The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

The Power of Dramatising Your Ideas

Stacks Image 612

In the foreword to a book exploring the work of the great Polish drama director (and documentarian) Kristof Kieslowski, Stanley Kubrick wrote:

I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work…
...but it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatise their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realise until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.

That is all we are trying to do. Whether you are making a short film about cars, a comedy travel show or a feature-length documentary about bees.

You don't want to tell the audience what to think or feel; you want to dramatise it.

There used to be a phrase to describe an essential element of storytelling that floated around the industry - "Show, don't tell". And then, at some point during my career, this was subtly abandoned as a guide. I don't know why. Was it that it was seen as too difficult, too much effort? Perhaps it wasn't really needed to create a success? Was spectacle enough?

I distinctly remember working on a series 20 years ago, when I had to take a British series and re-version it for an American audience. The guidance I got was that I had to add more explosions and excitement (it was a series about geology) and continually tell the audience how extraordinary and exciting it was. But, of course, if something is awesome, then you really shouldn't have to tell it to the audience.

It should be obvious.

The excuse I was given was that there were now so many channels and that viewers were constantly hopping between them. You had to grab their attention at every moment. Hence, constant repetition and explanation.

I don't necessarily think that's true. And even if it is true (the channel hopping, that is), you have to dramatise your ideas so that the imagery you are using makes any kind of sense.

It applies to all stories, in every style. Now and in the future.

The first step in doing that is making sure you are clear about the argument your story is making. By this I mean, what is the reason that you are telling this story at all? It can be hard to discover the underlying theme, and an important way of doing it is to ask yourself how you want your audience to feel. This emotional experience is separate from the subject mater, but it's a consequence of it. It means that any story that you tackle can create an emotional response. Often, during research interviews, it's as simple as clearly asking how any event or step in the process made them feel. It forces them to consider the emtion under the experience, and if you listen carefully you can find how to build your story around these moments.

Stories matter to people when they are about something; when they are meaningful. Otherwise they become a list of fascinating moments. But that's not enough. If you can combine astonishing moments, timeliness or access with a meaningful narrative, then you have a success in any era.

Everything I teach is about dramatising your ideas and telling a meaningful story. That is at the heart of everything. If you want to make something of value you really have no choice.