Storytelling: The Heros Journey In Documentaries

documentary filmmaking storytelling Aug 21, 2023
How to tell a story


The hero's journey is a timeless narrative structure that captivates audiences. It takes us on a transformative adventure with the main character. They conquer obstacles and evolve. Joseph Campbell made it popular. It is a technique that captivates audiences by transforming characters. The main character battles obstacles and grows by overcoming them. A simple method to follow. That leads to impactful storytelling. Let's break it down:

1. The Comfortable Life:

Every hero's journey starts with an introduction to the main character. We see their familiar everyday life or situation. We are drawn into their comfort zone, getting to know them well and forming a genuine connection.

Steven Spielberg is known for his excellent storytelling techniques. He is also known for his talent for captivating audiences. One of his strengths is creating memorable and spectacular character introductions. Spielberg brings these characters to life with his unique vision. He leaves a lasting impression on viewers.

In movies like "Jaws," Spielberg expertly introduces Chief Martin Brody. Portrayed by Roy Scheider. The audience is immediately drawn into Brody's world. They witness the intense shark attack that ignites the central conflict. This captivating introduction establishes Brody as the main character. It sets the tone for the thrilling story that follows.

Spielberg's storytelling skills shine in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial". From the start, Spielberg creates an emotional bond between the audience and the young protagonist. He is Elliot. Henry Thomas skillfully portrays Elliot. Spielberg establishes the character's relatability by highlighting Elliot's loneliness and longing. This draws the audience into his world. This sets the stage for a heartwarming and magical journey. Elliot befriends an alien.

Spielberg's iconic film "Jurassic Park" shows his talent for creating memorable character introductions. In the opening scenes, he introduces Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, and Dr. Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern. They are paleontologists witnessing a dinosaur excavation. Spielberg's visuals and John Williams' score immediately immerse the audience. In the wonder and excitement of the story. This introduction establishes the characters' expertise and passion. It sets the stage for the thrilling adventure ahead.

Steven Spielberg demonstrates how to create memorable character introductions. His method engages audiences. It establishes emotional connections and sets the stage for captivating stories. His unique vision and storytelling techniques inspire viewers worldwide. Documentaries should draw inspiration from Spielberg's approach to character introductions. This is for the same reasons.

2. The Desires and Motivations:

Beneath their apparent contentment, the protagonist has a strong desire. It's a burning goal or relentless motivation that drives them forward. This longing is fueled by hope and determination. It sets the story in motion, propelling the character out of their comfort zone. The longing sets them onto a transformative path of self-discovery and growth. The character must genuinely yearn for it with all their heart. This could be the pursuit of a soulful connection. It could be the quest for authentic self-expression. It could be any audacious aspiration that resonates at their core. It becomes the essence and driving force behind their compelling journey.

3. Entering Unfamiliar Territory:

An event happens. It compels the character to leave their familiar surroundings. Then, they venture into new territory. In documentaries, this often takes the form of a crisis that jeopardizes the character's everyday life. Storytelling expert Robert McKee says the inciting incident is a vital element. It sets the story in motion. It acts as a catalyst, driving the narrative forward. It also lays the groundwork for future events.

McKee's teachings highlight the significance of a strong inciting incident. It captivates the audience and establishes a compelling story. This incident is usually an event or situation that disrupts the protagonist's normal life. It compels them to act and triggers change. It propels the protagonist on their transformative journey.

McKee thinks the inciting incident should happen early in the story. Preferably, it should happen in the first act. This grabs the audience's attention and sparks curiosity. It sets the stage for the story to unfold.

To explain this idea, let's take the movie "The Shawshank Redemption." The story begins when Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is wrongly convicted of murder. He received a life sentence at Shawshank State Penitentiary. This event disrupts Andy's normal life. It thrusts him into a world of unfairness, dishonesty, and imprisonment. It sets the story in motion, motivating Andy to pursue justice. He fights for his freedom and ultimately finds redemption.

In the movie "Star Wars: A New Hope," Luke Skywalker, portrayed by Mark Hamill, finds a distress message. It's from Princess Leia Organa. This is the inciting incident. This triggers a series of events. It leads Luke to team up with Obi-Wan Kenobi. They go on a mission to save the princess. Ultimately, Luke becomes a crucial figure in the fight against the oppressive Galactic Empire.

In both examples, the initial events push the main characters into new and difficult situations. This moves the story forward and sets the stage for its development. This applies not only to fictional movies but also to documentaries. Effective storytelling is crucial for documentaries. It helps them resonate with audiences beyond their interest in a specific subject. It establishes a universal connection to the lives of the characters.

According to Robert McKee, storytellers can engage their audience and create compelling narratives. They can do this by understanding and using the inciting incident concept. This pivotal moment sets the stage for the transformative journey of the protagonist. It creates a captivating and dynamic story.

 Let's explore some examples of common inciting incidents in documentaries:

  • A significant event or crisis could be a natural disaster, social or political unrest, or an incident that grabs public attention. For example, a terrorist attack or a high-profile crime.

  • Documentaries often introduce central characters. They have gone through transformative experiences or face specific challenges. These characters share personal stories or experiences. These personal journeys shape the narrative.

  • Investigative documentaries may uncover previously unknown or hidden information. This prompts the filmmaker to delve deeper into a particular issue or expose wrongdoing.

  • Documentaries examine historical events or societal shifts. They may begin with a pivotal moment that marked a significant change or had far-reaching consequences.

  • Some documentaries revolve around contentious issues or friction. This might include legal battles, community disputes, or clashes of ideologies.

  • Human interest stories are documentaries focused on human stories. They often start with incidents that highlight the struggles, achievements, or unique circumstances of individuals or communities. This draws viewers into their lives and experiences.

4. Adapting to the Unknown:

As the character enters this unfamiliar landscape, they must adapt. They must also navigate myriad obstacles. Their exceptional handling of these circumstances with remarkable finesse showcases their transformative journey. With sheer determination and unwavering resilience, they conquer the uncharted territories ahead. They leave a lasting legacy of bravery and triumph.

5. Achieving Their Desires:

As the story unfolds, the character edges closer to achieving their desires. Through determination and perseverance, they overcome countless obstacles, finally reaching their goal. This moment is an undeniable triumph and fulfillment. It's accompanied by a strong sense of accomplishment that resonates deep within their souls.

6. Unexpected Consequences:

However, an unexpected twist or consequence arises just as success seems within reach. The main character faces a setback that tests their resolve and demands a sacrifice. This twist adds depth and complexity to the story. It unveils new challenges and emotions the character must navigate to reach a satisfying resolution.

7. Returning to Familiar Ground:

The character returns to their comfort zone, forever changed. Their transformative journey leaves a lasting impact on their soul. It shapes their mindset, beliefs, and perspective. They have newfound wisdom and a deeper understanding. They approach their comfort zone with renewed purpose and openness to embrace what lies ahead.

8. A Changed Individual:

Take a moment to reflect on the growth and transformation of the character. Consider how their unique experiences have shaped their personality. Also, consider how their unique experiences, both successes and challenges, have influenced their actions. By exploring the profound impact of their journey, we truly appreciate the depth and complexity of the character.

The hero's journey is a narrative structure that resonates with audiences worldwide. It speaks to our innate desire for personal growth and transformation. We witness characters overcoming obstacles and becoming heroes. It reminds us that we can also embark on our own journeys of self-discovery. We can embrace challenges and emerge stronger and wiser.

The hero's journey extends beyond fiction and movies; it applies to our own lives. Each of us has the potential to be the hero of our own story. We navigate through ups and downs, face fears, and emerge stronger and wiser.

  • So, what is your hero's journey? 

  • What desires and motivations propel you forward? 

  • What unfamiliar territories have you stepped into, and what obstacles have you overcome? 

  • Please take a moment to reflect on your transformative experiences. How have they have shaped you into who you are today?

The hero's journey is not about being fearless or perfect. It's about embracing vulnerability and acknowledging our flaws. It's also about facing the unknown with courage and resilience. It's about finding our strength to overcome our battles. That way, we can emerge as changed individuals.

As you continue on your own hero's journey, remember that setbacks and unexpected consequences are part of the process. Embrace them as opportunities for growth and learning. When you achieve something, take time to celebrate. Then, embark on new adventures. May your hero's journey take you to distant lands or within yourself. May it be filled with transformation, discovery, and a sense of purpose.

Embrace the call to adventure, face your challenges head-on, and be the hero of your own story. Seek stories that inspire and remind you of your inner power. The hero's journey is a timeless narrative structure. It captivates and resonates with audiences worldwide. So, embark on your quest, for greatness and transformation lie within you.

A documentary's hero's journey involves transformative stages. These propel the main character toward personal growth and achievement. It introduces the main character and establishes their everyday life or situation. This helps the audience understand who they are and what makes them relatable or exciting.

Next, it is essential to establish the main character's desire or goal. What does your main character deeply care about or want to achieve? This creates a sense of purpose and sets the stage for their journey.

The inciting incident is a crucial moment in the hero's journey. Something happens that pushes the main character out of their comfort zone. This event starts a transformative journey. This event can be triggered by significant events, personal stories, or the discovery of new information. The inciting incident acts as a catalyst for change. It propels the character into unfamiliar territory.

The main character faces challenges and obstacles. They show remarkable adaptation and resilience. This is an opportunity to highlight their growth and development along the way. How does your main character overcome these obstacles? What skills, determination, or resilience do they show?

As the story progresses, the main character moves towards their desired outcome. How do they achieve their goal? What challenges do they overcome? This is where the audience sees their perseverance and determination.

However, no hero's journey is without unexpected turns and consequences. Introduce a twist that tests the main character's resolve and demands a sacrifice. This twist adds depth and complexity to the story. It makes the story more compelling and memorable. This moment can elevate your documentary and make it award-worthy.

The main character faces challenges and endures consequences. Then, they return to their familiar situation. How do they come back? Have they changed as a result of their experiences? This reflection allows the audience to see the growth and transformation that has occurred.

Finally, take the time to reflect on the character's growth and transformation. How has the main character evolved throughout the journey? How have their experiences impacted their mindset, beliefs, and perspective? This reflection brings a sense of closure. It allows the audience to appreciate the character's complexity and the impact of their journey.

By following these steps and asking critical questions, you can build a compelling hero's journey in your documentary. This structure creates a captivating narrative. It engages the audience and leaves a lasting impression. Go ahead and embark on your documentary journey. Tell a story that inspires and resonates with viewers. Grab my FREE cheat sheet today to create better documentaries with this hero’s journey!


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