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Arts & Entertainment

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.

This has got to be the best Masterclass yet. I've seen so many already and Ken Burns is by far the best instructor. He is clear and precise, yet humane in the way he speaks about his work and the art of Documentary Filmmaking. I will too go find what makes me feel good inly. Thank you Masterclass and thank you Ken Burns.

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

In depth information, specific examples. Great class.

A wealth of information at multiple levels. To hear these things from someone of Burns' caliber is outstanding. He lays out some ideas, but I would love to see a little more of the hands-on techniques with specific examples (i.e., I want to watch him do an interview)



While I'm watching, I am writing my script. It is amazing, like he is teaching me what to include what to not include. I already picturised my dreamed documentary in my mind.

Neil T.

This segment is really brilliant especially the keep rearranging section. Ken has such a unique insight into what viewers require for their giving you something as precious as their time and attention and the obligation to fulfill that requirement honestly and to the best of one's ability. Ken has penetrated the deeper layers of the relationship between the viewer and the storyteller. This is the stuff that makes the difference between a good documentary and a great one...thank you.

Kathleen M.

So articulate and insightful. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge on this subject.

Delphine D.

I can t explain my excitement. So So grateful for your true heart. The industry needs you. You are a gift

A fellow student

I'm hoping the lessons as they progress explain in greater detail the budgeting and determination of paying oneself. I think this is inspiring, no doubt, but I'm also hopeful there will be snippets of The Roosevelts or The Civil War or a project that detail a research fact and application into the film that actually made the cut. I'm a Ken Burns fan to the point that The Roosevelts inspired me to include FDR in a fictional book I wrote.

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.