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

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 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. 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.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking