The Doc Fix

Our Approach to Structure and Story

When you look at a spectacular building, what do you see? The exterior design is the most prominent element, but part of me always thinks "How the hell did they get that to stay up?"

I don't know Frank Gehry's process. Even so, I'm confident that without a structural engineer calculating the strength of the beams, the depth of the foundations and a thousand other things then Ghery's vision would just be a pile of very expensive rubble.

The same is true of stories.

Many of the people I teach have been making programmes for a long time, very successfully. Over time they have built a set of storytelling tools that they are comfortable with, and which often define their own style of programme. It's a relatively natural and intuitive process. But if they are applied to a faulty structure anyone can get caught in a loop of trying one thing after another, with no real clue to why it’s just not ‘working’.

Structure is fundamental to a story working - in fact, the deeper you get into it, you will come to the realisation that meaning is defined by structure. So, clearly, you have to be able to see beyond surface issues of storytelling, to know if the structure is where the problems lie. And when you have, fix the issues that are sabotaging your story.

Unfortunately, one of the challenges when analysing a story is that storytelling and structure are blended together to simultaneously produce multiple effects. Separating out their impact is like trying to work out the ingredients of a cake from the finished product. Un-picking all this is a highly analytical process. But it can be learned. Most of us have the language of structure in our vocabulary - acts, scenes, theme, genre, plot, and so on. But not everyone knows how to use them accurately, and fluently.

What, then, are the skills needed to consistently fix a piece of narrative if it's failing?

I direct both factual programmes and drama, and I've always been fascinated by the crossover. I always wanted to find a way to take what appeared to be compatible techniques in drama and apply them to documentaries. At the time, I thought it might stop me relying on the same storytelling and directing approaches, and specifically help me come up with a perfect opening and closing to my films (which, looking back, must have meant my problems in stating and resolving a film’s theme as clearly as I could).

I remember attending one of Robert McKee's story seminars many years ago. I was at the BBC and hoped it would help me as a young factual producer and director. He spoke of structure, of three acts, of conflict, and a great deal about character. I came out inspired. What I learned was that to become a better storyteller I had to care more. Dig deeper, mine the truth, look into my soul, find deep conflict. But, even if that advice is valid on one level, it didn't seem like a good fit for factual programmes.

It's not that factual programmes don't require all those things, it’s that we often uncover them in different ways to dramatists. We take life directly and then structure it to create an impact. As factual programme-makers, we look around for stories and characters that exist in the real world, noticing events that we feel need sharing. We dig deeply into events and character, eventually finding a path through the material. From initial research to the end of the edit, we look at what we have and try to balance what is there with what we want to say.

Because in factual we are structuring existing content we can get away without building an initial working structure, which is comforting but can be highly problematic. You can create an edit that feels like a story, but clearly on some level is failing. Looking to drama and applying their techniques, without understanding when it's not going to help, can get you into more trouble and more deep-seated frustration.

McKee was popular at the BBC Factual for a while, but towards the end of a three or four-year cycle, you could see producers forcing themselves (or being forced) to make their stories follow the act structure as laid out by McKee, Syd Field and others. It began to come off the rails when these ideas simply popped up in the commentary ("And then there was no turning back" or "then everything changed" at act breaks were popular ones). There was something in these concepts that helped (clearly an attempt at understanding acts and scenes was better than nothing at all) but defining what elements appear to be in a story isn't the same as having a fluent ability in using them.

Over twenty years ago, I was introduced to a theory of story developed by Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Philips, called Dramatica. It's used in fiction as a fundamental way of understanding story structure. It's complicated, the language can appear arcane - but it's hugely powerful. Using it, it becomes clear why the order of things matter; a slap followed by a scream means something very different to a scream followed by a slap. Perspective and point of view too; one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Another insight is how content doesn't define conflict. And the chronology of events is very, very different from the plot. These (and many many more) insights come from an understanding that stories exist as a consequence of our attempts to fully understand a problem in our lives. And the structural insights you end up with are universal, and apply equally to everything from Love Island style reality shows to feature docs on BBC4's Storyville.

I've spent a long time taking these concepts and applying them to factual programming.

Just one example was in the Netflix series, Sunderland ‘Til I Die. I wanted to do something different with a programme, and free myself from the usual issue of the subject defining the conflict in the story. By that, I mean just because the subject matter was a football team and a town desperate to win a game, the goal of the programme didn't have to be “winning” (conflict comes from approach to your material, not the subject matter). I looked in a different area, and chose as the overall story the conflict within the way of thinking among all the main characters.

The backdrop was still football, and the city, and the agony of winning and losing. And there was still a vast amount of action on the pitch. But the context of the story was very different - the experience of it felt far more emotionally complex. The plot now was defined by the conflict between all the characters concerning how they thought. Setting this up at the beginning defined the acts breaks, the theme, the genre. It gave me a clue how to start the film, how to end it. It produced a very specific emotional feel. Above all it felt meaningful, and a little bit different. Everything that was filmed could be used, but to a very specific emotional and narrative purpose.

With the right tools, you can look at a programme that isn't working and, within a few hours, see the fundamental structural issues that are often at the heart of the problem. It's almost magical. Above all, it allows you to relax a little. It saves the endless round of working and reworking a cut. That's not to say there are always instant solutions, but at least you can see what needs to be done. You can have honest conversations about what's missing, what's not necessary, exactly how much extra interview, archive, or shooting is needed to solve the problem.

When that sense of calm descends, you can step back from the story, and be very clear about what it takes to create something meaningful. You can openly state what you want the audience to feel at the end of the programme, what the tone, genre, theme and feel you want to design into a programme. That objectivity is where the power is. It's not about one director working one way, an exec wanting something else. Everyone wants the film to work. They just need a common language to express what "working" actually means in the case of their specific programme or series.

The same concepts have worked equally well for me in Natural History films, history and arts, for every kind of broadcaster or streaming platform. Short form or long. That's what I use, and teach.

Sometimes films that had execs very nervous went on to be nominated or eventually win awards after a few weeks work. (I understand that awards don't always mean that much, but I think these programmes also benefited from the recency bias of going from disaster to nominatable in such a short period of time. Everyone fell in love with them once again).

Going back to the engineering analogy, engineers don't get into arguments about structure. There is a common goal - get the thing to stand up. When that works, the architects and designers get to have their fun. And subjectively that's where the creative discussion and collaboration takes off. I love all that intuitive, creative storytelling as well, but when I know I'm working with a solid structure, the freedom to experiment is liberating. In fact, because I give myself the freedom to experiment as a writer and director, some people think that the answers have come from creative storytelling. In fact, the solution was finding the structure that 'allowed' the creativity to be used.

This site provides resources for those who want the ability to sole problems in story structure quickly, efficiently and accurately. Please look around, and get in touch if you require any more information.

Nigel Levy
The Doc Fix