I'm planning on shooting a documentary on a potentially important shift in a friend's life. In an attempt to educate myself a little bit before shooting the events, I'm reading about the classic structure in three acts, with act one depicting a normal life suddenly disturbed by an event (which includes a wake-up call, doubts from the main character, and a decision to tackle the conflict/problem).

This is all good for fiction, but in the case of a documentary, the decision to make said documentary may come specifically because the dramatic structure (in real life) is already approaching the end of act 1.

It translates into something like: "Well, this man's life, which was quite normal and safe until now is probably about to change because of what happened to him two months ago. His decision to make a radical change in his life might lead to interesting stuff... let's document this and make a movie about it!"

How does a documentary filmmaker deal with this? Should he explain instead of show? Does the linear structure (normality leads to an unforeseen problem, leads to a wakeup call, leads to the doubts on whether the character should do something about it, leads to the firm decision to actually tackle the issue, leads to Act 2) of dramatic writing need to be thrown away in this case, or somehow recreated after the events?

In short: what are the "state of the art" solutions usually employed to tackle this problem (starting to shoot at the end of Act 1, while still conforming to a 3-act structure).

  • 1
    To clarify, is your goal to document "act 2" as it's happening, or is your goal to document "act 1" - everything that led to the person's life shift? Aug 29 '18 at 14:27
  • My goal is to document the whole process (act 2 and 3), but also why is this man is about the start act 2 (this "why", would be act 1 in its classic form).
    – Lucien S.
    Aug 29 '18 at 14:30

Although I am a strong believer in the 3AS, you don't really need a 3AS in a character study, which is what you are doing: A work of fiction in which the delineation of the central character's personality is more important than the plot.

So stuff happens to them, but mostly this is to show the audience the effect this has on the character. How they think, act, make decisions, solve problems, etc.

We put this character into a situation which engages them strongly, which may not even have an antagonist or villain (man vs world story, man vs cancer, etc), but it DOES contain tension: This is the important part, people turn the pages of your story because you have got them wondering "What Happens Next". The stuff that happens does not have to escalate to some breaking point or climax; although it usually does result in some change to end the story.

That needs to happen on multiple scales, from the short term (what happens in the next few pages?) to larger scales (what happens in the next chapter? The next three? How does this story end?).

Just the ultimate scale, how does the story end, is typically not enough alone to carry the reader through to the end (but in film it often is, because it is only 90 minutes or whatever).

This is why action thrillers are so popular, nearly every minute the audience is in suspense wondering "what happens next?", except for some necessary world-building and "story setup" pages, but in the thrillers the stories are necessarily very simplistic.

Your documentary doesn't have to be as packed as a thriller with suspense; some of its tension comes from dealing with a real person and a real problem. But when you edit, you want to edit to create this kind of tension: Eventually revealing everything, but not instantly. Hold bits back.

We've gone to get a blood test for antibody X. Don't cut to "No antibody X, hooray!" We are worried about antibody X, we wonder what it means and what we do next if antibody X is found. (You are doing a little education.) Our subject has emotional responses, he can't sleep. We pursue research on some other avenue, creating another line of suspense. Then a week later -- "Hooray, no antibody X!".

Of course it depends on the room you have, but the idea is the same. There is no 3AS, but there is constant tension you must maintain, you are showing your character dealing with his life, in a highly condensed form. That tension, the series of wondering "what happens next?", is what keeps the viewer glued to your story. It must be a series of overlapping questions so it gets paid off periodically, you can't just keep reminding them again and again of the same dang question, or they will FF to the end.

Character studies in fiction are like Little Women (for each of the girls). You can try to cram Little Women into a 3AS but it doesn't really fit; stuff happens to the girls and you feel like you know them, some stuff is bigger than other stuff, but in the end they have just become adults, as people do.

Your character study will follow the 3AS naturally; you have "Leaving the Normal World" already (20% of your documentary can be his "normal world" leading up to the inciting incident that makes him leave it), the second act will be him dealing with this change; the third act will be when he has succeeded or failed, or whenever you stop filming! There will be an inciting incident for you that marks why you decided to stop filming the story; a point where you believe nothing is changing anymore, it means you have run out of tension.

Remember the 3AS is descriptive, not prescriptive. It was derived from analysis of hundreds of already good known stories; it is just the natural way we humans like our stories to be told.

The only thing you need to do (after the fact, as both Galestel and Chris Sunami advise) is wrangle your bits into the lengths (I say percentages) of the story for each act. Opening on the normal world, around 15% the first hint of trouble, around 25% definitely going to leave the normal world, then trials and errors/setbacks, then whatever incident turns out to be the deciding factor for closing the documentary and wrapping things up, about 10% from the end. That is how we like our stories told.


As @Galastel has already noted, the standard documentary approach is to film everything, and then to craft a story only at the end, and through the editing process. This is because the story you may end up with might, through the accidents of life, be quite different than the story you thought you were going to tell at the start. A great example is Lost in La Mancha, which was intended as a documentary about the making of a film, but ended as a documentary about a film that never got made. You'll want to strike a balance between the responsibility to your audience to tell a compelling story, and being open to what it is that life actually gives you.

If, however, you worry that you're beginning your filming at a late point in the narrative, you may want to make yourself ready to fill in the gaps by filming a variety of interviews that cover the time leading up to the present. Often documentarians find creative ways to depict the past --research materials, pictures, voice-overs, dramatic recreations, footage of locations, etcetera. The famous documentarian Ken Burns works almost exclusively with past events, and hasn't lacked for success and critical acclaim.

Searching for Sugar Man is a good example of an acclaimed documentary that takes this dual approach. The filming begins not long before the climatic event, the rediscovery of Rodriguez, and then his triumphant visit to South Africa. The majority of the back story is depicted using techniques like those described above. You don't really get into the live new footage until late in the film.


If I understand you correctly, the subject of your documentary is standing on the brink of a major change: there's his life up to "now" (what you call "act 1"), and then there's the way things will unfold from now on.

The thing is, you do not yet know how things will unfold - you're documenting events as they occur. The story is still unfolding.

Because events are still unfolding, you cannot know what choices are going to lead to what results, what might turn out to be a success or a failure or a dead end. You even say "potentially important shift in a friend's life" - so it might turn out to be not important at all?

With this many unknowns, it's hard to frame a story. So, if I was in your place, I'd start shooting, and think about how arrange the material later. Once you have all the story before you, and hours upon hours of footage, you can arrange it in a way that tells the story best. Then would be the time to employ what you know about the "3 act structure", or any other narrative tool.


You can structure a story so that the decision to do things differently is the climax, and thematically, the conflict is finding the fortitude to make that decision. It's a little abstract, but it has been done successfully before.

To a degree, The Catcher in the Rye follows this theme. Holden spends the entire story trying to find himself while in an emotional haze caused by the sudden death of his older brother. The conflict is, is he going to find a healthy way to resolve his painful emotions, or is he going to make a grossly irresponsible decision that he'll regret the rest of his life? The novel ends when he allows himself to feel the full force of his emotions and decides to return home. The novel could have been structured so that this was just the first act and the rest of the book dealt with Holden continuing to work through his grief. But it was enough for him to decide to try dealing with his grief in a healthy way.

The movie Wolf Children has a similar structure in its third act. The movie is about a single mom trying to raise magic children who can turn into wolves while hiding their magic from her neighbors. The climax comes when, in a single day, both of her children decide how they want to live their lives and become too mature for her to protect them anymore. The fear of what will happen to them next and sense of loss she feels overwhelms her - until she realizes that it's going to be OK and her children can take care of themselves. The movie could have been structured so that the decision to let go was the end of the first act, and the meat of the plot was about adjusting to the new, looser relationship the woman had with her children. But again, reaching that decision was a fitting climax for a movie that focused on a different aspect of this mother's experience.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.