3 Tips to a Standout Documentary
I recently binged watched Andrew Jarecki’s six part documentary, The Jinx, on HBO and I was enthralled. Most of us had heard of Robert Durst before. We’d seen headlines and heard rumors, maybe even watched Jarecki’s first film about Durst, All Good Things, but we had never seen him like this. Here, the monster, the murderer, is now a small, awkward old man shifting in his seat uncomfortably while Jarecki tries to pry the truth out of his decades of silence… and we’re never quite sure we get it.
Documentaries are about truth. They are visual essays intended to share knowledge, perspective and enlighten an audience. They are created by people who have a story that HAS to be told. The passion runs so deep they bury themselves in paperwork and evidence half a century old and surrender their own time, money and resources to share the story with the world.
In some cases, these stories are revolutionary and groundbreaking, in others, they are eye-opening and thought-provoking. In any case, great documentaries contain 3 key elements to keep your viewer hooked.
Who cares? Before you delve into the depths of creating your own documentary you have to ask yourself, “Who cares about this topic?” Followed by “How can I make people care?” Much like writing a screenplay or marketing a business, you must be sure you’re telling the story in a way that makes the viewer care. When they are mindlessly flipping through the endless possibilities on Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Sling, etc., what is it about your documentary that stands out among the crowd?
The intrigue element speaks to our intellect. It says we will gain new knowledge about how to drop weight quickly and revolutionize our health. It promises we can learn new tools for success in the business world. It says we are going to learn the answer to a question we didn’t even know we had.
Intrigue makes the viewer press select on YOUR documentary.
Now that you’ve posed the question, you must reveal an answer. You need to reveal a new truth by providing new evidence on a cold case, new findings for a study or a new perspective on an old topic.
The way and order you reveal the truth of your story, the way you personalize it and the way you present new information is how you hook the viewer. Building up the tension, hinting at what comes next, foreshadowing the breakthrough or demise of your characters and finding that pivotal piece makes a human connection.
If intrigue speaks to our intellect, then reveal speaks to our emotions. Fear. Empathy. Outrage. That’s how you get viewers to binge Making a Murderer and then spread the word on social media, to friends, and around the water cooler.
A solid documentary inspires the audience to ask more questions long after it’s over.
Did he really do it? Was that UFO only a military experiment? If I become a Keto Vegan can I take over the world?
As a truth-seeking storyteller, your job is to present the most accurate information in a meaningful and visually interesting way to your viewer and then trust them to take it from there. Is there a call to action? Should the viewer donate to a charity? Should they vote on an upcoming bill? Or are you simply hoping to satisfy a curiosity or inspire a thought-provoking discussion over a bottle of wine?
If your documentary doesn’t inspire the viewer to ask more questions, you may be doing it wrong.
The foundation of documentaries is truth. What truth do you need to tell?
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