What I’ve learnt about storytelling after making 20+ short documentary-films.
What I have learnt is that, to be able to tell a good real life documentary story, you should have answers to the following ten big questions before going out and shooting anything.
The Ten Big Questions
- From whose point of view is the story being told (the protagonist)?
- What does the protagonist want (goal)?
- What is the protagonist’s motivation?
- Why will viewers care about the story (empathy)?
- What makes it difficult for the protagonist to get what he wants (challenge)?
- What is at stake?
- What is the visual-flow of the story?
- What are some of the worthwhile insights that the viewers gain from watching the story?
- What happens in the end?
- How would one sum up the story in one or two sentences?
And now, let me explain the importance of each of these questions, using examples from some of my video-stories.
Alright, let’s get started. Watch the below 3 minute story – Uncover. It’s about a guy who has been working over the last several decades to make school education fun and interesting – across the globe. This story has been played over 24,000 times on my Vimeo Channel and over 50,000 times on The Makers of Things Youtube channel. If you are wondering whether this is my highest watched story – the answer is no. That honour goes to a story titled “Because rape is not always about sex” (viewed almost 1 million times till date) and I will talk about that too, later in this article. For now, let’s just focus on Uncover, shall we?
I had made Uncover last year, when I wasn’t as clear about the “Ten Big Questions” as I am now. But let’s see how this story fairs on answering them anyway.
ONE: PROTAGONIST – from whose point of view is the story being told?
Uncover is clearly being told from Arvind Gupta’s point of view. It’s his story. He is the protagonist. For documentary stories, the protagonist could either be the subject(s) whose story is being told, or in scenarios where the story is not about any specific individual(s), the narrator / interviewer / film-maker himself could play that role. For example, in my first 3MS shared below, I was the protagonist myself (asking questions after questions, as the invisible narrator) even when Edson is the guy answering me.
Do keep in mind that stories told from an interesting subject’s point of view are generally more enjoyable (and relate-able at an emotional level) compared to those told from a narrator’s point of view (which very often become more of a commentary and less of a story). What do you think of “Can’t Stop Shooting on Film” – doesn’t it feel more like an interesting, informative commentary than a story? It does, but what’s the harm? Well, most viewers watch (and share) a video told from a narrator’s point of view ONLY when either the insight that they get is a novel one or if the narrator is hilarious!
Can’t Stop Shooting on Film got viewed and shared thousands of times (27k to be precise), but not because it was a great story (it was hardly a ‘story’). It got shared mostly because, up until this video, there was almost nothing on internet, that tried answering a simple question ‘why do some people still work with film cameras in a digital age?’.
Once I made this, the film photography lovers who even broadly agreed with the answer provided in the video, started sharing it in their circles. The video offered a novel insight and so it worked. But if I can go back in time to redo the story, I would keep Edson as the protagonist and the story will be about what he wants (to share his knowledge of film photography with others), what he is doing about it (running a community darkroom) and what makes it difficult for him to do what he wants (lack of funds and awareness). In the process, all the insights that you gain from the existing version, would still be there!
Compared to a commentary like ‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’, when there is a “story” to be told too, viewers not only gain insight but also connect with the story at an emotional level. I am sure that when you saw Uncover, you didn’t just learn new things, you also ‘felt’ nice about Arvind Gupta as an individual and about his initiative. Didn’t you?
Stories told from an interesting subject's point of view are generally more enjoyable compared to those told from a narrator's point of view.
TWO: GOAL: What does the protagonist want?
There cannot be a story to show (worth watching) where the viewers are not sure what the protagonist wants. And therefore it is important that this question be answered (though not explicitly). For example, in Uncover, when Arvind Gupta speaks for the first time, all he does is talk about what happens to a child in a school. He is only talking about a problem. And yet, once he is done talking, most viewers should be able to guess that the story is going to be about what he has done / will do to solve the problem. Viewers’ life experience of watching movies intuitively tells them that when they are shown / told about a problem in the beginning of a movie, the rest of the movie is usually about how the problem is solved. Thus, Arvind Gupta’s “goal” becomes clear early on to the viewers, even when he never says so himself.
Ideally speaking, in any story, the protagonist’s goal should become clear to viewers early on. In a 3 minute story for example, the viewers should typically be able to figure out what the protagonist wants within say the first 30 to 40 seconds (if not any earlier). Sometimes, for short-video stories, this can be taken care of, even by long headline titles (like “You will never ask why some people still work with film cameras”).
THREE: MOTIVATION: Why does the protagonist want, what he wants?
If the protagonist’s motivation is not clear to the viewers, they won’t relate much to the story. In Uncover, when viewers listen to Arvind Gupta talk about his early life as a teacher, they understand his motivation – he has witnessed the problem first hand, so he wants to do something about it. Fair enough!
In some stories, the protagonist’s motivation is self-evident and nothing additional needs to be shown to explain it. For example, in the below story (‘The Funny Man’), a guy talks about wanting to follow his passion. It’s a self-understood motivation – everyone wants to follow his / her passion – that’s a basic human nature – need not be explained!
As long the viewers are clear about the motivation, the story works.
FOUR: EMPATHY: Why should the viewers care about the protagonist’s journey?
When you have a protagonist who wants something, he is supposed to try and get that thing. This leads to his journey (till he fulfills his goal). A “story” is nothing much, but a tale about this journey of the protagonist and viewers will watch a story only when they care about the journey in the first place.Why do viewers care to watch Arvind Gupta’s story? I think it’s because most of them relate to the problem that he speaks about (children not being themselves in schools). They relate to it, understand it and want to know how he is trying to solve the problem, if at all.
‘Can’t Stop Shooting in Film’ got viewed thousands of times, in spite of being a commentary than a story because it offered an answer to film photography lovers that they cared about, and wanted their friends to know – ‘see this video, this tells you why I can’t move on from film photography’.’The Funny Man’ works because we all care about someone who quits his job (especially if it’s as hard-earned as Jeeveshu’s – the protagonist’s) to follow his passion.
FIVE: CHALLENGE: What makes it difficult for the protagonist to get what he wants?
Greater the challenges, more interesting (and therefore more memorable) the story is.
In ‘Uncover’, the challenge bit is extremely underplayed but mentioned nevertheless (at around 2:25, Arvind Gupta talks about resistance from teachers). If I could go back and remake the story, I would probably focus more on his challenges – and how he survived them. Back then, I was working mostly on intuition and probably got carried away by the awesomeness of his toys from trash.
What’s so challenging about ‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’? Well, think about it, the whole video is essentially about answering a “challenging question” – why do some people keep shooting on film even in this digital age? When I made this video, I was genuinely curious about this question. I didn’t know what the answer was. I ‘struggled’ to find out the answer. A viewer who cares about the same question, shares my struggle.
In ‘The Funny Man’ – Jeeveshu’s entire story is about sailing through challenges (be it personal or professional).
Only when the protagonist faces challenges, a story moves. It should never be easy for him to get what he wants and in longer stories, he should fail several times till he eventually achieves his goal. Viewers love a protagonist who fails but never gives up and keeps trying. There might be small successes in his journey, but the grand success – that ultimate goal, can be achieved only in the end. The moment a protagonist has what he wants, and does not know what he wants next, the story stops. When he wants something new after achieving his first goal, a new story begins.
Only when the protagonist faces challenges, a story moves.
SIX: STAKE: What will happen if the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants? Will the world come to an end?
What would have happened, had Arvind Gupta not made his toys (and the hundreds of how-to Youtube videos that children across the world see and learn from)? Well, the world would probably be a less better place for children, may be? This is the best that I can think of, in retrospect. If I could go back in time and re-edit the story, I would probably throw in some statistic showing how a “large” number of children in most schools (at least in India) are unhappy and suffering from rote learning – highlighting the enormity of the problem. Doing so would definitely make this story better (by upping the stake).
When I made ‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’ I had definitely not thought about ‘stake’. But what do I think now? Was there anything at stake at all? What would have happened had I not figured out ‘why do some people still work with film photography in this digital age?’ I would have probably remained ignorant about the meaning of “art” – for a long long time. What more can I say? 🙂
In Jeeveshu’s story the stake is definitely very clear. He wasn’t born rich. He had to struggle through petty jobs and worked for many years to reach a high position in a well established corporate job. Leaving all of that to follow his passion was a big risk! If he didn’t get what he wished for, he would be royally screwed!
SEVEN: VISUAL-FLOW: When viewers see the film, what exactly do they see (other than a face talking) on the screen when the film starts and what do they see when the film ends? And how are these scenes related / connected? Is there a clear flow of events from the beginning till the end?
I must say that I have typically sucked big time on being able to pull off visual flow of any sort – in most of my stories. None of the above three video-stories for example, have any clearly defined visual flow. But I genuinely believe that, had they managed to retain a visual flow of events, each one of them could have been better stories. Anyway, let me share below one of my stories from this year, which is more of an art project but shows you what visual flow really means. It is the story about how an old guy lives alone in an Indian village.
By the way, do you realize what the problem with this story is? Emotional but kind of slow, isn’t it? Why do you think it comes out as a slow moving piece of art project (which is what it exactly is)? The answer is simple – I didn’t care to explain what the protagonist wanted early enough. It is only after few minutes of observing him going through his daily chores that viewers realize Maniram, the protagonist, is essentially trying to keep himself busy by doing something or the other all day. He probably just wants to survive being lonely and alone in his house – entertaining himself in whatever way that he can.
EIGHT: INSIGHTS: What are some of the worthwhile insights that the viewers gain from watching the story?
‘Uncover’ tells you how interesting and educational toys can be made from trash.
‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’ is all about insight (exploring the thought process of those who work with film).
‘The Funny Man’ is full of insights – how call centres helped many average Indians get nice jobs over the last decade, what happens behind making of an ad-film, how one cannot write 10 hours a day simply because one has quit his job etc. – in fact a lot of scenes exist in the story, simply because of their insight value. I wanted the viewers to learn something new as they saw the story (things that I found interesting when I heard about them).
‘Maniram’s story’ is full of insights (how does a house of an old Indian villager look like, what kind of things does an old villager do to kill time, a bit of commentary on the changing trends in India etc.).
When a real life story has new / interesting insights, viewers believe it was time well spent (beyond just entertainment) and end up sharing the story with their friends and family – sometimes, just for the sake of that insight. And this brings me to my highest viewed story – “Because rape is not always about sex”, that I am very sure went viral the way it did, mainly because of the interesting insight that it was able to bring out in the form of a short video.
When a real life story has new / interesting insights, viewers believe it was time well spent and end up sharing the story with their friends and family - sometimes, just for the sake of that insight.
NINE: END: What happens in the end – does the protagonist get what he wanted?
In many stories, the question never is “will he get it?” but “how will he get it?” – in such cases, when the “how” part has been fully explained, the story ends. Either way, the end should be clear.
Arvind Gupta’s story ends once the viewers realize the scale of his impact.
‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’ ends, soon after my core question has been answered (though when I look at it now, after two years – it feels like two different stories put together; one about the curious narrator and another about what Edson is doing).
Jeeveshu’s story ends once the viewers note that he is extremely happy about the choice that he made.
Maniram’s story ends when he goes to take a nap and the viewers can kind of guess, there is nothing much that is going to happen anymore.
Because rape is not always about sex, ends when the explanation is over (and the bigger issue highlighted).
TEN: CONCLUSION: What is the story about (in one or two sentences)?
I have already answered this for all the video-stories cited above. This is an important question to answer because if you are not able to, it is highly unlikely that you can make a 3 minute story – or even a 5 minute one. I do remember creating a story where I had not bothered to answer this question while filming / editing. I ended up making a ten minute story and guess how I had to explain the story in one sentence afterwards – “two stories in one”. I don’t think I will repeat that mistake again. 🙂 Even if there are multiple stories that you want to include in one video-documentary (and they are connected to one another in some way), it is important to take a call on which story is the “main story” and let that one dominate. By the way, below is the story that I am talking about (two stories in one).
And before I conclude this article, let me quickly add two other story-telling elements that need to be taken care of, but typically AFTER the shoot. They are “hook” and “pace”.
Hook: It refers to the first 10-25 seconds of any video-story that will make the viewers decide whether they want to continue watching it or not.
Most viewers watching videos online have a low level of patience and unless there is an effective “hook”, they will never watch the full video (and thus not even reach the stage where they can wonder who the protagonist is, what he wants etc.). While one can have some broad ideas about possible hooks before shooting, from my experience, the final hook that I end up using, gets discovered only after I have all the footage that I need and start seeing them. Before I go out and shoot, everything is just theory. What I bring home after a shoot is the real stuff. When you see the real stuff, it is not very difficult to figure out what the hook should be.
- ‘Uncover’ – Arvind Gupta talks about a problem that most viewers will relate to – so they continue watching to see what he does to solve the problem.
- ‘Can’t Stop Shooting on Film’ – Edson talks about not going digital because he loves the smell of chemicals – this makes the viewers want to know more about what he is talking about.
- ‘The Funny Man’ – Jeeveshu talks about the two kinds of reaction that someone who has quit his job to follow his passion receives. Anyone who has ever tried to follow his passion will immediately relate to this, and would most likely want to watch further.
- Maniram’s Story – the first shot shows someone cleaning a wash-basin by his bare hands – it grabs the viewers’ attention as they want to know whose hand that is and why is he doing what he is doing (“visual hook”).
- ‘Because rape is not always about sex’ – As the video starts, Shreena tells that rape is often not even about sexual frustration. That makes many viewers ask ‘how exactly?’ and they then wait to get an explanation – which is pretty much what the rest of the video tries to do – ‘explain’.
- ‘Good Deeds Come Back’ – in the opening scene, a house falls down in a river. It is difficult to not watch the story after that. The viewers want to know why the house fell down and what is the story about.
Pace: Even when you get everything else taken care of, it is still easy to lose viewers if the speed of your video-story isn’t just right.
If you show things too fast for the viewers to comprehend, they might not get the story and thus stop watching. If you show things too slow (or repeat an information), they might get bored and stop watching. There is no right formulae that I know of, to get the pacing right. What does work for me is, making others have a look at the first cut and then taking their feedback into consideration when re-editing.
So there you go. This is most of what I have learnt about storytelling after making over 20 short documentary-films. So much more to learn, so many more stories to create! If you are a startup and wondering if I also make stories other than those on individuals or social stories, the answer is yes, I do. Like the one below (played over 180,000 times). The same rules of storytelling apply to startup stories as well. Over and out!