How do I decide the tone of the documentary?

by student

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Hi I am 15 years old and I am beginning to start a documentary for National History Day.. I have participated in this competition for three years now and made three documentaries. I am beginning my fourth. I always have trouble starting the documentary. My subject this year is Nelson Mandela. I am stuck on where and how to start.. I already began my research and I am conflicted on what information about him to start off with to make this film the best it could be.

Desktop Documentaries | Answer

This is a great question. The rule of thumb when figuring out how to start a documentary is to choose a story or some information that will intrigue the viewer. You want to create curiosity. You want to set up a dilemma or conflict.. something that makes the audience ask "what's going on here?" "How is this going to get resolved?"

For example you would NOT want to start your documentary with something factual like: Nelson Mandela was born in year _____, in the town of ___. That kind of information is great once you have established the emotional conflict or issue. But it would not be a very interesting way to start a film.

So as you're thinking about how to start your documentary about Nelson Mandela, search in his history for a dramatic story where all the odds were against him. Create a situation where the audience doesn't know whether he's going to live or die. Or whether he's going to triumph or not.

Have you ever heard of the traditional "three act structure" for a documentary? I think if you learned a bit about the nuts and bolts of how to build a dramatic arc, that would help you decide how to start your documentary.

Here is a link to help you better understand how to structure a documentary and a more in-depth explanation about the three-act documentary.

Documentary Structure and the Three Act Documentary

Did that help point you in the right direction? Please leave any additional questions or comments below.

Good luck with your documentary project!

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