Chapter 7 of 26 from Ken Burns

Structuring a Documentary Narrative

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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.

Topics include: Embrace the Laws of Storytelling • Keep Rearranging Structure Until It Works • Hook Your Audience Immediately • Introduce Large Stories Through Small Details • Use Chronology as a Compass • Boil the Pot • Send Them Home Safe

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.

Topics include: Embrace the Laws of Storytelling • Keep Rearranging Structure Until It Works • Hook Your Audience Immediately • Introduce Large Stories Through Small Details • Use Chronology as a Compass • Boil the Pot • Send Them Home Safe

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.

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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.

Reviews

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

I am more aware and a bit better a person , Thank You

I have done a 2.5 year documentary on the Khomani San Bushmen in the Kalahari, South Africa, and I have taken so much from research, to script to photos to audio from this. I have always been a fan of Ken Burn, now I am a true believer!

I took this class because I want to make a short documentary and wanted more of an inside scoop of how to go about it. My professor introduced me to Ken Burn's work and I was so impressed. I learned a lot from his masterclass and it will definitely help me when I start working on my film. I would highly recommend his class to other filmmakers out in the world.

What I think puts this learning format ahead of all others I have tried, is that I felt like I was having a private conversation with the instructor. I wasnt bogged down in outlines or rules or things to technical info but rather it was like I was in a ski lodge and ran into Ken Burns and sat there for the afternoon discussing his craft. Quite Impressive.

Comments

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...

Pirsigs J.

Hello Masterclass, I tried to download the PDF and this came ---This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below. Thanks for your help and thank you Mr. Ken Burns for your awesomeness!

Bradley L.

Ken's films do a great job og taking elements of the documentary story and then representing them with intimate, true stories of particular people who lived that element. It personalizes the history and appeals to the empathy of the viewer.

Mia S.

"You are responsible for finding an organic way to ask the greatest of things of your audience, which is, 'May I have your complete attention?' And we live in a world - we're so distracted, and we'd rather talk about things than surrender to narrative. And so it becomes even more incumbent in a sad and distracted era to say, 'Look, I know how valuable your attention is, may I have it for this time? How do I bring you in? How do I send you home safely?' And in some of the subjects we've taken, these have been emotionally draining, time-consuming gifts that our audience has given us. At the end of 'The Vietnam War,' we have spent 17 1/2 hours in hell. It's just - as one of our Marines called an ambush - a 'shit sandwich.' There is nothing redeeming about the loss of 3 million people in the Vietnam War, or more. And so we've taken you deep into this hell, we have led you by hand, and I think it's the obligation of the artist to lead you out. And so we spend some time with some veterans who calmed the savage beast by going back to the places where they fought and met with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers they had been fighting - and they're grandpas now, as one person said. And they're very much alike and still struggling with the memories of that war; and they're not finding, as one soldier says, closure - but you get a little bit of peace. And we have to be reminded that, throughout this horror story, there has been moments of love and sacrifice and courage and generosity, but at the end, the finest of all those things - love and reconciliation - can take place. And I think 'Vietnam,' perhaps more than any other film - 'The Civil War' as well, 'WWII,' the wars; the big horrible places that we've taken you - take you out with a sense of renewed humanity and the possibility that human beings, though they won't, might stop doing this thing - which is murdering each other in large numbers, things we call wars."

Mia S.

"The central important part of narrative is chronology - and then, and then, and then. Shelby Foote called me up once, I was struggling over how you present the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg and he said, 'God is the greatest dramatist.' And that means 'and then, and then, and then.' And so historians in writing books and filmmakers in making films about the connection between Gettysburg and Vicksburg always tie themselves up in knots when you don't have to do it. You can do Vicksburg Part One, Gettysburg, Vicksburg Part Two - and that's the way it happened. Just as we learned in WWII, chronology is the king. Now, does that mean you can't do a flashback within a scene that collects somebody's childhood, as we do for 10 or 15 minutes in the second episode of 'The Roosevelts' with Eleanor Roosevelt; we've met her in Episode One, but we don't know who she is, and she's about to become engaged to Franklin Roosevelt. We find out her whole history; yes, of course, you can - there's no proscribing of that. We realized at that point we didn't have a full grasp of who this person was he was marrying, and so we initiated a significant and hugely effective flashback. Other times, I've said, 'That flashback doesn't work - let's move it and include it in the first introduction.' And that's always a possibility, where you return to straight chronology. When people say, 'We're so interested in your storyboards and how you do it.' I said, 'The storyboards are reminding us that we really can't move anything because we're trying to keep it in chronology.' I don't think there's a law of the climax; you know that something happens, and I've sort of finished a screening and pushed back and said, 'So where was the climax of this episode? Was it this?' And sometimes it's not the big, crashing event that we think of when we talk about climaxes. Sometimes it's a subtler sort of thing. Sometimes it's very obvious and dramatic; I think at some point, the episode is like a pot boiling. All the things you're doing is setting the water in that pot boiling, and then when it boils, you've got a release. And so that's the denouement. So the moment of boiling, wherever that might be, comes in so many different fashions. So I don't have a law, I just am conscious of - 'There is some point, somewhere near the end, that - of an episode or a film - you could call the climax.' So somehow there has to be a kind of breathing in and out that you do that becomes more intuitive. It doesn't mean you can't articulate it or talk about it, but you're not sitting there saying like a car mechanic, 'Ah, the carburetor needs a new this' or 'we've got to change the oil filter.' It doesn't work like that. You've got a much more complex body, like the human heart - it's a much more complex thing that you've got to deal with."

Mia S.

"The beginnings become the most artful, the most challenging, the most important moments of the film. It's the first note - how do you strike that strong note that invites your viewer into what you're going to do? In WWII, it's finding a guy having his girlfriend break up with him, and he's so upset and angry that he rides his motorcycle into a bar, and he's so ashamed he goes and joins the army and finds himself in the Bataan Death March. That just pulls you in, and say, 'This is not going to be your usual story of the Second World War.' And in every film, we try to look for a way to allow an audience space to leave the world that they are in - whatever collection of thoughts. I think it's hugely important for any filmmaker to say, 'How do I transit you from your incredibly busy and compelling life - and yours is as compelling as mine - and bring you to this moment?' You can't force people into it by exaggerated drama. You need to just say, 'This is what happened, this is where we're going to go - will you take my hand, can I lead you to that place?' It is really - I find in all of cinema, I find that moment, the first shots and the first scenes, so important. They are the establishment of a covenant between you and your audience. And you are obligated to do that in the most honorable fashion. It's all about arresting a momentum in a viewer and asking them for the extraordinary gift of their attention, and then rewarding that attention for the next two hours, or the next 18 hours. We opened the Civil War series, and it's the story of Wilmer McLean, and it goes something like this: 'By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. The first battle of Bull Run, or Manassas as the Confederates called it, had raged across the aging Virginian's farm... and Wilmer McLean could rightfully say, "The war began in my front yard, and ended in my front parlor." So we took what had always been a footnote or something in the very end of Civil War narratives and put it in the very beginning. It does say to you, 'We're going to cover this period in this intimate way as well as the big way. It's going to have maps, you're going to be at 30,000 feet, you're going to be in the White House, the Confederate White House, but you're also going to be in the trenches.' And that's what we did - and you cannot discount how important the subtlest and most ordinary quotidian of events will be in the larger scheme of things."

Mia S.

"I think what happens is, 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 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. So what I think 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 7, as much as we love it, as great as it is, it has to go. That's what it's all about, and you've got to be free at any moment to give up something or to think of a new relationship, to rewrite a whole thing (which we've done often); to change, to take out the person that's seemingly - the talking head that's seemingly the key to it - and having no talking head, or putting in somebody new, or making a first-person voice a bigger part of that role and moving that voice; sometimes it's taking a quote that you have and dividing it in half - one begins it, one ends it, so you realize it's book-ended by that. There are a thousand, million things that you can do that you have to do - and be willing to do - all the way through the process, until you go, 'Whoa, that's working.' And that's hugely important, and a constantly worked-on thing. Everybody wants to run for the beeline, everybody wants to have it done - and I get it. But what you really want is to keep the scaffolding and false work around that construction project up long enough that you're very sure that the building is gorgeous and will stand by itself. And then you take away that scaffolding, you take away that false work, and you see that it's there. But it takes it up there a long time and you have to do that; the things have to be long. And some stories will defy solving, and just have a faith in the process. And that's such a cliche, but you have to do that. And we don't do it, we substitute convenience, speed ('whew, done!') for process, which says 'not done, not done, done.'"

Mia S.

"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, John Wilkes Booth's 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. 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 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. Narrative is the arc of a story. A story has necessarily a beginning, 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, and there's - within a sentence that you write, there an arc to that 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 own 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."

Charles B.

I have a couple new understandings from this lesson. The opening, "Hook your audience". 'Not easy, but it is also the same technique for motion pictures. I understood that for movies, not so much for a documentary film. Here's one of my reels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFN3JVdkB8w&t=2s&list=PL58C31548B1E177B1&index=6 In the above we simply went to a location, asked questions, got the answers recorded and then edited them down for broadcast. And chronology wasn't so important to this format of narrative. Also it occurs to me that drama is removed to some degree. A re-enactment may show the interactions that might be referred to as drama, but at best that is a hind-site-is-20-20 contrivance to give an interpretation of context for the given part of the narrative.

Shawna B.

I love getting Ken's point of view and his "staple" points in every film. I always shied away from straight chronology because I thought it was boring and it took up too much time in my interviews. But, I'm relieved Ken does it no matter what. I gives me an island to return to when you're in the field and get too far in the weeds. Thx Ken!

Transcript

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...