Film & TV

Structuring a Documentary Narrative

Ken Burns

Lesson time 14:34 min

A bold beginning, engaging middle, and compelling end—the laws of storytelling can and should be applied to documentary filmmaking. Learn how to structure your narrative to keep viewers hooked.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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The only thing I know that keeps someone in place watching is an authentic engagement with narrative storytelling. And storytelling is about conflict. It's about not knowing how something is going to turn out. And someone said to me once that the best history is staying there reading it or watching it because it may not turn out the way you know it did. You go to Ford's Theater hoping this time, you know, John Wilkes Booth-- his gun jams. And Lincoln doesn't die. He's going to die. But it's an important part of storytelling that you're not sure, particularly in the historical works that we do. Everybody for the most part understands what happens. But you want to know-- how you tell it is hugely important. [MUSIC PLAYING] At the heart of every film, whether it's a documentary or a feature film, we're all-- not slaves, but we all are under the power of the laws of storytelling-- the beginning, the middle and end, characters, antagonists, protagonists, character development, climax, denouement. All of these things kind of work on us. I realized very early on that the laws of storytelling also apply to the documentary. That instead of the documentary necessarily being didactic and educational and, you know, politically advocating, it could also just tell a story using the same expositional tools that a feature film would. And then you've got the possibility of moving people at that same level. And you have the added advantage of it being true. Steven Spielberg and I obey the same laws of storytelling. And the only difference is he can make shit up, and I can't. [MUSIC PLAYING] Narrative is the arc of a story. And a story has necessarily a beginning and a middle and an end. Every story is broken down, just like we have a kind of cellular and molecular and atomic levels, everything is itself an arc here, you know? And there's a-- within a sentence that you write, there's an arc to the sentence. Within a paragraph or a comment by someone, there's an arc. A scene, of course, has its own arc. A collection of scenes within an episode have their arc. And we wish each of our episodes to fit into-- if you are foolish enough to watch the whole thing-- an arc. Or even if it's separated by a night, a larger arc. And so I think what happens is, is that when you're trying to do a documentary about true subjects, whether it's history or not, you're always in a battle between the sort of obvious demands of story and the fact that human life often defies that. It's like grabbing at the soap in the bathtub. It's just-- it's kind of hard to get. And you have to sort of tolerate that and say that these arcs-- and when I say arcs, all we're talking about is beginning, middle, and end. And so I think what you're trying to do is constantly refine the arcs that exist. It may be as precise as changing a word in a sentence. It may be as big as saying that scene has to go from episode seven. As much as we love it, as great as it is, it has t...

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. In this online film class, 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.


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

Great course! Ken really gets into the nuts and bolts of the documentary.

This Masterclass was incredible. It's an amazing trip in documentary filmmaking. Ken Burns is the most interesting, patient and passionated filmmaker I've ever listen to. I learned a lot about documentary but most important I learned that the most important thing is to start something and work very hard.

Ken's thorough descriptions of both the technical issues and the psychological challenges make documentary filmmaking seem much more accessible. I think I've gained the confidence to follow through on some of my own ideas.

This has been a fantastic class. The best of all. Most importantly its the level of detail and commitment Ken has had for his work that is a take away. Also his humbleness and approach which is most humane too. Learnt a great deal from him, inspired truly.


A fellow student

Very articulate and interesting but not much tangible/applicable strategy for structuring in this lesson. He doesn't talk about structuring options such as a 3-act or 5-act structure. He talks about chronology but not non-linear options in details. Nor does he use any examples to further demonstrate these points. This seems to be an ongoing issue I have with a lot of masterclass's.

A fellow student

I've already started shooting a pretty large scale documentary but this class has been extremely helpful.

Robert W.

I was wondering about that opening hook. I often see in docs a lot of high-production value sequences up front -- animation, TEXT, a lot of AE maneuvers, the sorts of things that can quickly eat up a budget. Sometimes I think that when you front load all that to hook folks, you fall short on the promise, because the rest of the film doesn't have as high a production value. It's a balancing act and I guess it all depends on the story. Wondered what tricks folks have successfully used to create that sense of high production without overpromising due to budget constraints.

A fellow student

"Stephen Speilburg and I obey the same laws of storytelling and the only difference is he can make shit up and I can't" Strong words.

Cliff C.

Oh my! What an articulate man. I love the idea of a covenant between the filmmaker & the viewer. I have admired his work since seeing The Civil War. What a pleasure to learn from him. I'm thoroughly engaged, & will have to re-watch the whole thing at least a few more times.

Julia H.

What a privilege to learn from a master documentarian. I'm really enjoying this and learning so much, even if all I intend to do at the start is a short film for my YouTube channel.

Jonathan B.

Clear, strong points and determined. Trying to find the words for how Ken conducts his approach to making documentaries is truly exhilarating. I have taken some film making classes and the exact point of the importance of storytelling, story boarding the work until it becomes fineness. I think in a documentary have that chronological order is a golden rule with jumping in between times and era but it has a overall beginning point and an ending point with a climax somewhere in between. Very inspiring episode!

A fellow student

These lessons are better than I thought they would be in a way I didn't expect. Ken Burns is very motivational. There are so many great stories to tell.

Panha T.

it seems that I don't have access to the PDF file. Should I do sth about this? is there sth wrong with my account?

Chuck O.

Thank you, Ken, for making this episode. I know now that I will have to structure my documentary (or at least parts of it), chronologically and have a strong hook in the beginning. I'll respect my audience's time, showing them what reward they'll receive by watching my documentary as my hook. I'll ask the audience, "May I have your complete attention," and in return for their respect, I'll give them their reward. I'll have to refine the different arcs in my story over, and over, and over until I know my documentary can stand strong. I'm on my way to making my documentary. Thank you for guiding me, Ken.