The Doc Fix


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

“The simple concept is not always the best, but the best is always simple.”

That's a quote that struck me as being essentially true but from an unlikely place. Gitta Sereny's remarkable biography of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect (and much more)

"The simple concept is not always the best, but the best is always simple" is from Speer's first architecture professor, Heinrich Tessenow.

It's been my consistent experience in the edit.

There comes the point when the story you are working on can seem so complex that it's hard to find a way out. And then, perhaps weeks later (or months if you're unlucky), you get to a version that is so clear and simple you wonder why you couldn't have thought of that in the first place.

If you have problems creating your narrative, is there a way to speed up that process from complexity to simplicity?

Well, storytelling is complex in itself. One of the many reasons is that you, the storyteller, are both the audience and the author. The problems come when you tend to use the audience side of you to fix all your problems.

You read or watch your cut or your material, and then depending on how it feels to you, you make changes.

But that meaning (or feeling) comes from how all the elements are blended together - the themes, character, music, editing, plot order and so on. There is nothing inherent in your response that gives you clues as to how to correct something that feels wrong.

It's like looking at and tasting a cake and then working out how to change the ingredients.

That only works if you are entirely aware of the elements that go into making the cake and how they combine in the first place. That is a technical skill. It comes down to knowing what works with what and how to combine them.

It's a real, learned skill.

Remember, when it comes down to it, you are not the audience; you are the author.

The author's tools when constructing a story are things like being absolutely clear about the thematic argument you are making. It's about knowing the precise meaning and feeling you are trying to create for the audience at the end of your story (or at least as precise as you can define it). You have to be clear about the various approaches you are taking to tackle the dramatic problem. How to move through acts. What is your inciting incident?

And so on.

If you are just depending on your reactions, your edit experience when trying to refine and repair your story can be like walking through treacle.

You may be persuading yourself that this is the right and only way to proceed - if that's the only process you know. But as time ticks by and you don't quite say what you want to communicate with your film, you are wasting the precious resources at your disposal.

But with the right tools and the right system, you can quickly analyse and then correct problems you come up against. Yes, you can still love what you are doing as an audience - looking back at sequences and scenes with your editor and being delighted that it works so well. But you have to separate that process from the one of creating that experience in the first place.

And the reason it feels like going from complexity to simplicity is that you are simply reducing the number of ingredients to produce a single effect. You are removing what is not necessary to produce the desired result.

Why have things in there that makes no difference?

These tools and how to use them are what we teach in The Doc Fix.

Yes, you should be driven by a passion for creating something meaningful, in whatever form you like - feature documentary, shorts, series, commercials and so on. But the fundamentals - the foundation - come from using the right tools in the right way.

All the best - Nigel