Mark Monroe has written the Academy Award-winning films THE COVE (2009) and ICARUS (2018). He explains his role as the writer, how to breakdown and simplify story, create hooks and introduce characters for maximum impact, choosing storytelling devices, and using conflict to find the best story.
A documentary writer is responsible for collaborating with the director to:
structure the documentary, using scenes to build the narrative
curate key soundbites from interviews and archive footage
develop the story, characters & emotional beats
The core of a story should be simple and allow an audience to invest in the key characters and relationships. As an approach, consider establishing the core story, and then explore the material for character nuance, complexity and a compelling journey; As an example, Icarus was truly a buddy film. The complexity of the doping scandal was built around that relationship.
When structuring your film, know the key events or turning points.Then, establish when you must hit each beat to craft an effective structure that focuses on the timing of important character and story moments.
An audience wants to be entertained, even if the film is making an important statement. A “message film” also needs a hook to bring the audience in and keep them watching to the end. As an example, The Cove was about dolphin slaughters, but kept the audience engaged through crafting it as a thriller.
Introduce characters at key moments to escalate the telling of the story. Know how many characters you have, what their purpose is, and how to reveal them for maximum dramatic effect.
You have several great tools to present story that include:
Narration: works well when it’s from a first-person perspective
Cards: work well when presenting undisputed facts to emphasize important truths
The magic of documentaries is often discovered. Part of that process requires conflict and fighting for the best version of the story in a trusting collaboration.