How to Fix Your Documentary's Structural Problems, Part Two

Karen Everett February 1, 2011

Note: As I write this column, I am very excited to be attending the Sundance Film Festival, where an amazing documentary that I had the honor of story consulting on is premiering.  Keep your eyes out for Connected ( by director Tiffany Shlain.

Last month, part one of this series about fixing your rough cut focused on how to diagnose problems which emerge from your rough cut screening. This month I'll focus on how to fix those problems.

Undoubtedly you'll receive a wide array of feedback about problems in your documentary rough cut, ranging from “the film never ended” to “I was confused” to “I didn't like the music.” If only one lone viewer in your rough-cut screening makes such a comment, then I wouldn't take it too seriously. But if two or more people are pointing out the same problem, it's time to tackle it.

I've created a guide for documentary filmmakers who are in rough cut stage that helps solve such problems. The “Story Doctoring Kit” ( explains how to solve nearly every imaginable problem that arises during rough-cut stage.

Here are three strategies for solving some common issues that plague documentary works-in-progress:

1. Narration
If your test viewers complain that they were confused, either about where the film is headed, or particular sections in your film, consider using narration. (If you're already using narration, you may need to use more of it.) Although many new filmmakers eschew narration (probably because they've seen so many examples of bad narration), exposition doesn't have to be an off-putting Voice of God. I highly recommend Sheila Curran Bernard’s book Documentary Storytelling, particularly the chapter on writing narration. Keep in mind that narration doesn't have to be voiceover. It can also be occasional text on screen. Narration is a powerful tool for clarifying confusing points, condensing soundbites that go on and on, and imbuing your film with a distinct voice and mood.

2. Music
I recently story consulted on a wonderful documentary rough cut about a sports hero. However, the music in the rough cut detracted from the filmmaker's vision of this caring athlete. Not only was the music unbearably sentimental and over the top, thus telling the viewer how to feel, but the music track was a nearly steady bed of melody throughout the entire film. Whenever you add music or take music away, you are making an editorial statement that says to the viewer “pay attention.” This tool gets lost if you employ a steady bed of music.

If test viewers complain that they don't like your film’s music, consider trying a more oblique melody, free of lyrics, that is spare and open to interpretation. More importantly, I recommend stripping out the music in your early rough cuts so that you can concentrate on determining whether the structure is robust and suspenseful enough on its own, before adding the emotional sway of music.

3. Climax

In the rough cut about the sports hero, the editor had buried a wonderful climax scene of the big game in a half-hour of footage of competing “big games.” Not only was the climax scene diluted by this additional game footage, but the film never seemed to end after the climax.

If your test audiences complain that your film is too long, look first at the end of your film. Ideally, your third act climax should be placed 95 percent of the way through the film. Many directors make the mistake of adding additional plot complications, or soundbites that spell out the film’s meaning several times over. Your dénouement should be about 2 to 6 minutes, depending on the length of your film. Its purpose is to show viewers what life is like now after your protagonist has reached their goal, and to wrap up loose ends. If you're making a topic-based film, the dénouement provides an opportunity to present a snapshot of the future or a call to action.

Your documentary may be suffering from a myriad of other problems. But take heart! There’s always a solution. If you have too many talking heads, you’ll need imaginative cinematic solutions. If your film meanders, you’ll need a strong thesis statement or a character quest. If the middle of your film sags and viewers begin to glaze over, consider adding a dynamic midpoint that shows your protagonist beginning a character transformation.

You'll find dozens more strategies for solving your documentary rough cut’s problems in my new online seminar, The Story Doctoring Kit, available at .

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