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 15-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.

Actually after months of heavy work at the college I needed an inspiration to finish my ongoing documentary project. Ken Burns provided me that missing inspiration through his beautiful way of taking and teaching. Definitely in his work, additional to his outstanding knowledge Ken Burs leads by his beautiful heart and soul. My best wishes in his amazing production!

This class has helped me find a place to start my project.

Great teacher. well crafted class. hands on experience is exceptional. i learnt what nobody was able and willing to teach anywhere. great class

I've learned so much depth, so many nuances, to sharing a story well. Inly rejoicing. : )


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.

Phil N.

To be honest, when I heard "Embrace the Laws of Storytelling", it made me think rebelliously, just for a moment, I'm going to break that olde-tymey law and do something different. But when you see that all of the big guns--Burns, Spielberg and God--are following that law, you lose your courage to go it alone. Therefore, I am now excitedly thinking about my documentary's opening to hook the viewer. As a writer I love the blank page and the freedom to start off in any direction. Also, to look at my story from 30,000 feet and spot the dramatic climax, as well as that pathway to lead my loyal viewers safely home. Good tips, thanks.


I was hoping there was a sort of beat sheet or template, like the 1-3-5 structure for screenplays or television series, because they make it easier for me to decide if I have a story to tell.

Shayne O.

I have seen the majority of the Writer's classes and I loved the simplicity and clarity of his summation of storytelling, and that is: Bold Beginning Engaging Middle & Compelling Ending Brilliant.

Mark B.

Ken has an amazing way of articulating that making a documentary is more about the heart and feeling, and the way they can lead us to the depth of a story, rather than the other way around. THat must be the biggest hook of all...