Thinking Like a Screenwriter for your Documentary

Karen Everett May 31, 2010

I recently helped a documentary filmmaker from Japan who hired me as a story consultant for his “documentary.” The film was grounded in the true story of a materialistic young man who decides to become a Peace Corps volunteer in order to find a more meaningful life.

When I started viewing the beautifully shot footage, I quickly realized that this film was shot not in the v‚rit‚ tradition of capturing real-life scenes but more like a narrative feature. The scenes were set up in advance, shot in several takes and most of the film’s dialogue would later be dubbed in.

I told the director that his film did not appear to be a traditional documentary by U.S. standards, but more of a hybrid film–part narrative (fictional) and part documentary. Some terrific examples of “documentaries” from this emerging genre include Vicki Funari’s Paulina and Roko Belic’s Twilight Men.

My client was happy that I saw the project as an interesting challenge, rather than dismissing it because it wasn’t a “real” documentary. In fact, once we moved past the genre distinctions, I quickly became enamored of the film and the opportunity to flex my screenwriting muscles!

The film’s stunning cinematography was marred by a highly undeveloped story. Our protagonist sets out on a quest and has a breakthrough at the climax (good), but he experiences no real challenges or changes along the way.

I asked the director if I could take liberties with the story and make events up. He was happy to add a fictional dimension to the film, as long as it did not violate the essence of his vision. Essentially, he wanted to portray a man on a search for meaning by being of service.

After years of working with documentary filmmakers, I was thrilled to be able to think like a screenwriter without the shackles of sticking to what actually happened!

At the same time, the challenge that I was facing was precisely what many documentary filmmakers face, that is, the film’s story was lacking conflict. So I beefed up the plot, first by identifying the key plot points of the classic three-act structure.

These include:

Inciting Incident
First Act Climax
First Challenge
Second Challenge (Midpoint)
Third Challenge (Act Two Climax)
Film’s Climax (Third Act Climax)

Having laid out the key plot elements of a traditional dramatic structure, I then searched my imagination for the plausible events that would satisfy the mandates of this dramatic construction, “feel right” to the director’s vision of the film–and also jive with the footage that was already shot.

For example, the film’s first-act climax could happen at the airport scene (already shot). I decided that the protagonist would get a call suddenly reassigning him to an area to which he did not want to go, a slum in Thailand. This dramatic event spun the film in a new direction.

The midpoint, or first sign of character transformation, would occur during a monsoon (also already shot) in which the protagonist argues with his supervisor by phone. During this relationship crisis, the protagonist finally agrees to share his cramped quarters with a new volunteer. This is the first sign of his growing transformation into a generous person. Since with a small pickup shoot we would have the footage to sustain these plot developments, all we need to do is add narration and dub dialogue over the wide scenes for it to make sense. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.

Making up events was fun, if time-consuming, and the real challenge was making sure that the events and character’s decisions were credible.

For documentary filmmakers who want to borrow screenwriting techniques to develop their story, the real challenge is a bit different. Surveying all the events in the film and ordering them into a dramatic structure requires making sure that the plot points you are crafting are ethical, that is, true to what actually happened.

The challenge of applying the three-act structure to films about real-life is the topic of my popular course, “Structuring the Character-Driven Documentary.” I will be teaching this course July 9 and 10 through the San Francisco Film Society. Find out more at SFFS’s classes page. (You can also purchase the online version and take it any time here.)

Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is a documentary story consultant specializing in applying narrative techniques in ethical ways to films about real-life. Author of Documentary Editing, Everett has taught documentary editing for 18 years at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. She has directed and produced five award-winning documentaries, including a PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. She teaches a popular online e-course for the San Francisco Film Society, Editing the Character Driven Documentary. For a free half-hour story consultation, email her at

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