Storytellers Needed Pt. 2: The 11 questions that will guide you in creating a compelling short docum
In Pt. 1 of this series, I recall the early days of my film career when my goal was to make Hollywood blockbusters in the vein of Top Gun and The Rock. I describe how that all changed when I was asked to produce a documentary film. Through the process, I realized the transformative power of non-fiction filmmaking to strengthen community, change or alter behaviors, and to inspire others to do good. I tossed my Hollywood dream aside and charged head-first into a career of non-fiction filmmaking and to help others to tell their stories as well. In Pt. 2, I discuss the 11 questions I focus on answering in the process of making a documentary film. By answering these questions, you'll be well on your way to having the basic story elements you need to tell stories through video.
Documentary filmmaking is about asking questions and searching for answers.
Be the champion of your own story.
Keep this simple: With this exercise, you will learn the formula for making a video story that is three minutes in length (or up to a full 90-minute documentary). It doesn't have to be on the scope and scale of this year's Oscar nominees. This is practice. To start, you need to answer these 11 questions. The answers are the backbone of your story, so give each of these questions some serious thought.
What is the message I want to get across?
Who is the audience I am trying to reach with my video?
What is the goal I want to reach in the climax of my story?
How will I feel when I accomplish my goal?
How will I feel if I am not successful?
What are the forces working against me?
How equipped am I to overcome these challenges?
What actions do I take to move toward my goal?
Do I achieve my primary goal in the end?
What did I learn in the process of trying to reach my goal?
What will I do next?
If you're prepared, the process of telling a story is like taking a walk to the store. You begin somewhere, travel through something, and end up somewhere. In the end the store either had what you were looking for or didn't. OR you might end up buying something you hadn't planned to.
1. What is the message I want to get across?
This is where you decide what the audience will walk away with. You want them to feel a certain way. Quite possibly, you want them to act. That action could be to change a habit or to change their perception of something they thought they knew. This is very specific. Knowing what you want to say is absolutely the most important aspect of making a video story. It will dictate how you answer the rest of these questions.
Examples of takeaway messages from my work:
This is Not a Chocolate Factory (2003): Citizens must be watch dogs, making sure corporations behave in a way that is in the best interest of human health and the environment.
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): We benefit as a nation and a world when we maintain a space program that is worthy of the ambitions of our most promising young people.
A Wreck Hunter's Evolution (2015): More personal reward exists in the protecting of historical artifacts for future generations than in the selfish pursuit of treasure hunting.
Knowing the group (or groups) you intend to reach with your film will help you communicate your message in a meaningful way that relates to your audience.
2. Who is the audience I am trying to reach with my video?
For every story, whether it be a book, a play, a short film, or a Hollywood blockbuster, the author or filmmaker has to decide who they are speaking to. There could be several different audiences. Generally considered are the following - Primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Your primary audience is the group of people that you want to affect the most; people whose minds you want to change. Your secondary audience could be people that agree with you and who will benefit from being emboldened by your message. Your tertiary audience might be people who have a general interest in a theme or topic present in your film.
Examples of audiences from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014):
Primary Audience - The voting public. They influence national space policy by electing representatives that support programs that push the boundaries of human space flight.
Secondary Audience - Middle school teachers and students. The main character of the film - a high school senior - serves as a role model to young people by participating in sports, FIRST Robotics, and by pursuing his dream of becoming an astronaut.
Tertiary Audience - A general audience that enjoys the subjects of NASA, human space flight, technology and science.
Knowing where you WANT to end up is important. It will help you understand what to look for and the questions to ask as you make your film.
3. What is the goal you want to reach in your story?
In every story, the character has a desire for something. It could be to graduate with honors, to ski your first double diamond ski slope successfully after having broken your leg on the last attempt, or it could be confronting your parent about their addiction to cigarettes. Depending on the audience you are trying to reach, you'll convey this with some thought about expressing that which you want. In that example, maybe your audience is other young people that have a parent who smokes and want them to stop.
Examples of character goals from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair becomes an astronaut.
This is Not a Chocolate Factory (2003): Toxic waste that has been haunting the citizens of Montague is no longer a threat; citizens are more vigilant.
Slant's One Shot (2003): The band signs a record deal.
There's a difference between how you THINK you'll feel and how you WILL feel, but setting the audience up to want to see the best outcome is important and gives them something to anticipate and relate to. By letting them know how you think you'll feel, you're setting a benchmark for success or disappointment (or something in between).
4. How will I feel if I accomplish my goal?
This is an important question because if you can articulate how reaching this goal will feel personally to you, the audience will be more apt to appreciate your efforts in reaching your goal. If you don't have any skin in the game - or your main character doesn't seem to really care if they are successful or not - your audience won't care either. This sets up the emotional importance of reaching this goal. It might be to get an "A" on a test or to jump out of an airplane. This also sets up a standard for how the audience will experience you (or your character) either reaching or not reaching your goal.
Example from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014):
Blair says he'll never give up on his goal. At the same time, he acknowledges he might never reach it. Other characters in the film talk about how Blair, as someone who is striving to be an astronaut, would be such a high-achiever that regardless he will contribute greatly to society. A secondary character talks about how sad he is to not be working in the space program any longer.
Nobody wants to be disappointed. Blair has a realistic vision of his dream of becoming an astronaut. In his case, he's not one to let the odds discourage him.
5. How will I feel if I am not successful?
This, too, gives the audience a signal of what to expect down the road and how to react to it. If the audience understands that by not getting an "A" in your class you will be absolutely devastated or that by not being chosen for the soccer team you'll feel like you don't belong in the school, they will relate to you as the story moves forward. The audience understands what a goal is and they understand disappointment. They will be invested in the process if you've connected with them on this level. They don't want to be disappointed either. Allow yourself or your character to relate these human fears through your film.
Example from my work:
Slant's One Shot (2003): The members reflect that daily "normal life" is boring and unfulfilling. We don't want to see them have to resort to a desk job any more than we want ourselves to have to work a desk job.
NASA Administrator, Gen. Charlie Bolden, describes to Blair NASA's current goals and discusses the traits an astronaut should embody.
6. What are the forces working against me?
It is important you know this for several reasons. In life, you need to know what you're up against. In the case of telling a story, illustrating the forces working against you is paramount to telling an engaging story. These forces should be "played up" as often as possible. The greater the odds, the higher the stakes. You must be ready to continually remind your audience that this isn't going to be easy. The more hurdles that lie in your way the more compelling your story and the more engaging your film will be.
Example from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014) Blair is faced with incredible odds. He first has to graduate high school. In his mind, he is also given the best chance if he is accepted into the Naval Academy, where the largest group of astronauts have gotten their start. One must be nominated by a senator, congressman or the President. He has to meet the physical requirements. On top of all that, America's dedication to space exploration seems to be waning. The shuttle is being retired. The program that would take it's place is being cancelled. The latest project could be underfunded or cancelled by the next administration. There are only 500 people that have been to space. You're more likely to become an NBA player than an astronaut. Other people have dedicated their lives to the space program and watched their jobs disappear. Our education system is terrible and isn't preparing kids for the challenges of life, let alone the space program. These are only a few of the challenges Blair faces in the film.
Blair demonstrates promise at every turn. From leading his robotics team to swimming daily, competing in a triathlon; he couples his academic rigor with athleticism - traits an ideal astronaut would embody.
7. How equipped are you to overcome these challenges?
In order for your story to be believable and for you to be credible as someone trying to achieve a specific goal, the audience needs to have some understanding of the skills or traits you embody that will help you get there. If you're a legless pirate it's hard to imagine you winning the long jump. But, then again, the process of you trying to prove your audience and your detractors wrong might be entertaining. You should have taken or be taking steps that will get you to your goal. These are the weapons you have to combat the obstacles that lie in your way. You can certainly downplay these weapons' capabilities and that can play to your story's advantage, but we also don't want to see you as completely insane. Or do we? Your goal should be attainable, even if the odds are remote. This shouldn't be a total pipe dream. It should lie somewhere between "very difficult" and "almost impossible".
Examples from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair has wanted to achieve this goal since he was three. He's illustrated this in his elementary school classes, taken high school classes that will prepare him for the Naval Academy and is leading his robotics team. He also swims every day and has stayed committed to the same goal up through high school. He is clearly a leader, but he's not there yet. He's as equipped as any young person might be.
Blair is attempting to make his resume and experiences as appealing as possible to the Naval Academy and thinking even further down the road. He is articulate at illustrating how each of these experiences has helped to shape who he is, his ability to meet challenges and his leadership skills.
8. What actions do I take to work toward my goal?
This is the bulk of your story. Actions are the driving force behind all the elements that move your story forward. Your first action might be a decision. Like the decision to pursue a goal. Your next action might be to take that first step, whatever it is. It could be something simple, like putting on your clothes and then stepping out the front door. Or it might be something more substantial, like trying out for the soccer team. In each of these actions there is a decision and an outcome based off working toward both short term and long term goals. These bumps in the road (which relate to questions 6 and 7) will help us understand how hard you or your character is willing to work toward something and the results will reveal their capabilities. How they respond to setbacks is equally important. You may decide to change your approach after a setback, but how you respond will keep the story moving forward. However, not every action will be important in moving the story forward. Be mindful of this, but also keep an open mind. Always try to play up the stakes, try to downplay your character's chances of success, and emphasize the magnitude of the challenges that lie in their path. This will make each action seem that much more important.
Examples from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair has been working hard in school, something important if he wants to get into the Naval Academy. After his second year on the team he is now its CEO. He applies for the Naval Academy. He swims every day. He competes in a triathlon. He asks real life astronauts how he can do what they have done. Blair seems to be doing everything right. So what stands in his way?
The way you portray your abilities (or those of the character) should be cunning, but also in doubt. We want to believe you have the traits needed to be successful, but the higher you make the goal appear, the better.
9. Do I achieve my primary goal in the end?
This should be able to be illustrated literally, but also existentially. It's a real battle, but also a moral one. Either you or your character needs to illustrate one way or another whether the stated goal was actually achieved. That might sound obvious, but a common mistake is that the amateur director takes us up to and through the climax and we didn't even know it. This is the closure your audience needs.
Examples of goals achieved (or not) from my work:
A Wreck Hunter's Evolution (2015): Steve achieves his goal of seeing to it that the things he cares most about are protected. He ensures this protection by becoming a volunteer at the local national marine sanctuary and by encouraging other treasure hunters to follow suit.
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair has partially achieved his dream. He is accepted into the Naval Academy where more astronauts have gotten their start than any other institution. He is still not an astronaut, but he is on his way.
Slant's One Shot (2003): Watch the film at the bottom of this article and decide if the band achieved their goal or not.
Both your character and your audience will have takeaways at the end of the film. If your character is relatable, the audience's learning curve will be similar to your character's. In other words, they will be experiencing the world through your character during the film.
10. What did you learn in the process of trying to reach your goal?
Whether or not you or your character achieves their primary goal, you've been through a life-changing experience. If you're successful you might learn several things about yourself. Maybe you underestimated yourself. Maybe you learned the value of having a supportive community or team. Maybe you learned that what you thought you wanted wasn't so important to you after all. If you weren't successful, maybe you also realized it wasn't so important to you. OR, you are going to try again, but do it differently. Always, though, you learn something about who you are or who your character is. If your character accomplishes their goal they probably have a new goal or a next step in the process ahead of them. They are still alive, after all, so there's always a next challenge or a new situation to overcome. The audience wants to learn lessons, too. So including this in your film is important. It helps give closure and eludes to the fact that this story might be over as a film, but will continue in real life. This is the ultimate takeaway for you, your character, and your audience. So pay attention to this, one of the most important questions you need to answer.
Example of a lesson-learned from my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair is a pretty determined young man and he seems to have the "right stuff" to achieve the lofty goals he's set for himself. While the film ends before Blair becomes an astronaut, he has accomplished some pretty impressive things along the way: Getting into the Naval Academy, leading his robotics team and competing in a triathlon. At the robotics competition, the team struggles to get the robot to perform well in early rounds. They have trouble with some of the code in the robot's programming. At one point, the robot falls over and they are done for the round. Blair's attitude is that "things break, they always break" but that they can be fixed and that the team can learn from its mistakes. What I think my audience learns is that Blair is clearly capable of accomplishing his goals, but that funding for the space program, human interest in pursuing the challenges of space exploration, and ultimately elected officials will decide Blair's fate and those of promising young people like him. In the end, we learn that Blair's success depends on us and that in order for us to be successful as a nation we need to support young people like Blair and "give them a space program worthy of their ambitions."
Setting the stage for what might happen beyond the duration of your film is necessary to provide the kind of closure an audience needs to feel satisfied and for the conclusion to be successful. It is also a useful trick if you plan to do a series. They call that a cliffhanger. It's also an epilogue.
11. What will you do next?
"Now that you're on the cover of every newspaper in the English-speaking world, what are you doing to do?"
"I'm going to Disneyland".
What you or your character does or sets out to do at the conclusion of your film galvanizes the emotion your audience will experience and take away with them. This doesn't need to be stated literally, it can also be suggested or open ended. If your character tries and tries at something the entire film, but ends up never quite being successful, we will be disappointed if after all this they simply give up. We want to know if, after all of this, they will continue on. But if they decidedly do give up, that's important to show as well. We'll want to know why. After all, this has been merely part of the human experience. There will be next steps, at any rate. If your character has been trying to win the 100m dash and comes in last every time, you might end with them standing at the starting block, ready to try yet again. That's a value or an ethic we want in a protagonist. It's a value we want to see in ourselves.
Example of a "cliffhanger" or epilogue my work:
I Want to be an Astronaut (2014): Blair gets accepted into the Naval Academy. He has a long, long way to go before he'll ever be an astronaut. However, this is a marked and important step in his journey. We know that the next step for him is the challenges he'll face at the academy and the further challenges of standing out among his class before the rigors flight school and eventually the space program. We feel hopeful for Blair, but we also long for the success of the space program itself. We walk away feeling like maybe we should work a little harder at reaching that goal we've always had. If Blair can be so determined, maybe I can be, too. It's up to me to make that decision and to try.
Here's an example of it all coming together:
Slant's One Shot. This was a story I shot in undergraduate school at Grand Valley State University. The story is about a band that wants to break into the mainstream and throw away the monotony of everyday life. How are they going to do it? Are they good enough? Do they have the right people involved? How will it end? Will they get a deal? See how I use these questions to move the story ahead by building the characters, casting doubt and showing the band work toward their goal as they record a new song.
Every story has its own twists and turns, but every successful story typically follows a formula - a recipe - that guides how it unfolds. These 11 questions should be burned into your brain as you construct your story in pre-production and to guide you again and again during production. You'll want to take note of the times that elements of these questions are answered and you'll want to know when you should reenforce the challenges that lie in the way. There are numerous sub-questions that could fall under all of these categories, which will be unique to your story. Consider this a roadmap for the beginner so that you can understand the elements that you'll need to tell a story and also to understand when you've captured those elements. These questions will also help you to construct meaning in the events that unfold during the process of making your film. You'll be able to weigh whether the scene you just shot actually has a place in the story, or if it's something that will only distract us and should end up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps you'll decide you need to shoot more because questions still remain or your premise is still unclear, or your story lacks a resolution or a lesson-learned.
I'm happy to answer any questions you might have and welcome any feedback as well. In Part 3, I'll discuss how to approach your edit and the questions you'll need to consider as you begin structuring your materials into a cohesive narrative that fits into a story arc.
David J. Ruck is a documentary filmmaker, educator and explorer who currently works as in-house video producer and underwater camera operator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. His work takes him from coast-to-coast, telling the stories within America's underwater parks. He is the first filmmaker to premiere a film in space on the International Space Station. He can be reached through his website www.davidjruck.com where you can see examples of his work and find articles and resources for documentary storytellers.