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How To Create A Story For A Documentary Film

How to Create a Story for a Documentary Film


By Doug Gritzmacher

Denver Video Production

I recently wrapped up production on a feature documentary called, “They Care They’ve Earned.” I’ve worn a lot of hats with my previous films, right down to “movie poster designer,” but this one was different. Instead of 10-15 hats, I wore only two—editor and co-writer.

Both are services we offer as part of our documentary film services at our Denver video production company, Z-Channel Films. Thanks to technological advances, lower-priced video production equipment, and an increased array of distribution platforms, more and more documentaries are being produced every year. And the directors of many of those films are finding themselves in the same position I found myself in after completing principle shooting on my first documentary—namely, now what?

For me, I was staring at 160 hours of footage with no idea of where to begin. How do I organize all this? How do I turn this massive pile of crap into a story???

Around that time I was catching up with a story-producer friend of mine from my days working at National Geographic Television. I off-handidly mentioned my problem and she offered to help. A few days later we met at a bar. She brought two things with her—a pen and colored index cards. After four more meetings I had the makings of a story. It was a relief I’ll never forget.

The power of colored index cards, or post-it notes, can not be underestimated. I’ve used the technique on every film since. And it’s one of our first steps with any director we consult with.



It’s not often that one of the most helpful tools is also one of the cheapest. But that’s the case with a white board and post-it notes when it comes to documentary story development. And if utilized before the production process, they also can save you thousands of dollars down the line.

Knowing this I got a big smile the first time I walked in to “They Care They’ve Earned” director’s office and saw his big sparsly decorated white walls. We were going to need a lot space for my collection of colored post-it notes and his walls were perfect. We were also going to need space for a white board.

A white board is not something my friend used to help me with my first film, but it’s another tool I’ve added to the equation since. It helps to be able to put everything up on a wall where you can see it all at once and have the ability to move things around. With a white board you can write and erase at will and post-it notes will stick and re-stick to it better than a wall’s surface or a paper board.

The white board also allows for the film’s story to evolve. This is especially important for a documentary film, which I akin to a puzzle without a reference picture. There will be a lot of trial and error as the story develops—and it will change during shooting, too.

At the time of this first meeting with the director, Justin Springer, he had a thesis in place and had already shot a couple scenes each with a few subjects. He had leads on a few more subjects but wasn’t sure where or how best they would fit into the story.

Knowing your thesis is vital. Without it it is impossible to make any decisions. So I knew we could jump right to the next step: defining each of the three acts of the film.

Whoa! you say. I thought this was a documentary? Aren’t acts reserved for fiction films?


Even though a documentary is non-fiction it is still first and foremost a piece of entertainment—which means, it needs to, well, entertain. Writers have relied on the three-act story structure as a foundation of entertaining stories for more than 2,000 years. So you can feel safe relying on it for your own story.

At the top of the board we drew three boxes for each of the film’s three acts. Within each we wrote what needed to happen. With this knowledge in hand, Justin was able to decide which of his subject leads to pursue. Each of those subject’s had their own unique experience with the VA. Through pre-interviews, we were able to discern where each subject’s experience best fit in and/or supported the acts and thereby the thesis. Pre-interviews also allowed us to think about the kind of scenes for the documentary film Justin should focus on for shooting, which we could similarly plug into our act structure.

For example, act three would offer a solution to the problem posed in act one. Act two needed to pile on that problem and end on a dire note. One subject Justin was in touch with had a son who died because of the VA’s negligent care. All of our other subjects may have been in bad shape, but they were still alive. It doesn’t get much worse than death. So knowing we needed a a strong note to end act two with, Justin pursed that subject, who ended up making the film.

Like with all documentary productions, things change once on the ground shooting. But with a macro structure in place, Justin had a blueprint to help him decide whether and how to pursue stories that developed during production.

One example happened while Justin was filming a subject in Phoenix. During a meeting at the VA the subject had organized, Justin met a woman who was dealing with an incurable nerve disease caused by negligent VA care. Justin knew immediately that her story would help support the film’s thesis. When we returned to Denver, we met again and updated the white board.

This process continued all throughout the filming and production stage. Once production wrapped, I already had a blueprint in place for beginning the post-production phase.

The deadline we were given for completing the film was very aggressive by documentary film standards. But I’m happy to report that we finished the film on time and on budget. We could not have done reached those goals without the story planning we put in on that white board and post-it notes.

Are you a documentary director looking for help on your film? No matter where you are in the film production process, this technique can help and save you valuable time and money. Our documentary film office is based in Denver but are able to help nationwide. Contact us to discuss your documentary film.




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