Chapter 3 of 26 from Ken Burns

Choosing Your Story


Using examples from his own project files, Ken teaches you how to identify powerful, universal themes that will resonate with audiences.

Topics include: A Great Story Will Hold a Mirror Up to You • Choose Your Films Like You Choose Your Friends • Become an Idea Collector • Look for the World in a Grain of Sand • Tell Stories Beyond the Boundaries of Yourself

Using examples from his own project files, Ken teaches you how to identify powerful, universal themes that will resonate with audiences.

Topics include: A Great Story Will Hold a Mirror Up to You • Choose Your Films Like You Choose Your Friends • Become an Idea Collector • Look for the World in a Grain of Sand • Tell Stories Beyond the Boundaries of Yourself

Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

Learn More


The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. Learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Ken Burns is so clearly resonating at the exact frequency that he was created for that he is sincerely inspiring. I'm a long way from actually creating a first documentary, but I am deeply inspired and encouraged about all the steps it will take to get there.

This class has given me to think about. Story and structure. Its feel both overwhelming and yet exciting, like climbing a mountain for the first time. This class has inspired to start the process and am grateful for it's emotional pull which is what I needed. Go out and find my story and tell it with honesty. Thank you.

I have learned that there is much to do before beginning my first documentary film.

Very inspiring to get guided through the whole process by an industry legend, thank you Ken Burns!


Julia M.

Very good way to start the session. Passion is the key - wanting to get started. Thanks Ken

Raquel S.

Thank you for sharing. I'd like to suggest one change that everyone, all Americans especially, need to correct. Jackie Robinson was not the grandson of a "slave". He was the grandson of an African man forced into slavery. By continuously calling our ancestors "slaves" instead of referring to them as men, women, children, etc. who had an entire life in countries within a continent that included an African king, Mansa Musa, who was worth $400 billion in today's economy, we dehumanize those Africans who were forced into slavery and support the narrative that they were less than, worthless and deserving of their treatment.

Jozua J.

Very interesting chapter. Found in someway I am doing these thinsg and founding that my instincs ​as a stroyteller​ was not off is empowetin​g.


Choose your project and or stories like you chose your friends, this brings to mind a Marilyn Monroe quote: "I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I'm out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best." ......In other words, if your can't transform nor bare the suffering for a purpose or cause, thus make it meaningful in such a way that makes your life more meaningful and you living more fully, then why? ... Is it a mere spark, a spark which has a flame in it or is it a fucking fire ( the kind you want )

stasia P.

I have been obsessed with documenting (through film) the lives of my family, since I was 12 years old. I picked up that heavy camera back in 1985 and found I could capture moments that have been laughed over, cried over, and watched over and over again. The story is always us… I love to watch it as it was told when it was happening. I will never get paid a dime for one of those vintage videos, but they are priceless. Family always resonates with me. Something else that resonates with me is when people actually lived and interacted with one another…face to face and verbal connection. My ears miss hearing people talk to me. This new "face down in device world" is a very scary one. I have lost the joy of sitting in an airport and watching people. I have lost the joy of walking down a city street and getting actual eye contact. I am 45 and feel like I was captured by aliens and taken to a world where no one wants to talk to me anymore except through a phone or a computer. I fear documenting that would break me…or I have already been broken by this little computer in my pocket and the one I am typing on in front of me. My entire computer class in high school was loading DOS. True story I don't think we learned anything because it never loaded before the class ended. I am loving this masterclass. Ken you are amazing. I listen to you and think, wow, you are so inspiring.

Mary H.

I recommend this history expert in pursuit of truth, James Loewen. [

Mary H.

another writer against docufiction = author Leda Schubert

Mary H.

Docufiction is listed on wikepedia. No docufiction!

Mary H.

Dear MasterClass Video Editors: I am a teacher taking your classes for professional development purposes. Here is an odd statement posted on "Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking." When speaking about friends, the closed captions read "lots are within friends." Friends within friends? This makes no sense, at all. Please check video editing. As a children's literature teacher, I would also like to take the Judy Blume class. Your instructors deserve superior resources. Sincerely, Mary Nix Hollowell MasterClass: Judy Blume Teaches Writing MasterClass: Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

Mary H.

friends who appreciate buffalo .. See Caldecott Medal winning author Paul Goble illustrate buffaloes + Ted Turner education/conservation


Personally, I'm engaged in doing films that are about American history. And the word "history" is mostly made up of the word "story" plus "hi," which I've discovered tremendously late in my life for someone who likes wordplay. And so I'm interested in a good story. And that's it. The inspiration comes from stories, which are collisions of happenings and humans. And that's it, sort of basically. I'm not interested in telling you what I already know. That's homework, the last time I checked. I'm, rather, interested in sharing with you a process of discovery that I've made by investigating something that I didn't know, or only had relatively superficial information or knowledge about, and-- but understood that the dynamics, the contours, the interiors of the story had something that was drawing me. If all of my films are asking the same deceptively simple question-- who are we as Americans-- ultimately, that comes to who am I? I mean, that's-- "who are we" is a convenient way to hold it off. "Who am I" is the artist's question. So what you're looking for is a story which is sort of firing on all cylinders, is an engine that's attractive in its ability to contain a lot of power. And at the same time, you realize that the engagement of that, all-- bringing all your faculties, will also in some ways hold up a mirror to you. [MUSIC PLAYING] I don't choose the projects. They choose me. Having said that, there's lots of ideas. There's 50 or 60 ideas that I have going around in my head-- just ideas, thoughts. And I write them down and will collect some notes on it. It's only when an idea leaves being an idea and goes down to the heart, when it's accepted, that I say yes to something. And I think that should be what the decision is for you, as well. Like, you don't want to make a decision based on marketing. You don't want to make a decision based on, wow, I could make a lot of money off this. This will sell really well. I mean, at least I can't. They drop down in your heart and you say yes. And it's a whole-hearted yes. And sometimes it's a yes for 10 years-- 10 and a half years. Sometimes it's a yes-- I don't know anything that's been shorter than 2 and 1/2, three years to make a film. And that's a big commitment. And it's sort of the way our friends are in our lives, you know. You know a lot of people by face. And you know a lot of names, a little bit shorter set. And many of them are acquaintances, and lots are within friends. And then a few are people you're going to know all your life. And the ones I say yes to are the ones I want to know all my life. And so when you choose and say yes to something, it's-- it's for real. [MUSIC PLAYING] OK, so I have here some folders of projects that are-- got off the list and got at least a folder of its own. You know, I have never-- I've never shared these before. I've never shared these before with folks, of things that I got invested enough that it left the list of 25, 30, ...