Doc structures: how to create tension, action and a narrative arc in your story

Making a documentary can be an overwhelming experience. So much tape ... so many scenes ... how do I put this together?! It's structure my friend, structure. Effective structure will help you produce a cohesive item that contains tension, action and a narrative arc.

Making a documentary can be an overwhelming experience. So much tape ... so many scenes ... how do I put this together?!

It's structure my friend, structure. 

Hammering out a solid structure for your story will help you move forward. Effective structure will also help you produce a cohesive item that contains tension, action and a narrative arc. Most importantly, it will keep your listeners listening!

It's a good idea to have an understanding of how you think your story might be structured before heading into the field, but be flexible — structure can shift or totally change after you get your tape.

Here are just a few story structure models that can help guide your doc. Of course, there are many more. And down the road, the best possible structure for your doc might be one that hasn't been invented yet.

For now, here are some basics. 

The whale

This structure works well when something is unfolding in real time. The Whale could be how your whole doc is structured or maybe it's just a scene in your story.

The head is the setup. It tells us what's at stake. Every story is, in fact, a mystery. The mystery is hinted at within the first paragraph/sentence of the doc. We want to know, what am I going to learn, and what is this about?

The point of no return ... we are now setting off on a journey [rising tension, then halfway up, there is a moment].

Destabilization. It's a moment that makes you reconsider where this story is going. This can be smaller too, just a shift in perception. The story becomes about something different than what you first thought.

Climax. Tension is released! We get to know what we wanted to know about!

Denouement. Reflection, moral evaluation. This can be tough to do. So you can also just recount the losses and gains in the story.

Try this exercise

Listen and identify the stages of the whale structure in this piece:

More than a decade ago, Catharine Tunney's family was planning on adopting a child. This wasn't just an abstract plan, the boy they were going to adopt was someone they knew well. But her family decided not to go ahead with the adoption. 27:30

  • What's the setup? [The item is for sale. But how much will it go for?]
  • Point of no return [When is the thing actually going up for sale?]
  • Destabilization [The tankard starts to go for way more money. Introduction of new characters; it's more complicated than just a dollar amount. There are dealers here whose reputation is at stake. Bidders are uncomfortable]
  • Climax [When the price is eventually reached — the hammer goes down]
  • Denouement [Reflection. The owner loved it when the block went up. He needs the money. Right, onto the next piece … there are these little dramas unfolding all the time]


The spiral

This structure is like a whirlpool. Or the inward spiral of a rose. It circles round and round one event. With each spin, our understanding of the events goes deeper, and may begin to shift.

By the time we get through the multiple layers, we may realize the story is about something different than we first thought.

It's a kind of structure that is easiest to understand by hearing it. Take a listen to A Murder in the Neighbourhood.

This story spirals around different people's perceptions of one event. A naked woman bursts out of her house, clutching her child. She is screaming for help. Her neighbours try to get to her and protect her from her husband who, it is eventually revealed, is holding a gun. Despite the neighbours' best efforts, the woman's husband shoots and kills her. He then turned the gun on himself.

This uses the spiral structure very well. Seemingly, this story will not surprise you; we know what happens with the woman from the start. But spiraling deeper to perspectives we haven't heard, makes it fresh and worth listening to. This is really a story about how this tragedy affected the people in the neighbourhood. Her murder is the pole in the middle of the story that things are turning around.

Take a listen, and enter the spiral.

The quest

This story structure assumes we have a hero or heroine at the centre of the action, on a quest for answers or resolution.

We set out on a journey with our protagonist. There is never a straight line. The protagonist meets people along the way that may or may not help him or her. There are obstacles. Discovery. Triumph. Loss. And with any luck, the ending will be ambiguous, but still satisfying.

Take a listen to how this structure unfolds in My Almost Brother.

More techniques to consider

The joy of juxtaposition:

  • Place two perspectives next to each other. Two people that have experienced the same event, but have differing experiences
  • Give both of your characters the same sets of questions
  • Then simply line up their two stories
  • Example: The doc, Leonard & Marianne, unfolds by hearing the story of a couple both reflecting on their young selves, and the love the share. Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen were experiencing the same moments, but the different understanding of the time they shared is fascinating to bring together


  • Tell a story in chapters
  • Titles outline the different segments of the story in segregated chapters
  • It helps to be conscious of what your possibilities of chapters are before you start, but you need to be ready to adapt to what unfolds
  • Example: Lynda Shorten's 1997 documentary, Marriage Better For Men Than Women, unfolds in chapters 


Some other ideas:

  • Use supplementary text or readings create structure (like journal entries or a historical reading about the event you are reporting on). In Under the Bridge, Julia Pagel used the trip log from a canoe trip in her story to move the narrative along
  • Check out this great piece from our friends at Transom, My Kingdom For Some Structure

Or, just go ahead and invent a new form we haven't even thought of yet!

This blog post is based on the video, A Lesson on Doc Structure with CBC Radio's Steve Wadhams and Lynda Shorten.


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