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I am trying to create a documentary about the history of a sports team, and have identified some compelling story arcs. However, as we know in reality, stories do not begin and end one at a time:

story 1 exposition
story 1 rising action 
story 1 climax
story 1 falling action
story 1 resolution
story 2 exposition
story 2 rising action 
story 2 climax
story 2 falling action
story 2 resolution

but rather are interwoven

story 1 exposition
story 1 rising action 
story 2 exposition
story 1 climax
story 2 rising action 
story 1 falling action
story 2 climax
story 2 falling action
story 1 resolution
story 2 resolution

I can easily modify my documentary to make scene transitions seamless/connected by having a connecting theme. BUT this doesn't ensure the viewer can identify the 2 different story arcs and feel the satisfaction that all plots were explored and resolved. To them, the interwoven structure above just looks like a bunch of connected scenes with no overall meaning.

What do screenwriters do to ensure viewers don't get lost and remind them that there is a (set of) journeys to be payed off that they should keep watching to get rewarded with? Apart from just narration which explicitly identifies the 2 separate plots, I don't get how this is done (I'm an amateur screenwriter with no training). But since I don't want to rely on English narration (I want people from other countries to watch it too), I'm wondering if there are any non-narrater ways to help orient viewers.

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    My only guess is that you indeed need some kind of "roadmap" to remind viewers where they are on each journey (e.g. an on-screen graphic "checklist" where the viewer knows that more boxes will get checked as they continue watching the documentary). – Sridhar Sarnobat Jul 14 '16 at 23:17
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    How closely related are the two stories? I've seen many TV shows where the "B" plot seems very different from the "A" plot (sometimes they come together at the end, sometimes not), and it's usually not hard to tell which is which. Is that your situation and you're looking for tips, or do your two stories revolve around the same people, locations, themes, etc? – Monica Cellio Jul 15 '16 at 1:07
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    I'd use music to unify an arc. Out there usually human leads are used to tag arcs as people easily identify with them. – Bookeater Jul 15 '16 at 8:17
  • All good answers. The music one is brilliant, almost so obvious and powerful it didn't cross my mind. So the skill is in finding music to match each particular story arc. Monica - if you post that as an answer I'll mark it as correct. – Sridhar Sarnobat Jul 15 '16 at 20:15
  • @Sridhar-Sarnobat it was actually meant primarily as a question for you -- if you could clarify (in an edit) how related the arcs are to each other, it will help people answer. – Monica Cellio Jul 15 '16 at 20:46
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Stories are the way human being make sense of life. They are an attempt to impose order on the chaotic stream of events that we experience day to day.

History is the interpretation of the stream of past events as a set of stories. As such, those stories will overlap each other in the time scale. When telling multiple stories, you need some way to keep them distinct. TV ensemble dramas typically split their casts up in small groups to tell separate (though possibly intersecting) stories. The viewer knows when you have switched to a different story because the cast changes.

In history, dividing up the cast does not often work so neatly, so it is quite common to separate the stories out, tell one all the way though, and then hop back in time to tell another. Stories told later can reference ones told earlier, so it is important to tell them in the right order.

Whichever approach you choose, the key is to remember that stories are always artificial imposition of order on the chaos of events, and as such the logic and continuity of the story trumps all other threads, including linear time.

  • Really good point about subsets of characters. That's how 2 of my favorite series, Friends and Simpsons, keep the arcs distinct. And in a clever way, they all converge near the end. It would seem like I can't do that with a sports team whose players come and go with the arc still in progress, but I need to ponder what an analogous entity would be. – Sridhar Sarnobat Jul 18 '16 at 21:27
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Watch any of the reality TV shows in the documentary theme that are currently "popular" like

  • Pawn Stars
  • American Pickers
  • Tiny House Hunters
  • Any of the home renovation/flipping/decorating shows

Pay attention to how they summarize and cut between acts. Also some of them like Pawn Stars start a story (say someone wants to sell a stuffed buffalo) but they don't resolve it straight away. They cut to another seller (say selling a diamond), and intercut some conflict between the family. Then back to the Bullalo. Back to the Diamond. Back to conflict.

Even if not for TV, a TV hour (43 minutes) is 4-5 well defined acts.

To cut between story arcs make sure you leave each story on a question or cliff hanger, like

ACTION SHOWING

The team nearly folded in 1919 when scandal rocked the dressing room.

FADE OUT:

Commercial break

FADE IN:

ACTION SHOWING

Meanwhile in 1968 the team lost it's third finals series in a row.
Newspaper reports of the day started reporting the "Ghost of 
the Dressing Room" had cursed the team. 
A voodoo priestess was called in to exorcise the evil spirits.

Using graphics is almost essential if you are going to split the narrative without a narrator.

But remember am English language narration can often be dubbed or subtitled for other markets.

  • Good point, even if I don't watch most modern TV shows! That might be tricky but it's good to know that this is another technique. – Sridhar Sarnobat Jul 15 '16 at 20:18
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    I don't think you should watch any of those shows. They are "unscripted" and cheaper to produce than a scripted show. However spending 43 minutes watching how they interweave multiple stories may be beneficial. Your editor should be able to offer suggestions on how to intercut the stories, unless you are the editor. – paulzag Jul 16 '16 at 9:15
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    @PaulZagoridis There's always Mythbusters, which in later seasons had Adam & Jamie working on one myth and the Build Team working on another, with similar narrative arcs but less cruelty and senseless melodrama. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 16 '16 at 14:50
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    Brilliant idea @LaurenIpsum – paulzag Jul 18 '16 at 5:24
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Thanks to Bookeater for this recommendation:

I'd use music to unify an arc. Out there usually human leads are used to tag arcs as people easily identify with them.

This also answers another question I hadn't yet crossed yet - how many different soundtrack songs should I use in my show (anything from one for the whole show, to one for every scene). One per story sounds like a good way to go.

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