What A Story Is Not
The Three-Act Documentary
Character-driven documentaries do not always fit tidily into three acts. Having said that, devising a narrative arc does not mean dividing the film into three parts, and then arbitrarily labeling each part an act. The first, second and third acts look remarkably different from one another, and each fulfills a unique and specific purpose in composing the story. A story, in this sense, is not a profile (for example, a film about an eccentric uncle who farms nuts), a condition (human rights abuses in Haiti), a phenomenon (the popularity of multi-player video games) or a point of view (social security should be privatized).
Simply stated, a story chronicles the efforts of the main character to achieve his or her heart’s desire in the face of opposition. Screenwriters understand that defining the “hero’s quest” is the foremost dramatic requirement of a three-act structure. Act One sets up the protagonist’s desire (boy meets girl), Act Two presents obstacles that thwart the goal (boy loses girl), and in the final act, the climax reveals whether or not the protagonist achieves his heart’s desire (boy wins girl forever after). Documentary filmmakers would do well to hone in on their protagonist’s desire in their earliest concept paper, a mandatory preamble to rolling tape.