The craft of documentary storytelling | Part 3

The narrative structure is about two things: the content of a story and the form used to tell the story. We'll show you more in depth how to construct your story to make sense of time, place and characters.

Let the story unfold over time

One way to create a narrative is to represent the development of the story over time. The story unfolds, and more information is gradually being revealed. With this structure we often begin with the introduction of the main characters, the location and the theme. As the story progresses we get to learn more about these things and their importance in the narrative.

Open with a statement or question

Another way of doing it is by opening with a question, statement or thesis. All following scenes would then have to relate to the main question. This approach could be interpreted as top-down in the sense that we start with a general thought and go into the specifics as time develops. The ending of this structure model represents a conclusion, solution or answer.  

Three-act structure

The first act usually begins with a description that shows the main characters, their relationships, and the world in which they live. Later on, an inciting event occurs that pulls the main characters out of their normal world and into the main plot of the story. The action ends with a turning point, which initiates the action into the second act.

The middle part consists of an ascent to the midpoint of the action, which then evolves into a crisis, also known as the “rising action”. The second act usually ends with another turning point, which makes it appear that the protagonist will fail.

This includes the events leading up to the climactic confrontation, which culminates in a scene or sequence in which the main tension of the story is brought to its most intense point and answers dramatic questions, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new understanding of who they really are. Finally, the story is downgraded in the ending and the climactic events return to normal life.

Five-act structure

  1. Explosion: Set fixed at a specific place and time, set the mood and introduce the characters.
  2. Rising action: Build up to the point of maximum interest in one or several stages. These events are usually the most important part of the story, as the entire plot depends on them to set up the climax and ultimately make the story itself satisfying.
  3. Climax: The climax is the turning point that changes the fate of the protagonist.
  4. Falling action: The protagonist is struck by the enemy.
  5. Catastrophe (resolution): The final episode happens and everything that is being built ends up happening at the same time.

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