May 17, 2022

The craft of documentary storytelling | Part 2.

What makes a good story? What makes you turn the page, keep watching or listening? Is there a method by which we can tell our own stories better?


A story has a beginning, middle and end. Ideally, the end should bring the plot lines together or answer questions posed at the beginning. But a story also needs tension, action and a narrative. Imagine creating a documentary and collecting all kinds of beautiful scenes, how would you put this together? It’s all about structure. Be flexible though – the structure you have in mind should not be fixed or linear in any way.

The craft of documentary storytelling

The style and tone should match the kind of story you are telling.



So, structure is needed, but what else? A good story has a theme, a central idea that you must be able to summarise in one or two words: betrayal, romance, mystery, escape, etc. The theme must also connect to the ending. Such a theme does not necessarily have to be explicit, as long as it emerges from the story, because it is extra nice for your audience to discover it for themselves. A strong theme makes such a discovery even more powerful.

Documentary storytelling
Reelmedia film storytelling


The theme is intertwined with the atmosphere. The style and tone should match the kind of story you are telling. You determine the look by casting and directing characters well, with well-chosen scenery, clothing, vehicles, and so on. This all contributes to the right atmosphere and gives your story a proper dose of persuasiveness. 

The craft of documentary storytelling


Finally, keep it simple. A good story does not overcomplicate things. Telling too much is a common mistake when conveying information. A report with too many details that undermine your structure becomes a boring story! Have a look at our film ‘I have the right’, a victim-centred approach to assist and support victims of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment. We opted for a simple, sensitive and impactful script that foregrounds the rights of victims and the dignity they desire to rebuild their lives.

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