A story – at its core – is a telling of an event crafted to engage an audience. 

What elements are essential to command attention?

In the realm of documentary filmmaking, you figure this out during the transition from research to planning. Creating the story summary is crucial moment, when you finally able to define the backbone of your narrative. This is not merely a step in the process; it’s an art form that involves weaving together crucial elements to ensure your audience is not just watching, but experiencing and engaging with your narrative.

Here’s how you can craft a compelling story summary that will serve as the foundation of your documentary production.

Identifying Your Protagonist

The heart of every story is its character(s). Whether you’re spotlighting an individual, a group, or even anthropomorphizing animals or objects, the key is to make them relatable. Ask yourself: Who is the story about? What is the event we are chronicling and from whose perspective? Understanding who your protagonist(s) is – is key. It determines how your audience will relate to the issues and events in your story.

In the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?“, the character at the heart of the story is Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film explores not just Rogers as a television personality, but as a compassionate human being who impacted the lives of many. By focusing on Rogers’ empathetic approach to addressing complex issues with children, the documentary highlights the profound effect a singular, well-developed character can have on an audience. It shows how Rogers, through his actions and perspectives, brought about change and understanding in the world of children’s television.

Unraveling The Conflict

Conflict is the engine of your narrative. It’s what propels your character(s) into action, striving to achieve something amidst challenges. This element answers the questions: What does the character want, and why is it difficult to achieve? The nature of this conflict makes your story compelling and keeps your audience invested, as they follow the protagonist’s pursuit of their goal, uncertain of the outcome.

Blackfish” is a powerful example of a documentary that centers around the conflict between the captivity of killer whales and their natural instincts and needs. The film specifically focuses on Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld, and the tragic consequences of keeping such intelligent and emotional creatures in captivity. This conflict is not only between the orcas and their captors but also within the broader societal and ethical implications of animal entertainment. The documentary dives deep into the struggle of these majestic creatures, drawing the audience into a compelling narrative that questions humanity’s dominion over nature.

Elevating The Stakes

To deepen your audience’s investment in your story, you must artfully convey the stakes. There are two layers to consider here: the significance of the goal and the escalating challenges faced. Through strategic storytelling, you can reveal why the goal is vital to the protagonist and how the journey becomes increasingly difficult. This not only builds tension but also ensures your audience is rooting for the protagonist’s success.

In “An Inconvenient Truth“, the stakes are global climate change and its catastrophic impact on Earth. By presenting scientific data, personal anecdotes, and future projections, the documentary elevates the stakes to a global level, making the audience deeply care about the issue. The film strategically shares information throughout to increase the tension and the hopes that collective action can mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s a prime example of how a documentary can make a complex, often abstract issue feel urgent and personal.

Charting The Arc

A story’s arc is a testament to transformation. It’s essential to showcase how your character changes through their endeavors. How do their experiences, the pursuit of their goals, and the obstacles encountered, contribute to their growth? This evolution can manifest as a shift in perspective, beliefs, actions, or even appearance. Highlighting this journey enriches your narrative and makes it more relatable.

The Act of Killing” explores the transformation of Indonesian death squad leaders who reenact their mass killings in various cinematic genres. Throughout the documentary, the audience witnesses a profound change in these individuals, especially Anwar Congo, who begins to grasp the gravity of his actions. The arc is chilling and unsettling, showcasing how revisiting past atrocities can lead to a change in perspective, albeit a painful and conflicted one. This transformation underscores the documentary’s powerful exploration of guilt, responsibility, and the human capacity for self-delusion.

Crafting The Resolution

The resolution is where all threads come together. It answers the pivotal question: Does the protagonist achieve what they set out to do? The most gratifying resolutions often affirm this but in a way that surprises the audience. If the goal is abstract, presenting a tangible outcome as a symbol of success can be particularly impactful.

Searching for Sugar Man” beautifully illustrates the concept of an unexpected resolution. The documentary follows two South Africans setting out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the American folk musician Rodriguez, whose music played a significant role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The resolution is both surprising and deeply satisfying, revealing that Rodriguez had been living a modest life in Detroit, unaware of his fame and impact thousands of miles away. The physical manifestation of success is not only Rodriguez’s late-life recognition but also the profound effect his music had on a generation of South Africans.

Creating a story summary is a critical step in documentary production, requiring a delicate balance of elements that captivate and resonate with the audience. Character, conflict, stakes, arc, and resolution can be woven together to create a narrative that not only informs and engages but also leaves a lasting impact on the audience. Through these elements, filmmakers are able to craft stories that resonate on a deeply human level, encouraging empathy, understanding, and, in many cases, action.