balance or turn off a noisy air conditioner, but if you forgot to vet your story potential, constructing a narrative arc in the edit room may prove a bit challenging.

I recently worked with a director who was taking advantage of my free initial consultation, in which I rate the story potential of a director’s documentary. I had watched her trailer and read her synopsis the night before, and while the protagonist of her film was clearly admirable for her compassion and generosity, I was, well ... a trifle bored. I was watching a profile, not a story. The profile was a pleasant slice of life, practically devoid of obstacles, containing myriad words of praise for the main character, which quickly gave the trailer a Pollyannaish cast. On a scale of 1 to 10, I rated the story strength at a 3. How was I going to break this to the director? First I congratulated her on gaining access to such a talented and spiritually evolved musician. I then asked her what she felt she most needed to move her film forward, having already shot 60 percent of the principal photography? Fortunately, she said she needed help with dramatic structure.

So I gave her a mini-tutorial on story structure. She needed: a) a character who deeply desires something (Act One) that is b) difficult to obtain (Act Two) and c) calls forth the character’s deepest reserves in a final emotional scene (Act Three) that answer the film’s central question: Did the protagonist get what he wanted or not? Fortunately, my client was all ears. She realized that her protagonist needed a clearly defined quest and had to face conflict in obtaining his goal. Working with such an open-minded director, our next task will be fun: using strategies to elicit and shape the poignant stories that live in everyone’s life.

Before we get into the specific criteria that will help you determine if you have a story, let’s take a hard-nosed look at the reality of getting a doc made and seen in today’s funding climate. It’s interesting (and to some, infuriating) to note that of the 11 world-class documentaries that won awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, 10 of them easily fall into the genre that has stormed the independent documentary world since Hoop Dreams debuted in 1994: the character-driven documentary.

Why has this form dominated the market, becoming the genre of choice for funders and acquisition editors at HBO, PBS and other broadcast outlets, as well as the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Short? And what if the film you have in mind doesn’t easily fall into a story? First, realize that you may have a theme-based film. If you have a "story" in the sense that screenwriters think of the word (which Hollywood guru Robert McKee has articulated so clearly in his seminal book, Story), your film will naturally fall into the three distinct act mandates that Aristotle laid out and have enthralled audiences on stage, in literature and in narrative films for thousands of years. With a little guidance from a story editor, you don’t have to manipulate reality or make up something unethical. The truth is that character-driven films are popular because they are fun to watch. They’re entertaining—a good antidote for delivering the depressing social-issue message that we American documentarians do so well and so often.

If you don’t have a story—a character in pursuit of a desire against great odds—then you will probably curse the popularity of this dominant genre as you do backbends trying to fit your idea into an art form known as "narrative structure," one that requires some very specific elements (inciting incident, plot twists, climax, denouement). If it’s any consolation, every significant documentary trend (ethnographic films, historical biography, direct cinema) has waxed and waned, and so too will the character-driven film someday be eclipsed by fresher documentary art forms.

Now, what exactly is a character-driven film? How do you know if you have one? A recent discussion on doculink, a popular online forum, revealed that many filmmakers think "œcharacter-driven" means that you are following an interesting character around. But that’s only the start. The character must want something, and the more specific the object of desire, the better. For example, "making it to the border of Mexico" is a more concrete and riveting goal than simple "escaping the law," to use an example from Thelma and Louise, the Hollywood script that has emerged as a classic example of three-act narrative structure.

What if your protagonist has a great goal but the story is yet to emerge? I recently worked with a frustrated director to recut a documentary short that featured a great quest. We were trying to "refix it in post." I was initially perplexed that the film was being rejected by festivals and distributors. The director followed a young woman who competed in the male-dominated world of windsurfing and who wanted to win the state title. He had a classic built-in goal, the contest, or, more specifically in this case, the race—which sounded good on paper. His cinematography was remarkable. But once I watched the film, his problem quickly became evident: there was no conflict. With the support of her parents, her coach and her own disciplined practice, this young woman quickly rose to the top of her game. Nice ride, but not riveting.

Compare that to the synopsis for Cowboys in India, a recently-funded ITVS project which emerged from some 385 submissions in the 2008 International Call to become a riveting character-based film:

"Aided by two inept locals (already we sniff conflict), director Simon Chambers goes to the poorest area in India (conflict) where a tribe is fighting to save a sacred mountain from multinational mining moguls (conflict featuring mighty opponents) who say its resources will bring prosperity to the people. Cowboys in India explores accusations of murder (dangerous obstacle) and whether the company-built hospitals and schools actually exist (more challenges)—landing these investigators in bigger trouble than expected (promises of even more conflict)."

If you’re not sure if you have a story, try the following simple, story-focusing exercise that I use in my documentary editing seminars. Fill in the blanks for these three sentences. Note that each sentence represents the gist of each of the three acts in classic narrative structure. Remember, Aristotle gave us a form, not a formula, so there’s endless variation within these three simple guidelines. If you have more than one protagonist, then focus on just one character for now:

Act 1 Launching the Quest
_______________________ (protagonist’s name) wants ___________________________________________ (goal—be as specific as possible).

Act 2 Encountering Conflict

n pursuit of this goal, protagonist encounters _________________, __________________ and __________________ (obstacles, complications, challenges—place at least three in order of escalating difficulty).

Act 3 Supreme Difficulty/Resolution

The protagonist finally reaches/doesn’t reaches his/her goal after ________________________________ (most emotional and challenging scene) happens.

Now you have an easy way to rate your story potential on a scale of 1 to 10. If you’ve shown a bit of your footage to other people and they think you have an interesting character, give yourself 3 points. If you were able to fill in the first sentence with a specific object of desire, such as ousting a corrupt tribal leader (Wounded Knee, 2009 Sundance selection), winning an American-idol type contest (Afghan Star, 2009 Sundance World Audience Award) or swimming past the guards to expose a dolphin-slaughter pit (The Cove, 2009 Sundance Audience Award), give yourself 3 more points, bringing you to a 6. If you can find three obstacles that your protagonist faces (and that you can capture on film), give yourself an 8. Congratulations, you have a story—almost! If you have a protagonist with a desire for something that is difficult to achieve, you’ve probably got enough mojo to get funding and start shooting a verite film.

I have a friend who is directing a documentary about a 7-year-old boy who dresses like a girl, acts like a girl, and wants to play the part of a girl in the school play. Does my friend have a story? Assuming she has access to the people in the child’s life, yes, she has a story, because it’s highly likely that conflict and even a climax scene will emerge given the clash between this child’s emerging gender identity and society’s norm. Maybe the conflict is with the boy’s parents, who think it’s time Billy stopped playing in mommy’s high heels. Maybe it’s Billy’s playmates, who think it’s strange that their fellow second-grader wants to wear skirts and jump rope. Maybe it’s the drama teacher, who is adamant that a girl must play the role of Juliet.

When will you know if you have a climax? You’ll feel it in your bones. But for the more left-brained among us who seek a clearer definition, the climax of a character-driven film is the most riveting emotional scene in the film, because it requires a supreme effort from the protagonist. It’s the final hour, the heat of the battle, the dark night of the soul that summons one’s deepest reserves. That’s half the equation. The other half is that the climax scene must answer the film’s central question: Did the protagonist get what they wanted?

Editor Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is writing a book entitled Documentary Editing and teaches editing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She directed and produced five documentaries, including an award-winning PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. To inquire about a free editing or story consultation, contact her at

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