Storytelling: The Hero's Journey In Documentaries

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


The hero's journey is a timeless narrative structure that has captivated audiences for centuries. It takes us on a transformative adventure alongside the main character as they navigate through unfamiliar situations, conquer obstacles, and ultimately evolve as individuals. In this blog post, we will break down the hero's journey into its essential elements, delving into the intricacies of each stage. Joseph Campbell, a renowned mythologist, and writer, popularized the hero's journey concept. His work has influenced countless storytellers and creators, shaping how we understand and appreciate narratives. So, let's embark on this narrative voyage together and explore the depths of this storytelling phenomenon.

1. The Comfortable Life:

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

Steven Spielberg is renowned for his exceptional storytelling techniques and ability to captivate audiences. One of his notable strengths lies in crafting the introductions of his characters in a way that is both memorable and spectacular. Through his unique vision, Spielberg brings these characters to life, leaving a lasting impression on viewers.

In films like "Jaws," Spielberg masterfully introduces Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider. The audience is immediately immersed in Brody's world as they witness the intense shark attack that sparks the central conflict. This gripping introduction establishes Brody as the protagonist and sets the tone for the following thrilling story.

Another example of Spielberg's storytelling prowess can be seen in his film "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." From the beginning, Spielberg creates an emotional connection between the audience and the young protagonist, Elliot, brilliantly portrayed by Henry Thomas. Through scenes that showcase Elliot's loneliness and longing, Spielberg establishes the character's relatability and draws the audience into his world. This sets the stage for the heartwarming and magical journey that unfolds as Elliot befriends an alien.

Spielberg's talent for crafting memorable character introductions is further evident in his iconic film "Jurassic Park." In the opening scenes, he introduces Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, and Dr. Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern, as paleontologists experiencing the awe-inspiring sight of a dinosaur excavation. Spielberg's use of visuals, coupled with John Williams' iconic score, immediately immerses the audience in the wonder and excitement of the story. This introduction establishes the character's expertise and passion and sets the stage for the thrilling adventure that awaits them.

Steven Spielberg showcases how you can craft memorable character introductions that draw audiences into the narrative, creating an emotional connection and setting the stage for the captivating stories that unfold. Spielberg's unique vision and storytelling techniques inspire and captivate viewers worldwide. Documentaries should take inspiration from Steven Speilberg when they introduce their characters for the same reasons.  

2. The Desires and Motivations:

But beneath their apparent contentment lies a deep-rooted desire, a burning goal, or a relentless motivation that drives the protagonist forward, urging them to take leaps of faith and embrace the unknown. This palpable longing, fueled by hope and determination, sets the story in motion, propelling the character out of their comfort zone and onto a transformative path of self-discovery and profound growth. Whether it is the vigorous pursuit of a soulful connection, the tenacious quest for the freedom to express oneself authentically, or any other audacious aspiration that resonates at the core of their being, the character must genuinely yearn for it with all their heart, making it not just a mere objective, but the very essence and driving force behind their compelling and extraordinary journey.

3. Entering Unfamiliar Territory:

An inciting incident occurs, forcing the character to leave their familiar environment and into uncharted territory. This often manifests as an event threatening the character's everyday life in documentaries. According to renowned story guru Robert McKee, the inciting incident is a crucial element in storytelling that sets the narrative in motion. It acts as a catalyst, propelling the story forward and creating the foundation for future events.

McKee's teachings emphasize the importance of a substantial inciting incident to engage the audience and establish a compelling story. This incident is typically an event or situation that disrupts the protagonist's ordinary world and forces them to take action. It serves as the trigger for change, propelling the protagonist onto their transformative journey.

McKee believes the inciting incident should occur early in the story, ideally within the first act. Doing so captures the audience's attention and generates curiosity, setting the stage for unfolding the narrative.

To illustrate this concept, let's consider the film "The Shawshank Redemption." The inciting incident in this story occurs when Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary. This event disrupts Andy's ordinary life, leading him into a world of injustice, corruption, and confinement. It sets the narrative in motion, driving Andy to seek justice, fight for his freedom, and ultimately find redemption. 

Another example can be found in the film "Star Wars: A New Hope." The inciting incident occurs when Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, discovers a distress message from Princess Leia Organa. This sets off a chain of events that leads Luke to join forces with Obi-Wan Kenobi, embark on a journey to rescue the princess, and ultimately become a key player in the battle against the oppressive Galactic Empire.

In both examples, the inciting incidents propel the protagonists into new and challenging circumstances, driving the narrative forward and providing the foundation for the story's development. This is not exclusive to fiction films. Documentaries must take storytelling seriously to succeed beyond people caring for a particular topic. Storytelling creates a universal connection to the character's lives.

As Robert McKee described, storytellers can effectively engage their audience and create compelling narratives by understanding and utilizing the inciting incident concept. This pivotal moment sets the stage for the transformative journey that awaits the protagonist, ensuring a captivating and dynamic story.

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

  • A significant event or crisis: This could be a natural disaster, a social or political upheaval, or an incident that captures public attention, such as a terrorist attack or a high-profile crime.

  • Personal stories or experiences: Documentaries often introduce central characters who have undergone transformative experiences or face specific challenges. These personal journeys become the inciting incidents that shape the narrative.

  • Discovery of new information: Investigative documentaries may uncover previously unknown or hidden information, prompting the filmmaker to delve deeper into a particular issue or expose wrongdoing.

  • Historical or societal turning points: Documentaries examining historical events or societal shifts may begin with a pivotal moment that marked a significant change or had far-reaching consequences.

  • Conflict or controversy: Some documentaries revolve around contentious issues or friction, such as legal battles, community disputes, or clashes of ideologies.

  • Human interest stories: Documentaries focused on human stories often start with inciting incidents highlighting the struggles, achievements, or unique circumstances of individuals or communities, drawing viewers into their lives and experiences.

4. Adapting to the Unknown:
As the character enters this unfamiliar landscape, they must adapt and 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, leaving 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 undeniable triumph and fulfillment, 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, unveiling new challenges and emotions the character must navigate to reach a satisfying resolution.

7. Returning to Familiar Ground:

The character is brought back to their initial comfort zone but no longer the same. Their transformative journey has left an indelible mark on their soul, shaping their mindset, beliefs, and perspective. Armed with newfound wisdom and a deeper understanding of themselves and the world, they approach their comfort zone with renewed purpose and openness to embrace whatever lies ahead.

8. A Changed Individual:

Finally, take a moment to reflect upon the growth and transformation of the character. Examine how their unique experiences, both triumphs, and tribulations, have intricately shaped their persona and influenced their subsequent actions. By exploring the profound impact of their journey, we gain a genuine appreciation for the character's depth and complexity.

The hero's journey is a narrative structure that resonates with audiences across cultures and periods. It speaks to our innate desire for personal growth and transformation as we witness characters overcoming obstacles and evolving into their heroes. It reminds us that we, too, can embark on our journeys of self-discovery and embrace the challenges that come our way.

The hero's journey is not limited to works of fiction or movies; it extends to our own lives. Each one of us has the potential to be the hero of our own story, navigating through the ups and downs, facing our fears, and emerging stronger and wiser on the other side.

  • 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 and how 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, acknowledging our flaws, and embracing the unknown with courage and resilience. It's about finding our strength to conquer our battles and emerge as changed individuals.

As you continue along your own hero's journey, remember that setbacks and unexpected consequences are part of the process. Embrace them as opportunities for growth and learning. And when you reach a point of accomplishment, take the time to celebrate your achievements before embarking on new adventures.

Whether your hero's journey takes you to distant lands or within the depths of your soul, may it be filled with transformation, discovery, and a profound sense of purpose. Embrace the call to adventure, face your challenges head-on, and emerge as the hero of your own story.

I encourage you to seek stories that inspire and remind you of the power within. The hero's journey is a timeless narrative structure that continues to captivate and resonate with audiences worldwide. So, embark on your heroic quest, for within you lies the potential for greatness and transformation.

The hero's journey in a documentary encompasses a series of transformative stages that 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 exciting or relatable.

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. The event or situation forces the main character out of their comfort zone and into their transformative journey. Significant events, personal stories, or the discovery of new information could trigger this. The inciting incident acts as a catalyst for change and propels the character into unfamiliar territory.

As the main character navigates through challenges and obstacles, they showcase 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 showcase?

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 witnesses their perseverance and determination.

However, no hero's journey is without its twists and consequences. Introduce an unexpected turn that tests the main character's resolve and demands a sacrifice. This twist adds depth and complexity to the story, making it more compelling and memorable. This moment can elevate your documentary and win you an Oscar.

After facing the challenges and enduring the consequences, the main character eventually returns 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 taken place.

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 and 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 that engages the audience and leaves a lasting impression. So go ahead, embark on your documentary journey, and tell a story that inspires and resonates with viewers.

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