How to Develop a Documentary Narrative Arc

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The narrative arc is a guide for the development of your documentary, similar to a road map. With your intended audience in mind, plan your narrative elements -- video footage, photos, voice-over, background sound, and narration -- to tell your story. Writing the narrative arc involves plotting your elements on a timeline with two tracks: On one track plot your visual elements. On the second, parallel track, plot your sound elements.

The narrative arc is a detailed outline of your story.
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Name your documentary with a working title. Created works take on a character of their own. Your published title will reflect the essence of the completed work.

Introduce your main character or subject. Plan a compelling beginning for your documentary. Unless you have a captive audience, you have only a couple minutes to grab and hold the attention of your viewers. Begin your narrative arc with visual or sound elements that will pique the interest of the audience.

Edit video footage to include the main action only.
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Build your storyline. Accelerate the action quickly. At this stage of your narrative arc, you are still building audience interest and pulling the audience further into the story. Edit carefully to remove unnecessary video footage leading up to or away from the action of a clip.

Inciting incidents include natural disasters, personal choices, historical events or relationship challenges.
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Plot your documentary around an inciting incident. (See References 1.) The inciting incident is the reason for the story. In this portion of your documentary, your characters or subjects face challenges, experience successes or failure, and are set up for change. Keep your editing tight. According to Sheila Curran Bernard, "In documentary, as in drama, you have to collapse real time into its essence." (See References 2.)

Documentary climax is followed by a gradual but short conclusion.
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Conclude your documentary narrative arc with elements that bring the story back full circle to the beginning or inciting incident. Use elements that portray change in your main subject.


  • When editing video footage, keep in mind the old adage of filmmakers: Enter late and leave early.


About the Author

For Judy Kilpatrick, gardening is the best mental health therapy of all. Combining her interests in both of these fields, Kilpatrick is a professional flower grower and a practicing, licensed mental health therapist. A graduate of East Carolina University, Kilpatrick writes for national and regional publications.

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