In my last post for Smash Cut Culture, I wrote about the importance of suspension of disbelief and the necessity of internal logic within a fictional narrative universe.
Picking up where I left off, Elizabeth Wolfe wrote another wonderful article, “Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf” elaborating on that idea with quotes and examples from J.R.R. Tolkien. While thinking about that piece, it occurred to me that everything that is true of great fiction story-telling is also true in non-fiction.
Consider my condensed view of Elizabeth’s piece on Tolkien.
I’m not the first person to notice this, but his whole approach to writing was rather Biblical. First, he created the world: Middle Earth. Then he created the seas, and the mountains, the forests and the grasslands – he drew maps, and charted geographies. Then he created the flora and the fauna, and filled his world with life – dragons, trolls, Balrogs, Nazgul, and giant spiders; but also pigs, horses, bears, and birds. Finally, he created the people – human and non-human characters with free will and individual agency, histories, genealogies, and languages – and then he wrote epic stories about those people.
There are plenty of things that I think Tolkien did wrong as a writer, and there are many instances in which he clearly took unnecessary shortcuts (cough-deux ex giant eagle-cough cough) in his books which stand in sharp contrast to realism of the world; but overall, I believe that his level of sophistication and care in building a believable world is what we should all strive for as story-tellers, regardless of the medium. Showcasing a rich, deep universe, filled with complex characters and interesting stories should not just be limited to fiction.
Recently, I also read an article at Slate describing the current time as a “golden age of documentaries”. As (primarily) a documentary producer myself, I have to agree.
There are more incredible stories being told through that medium than ever before, and thanks to a handful of our documentarian fore-bearers (Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, D.A. Pennebaker, etc.) and some up and coming greats, I think we’re finally starting to learn how to tell true stories in as creative and sophisticated ways as film-makers have more frequently told the made-up ones. The only real difference is that instead of inventing a universe and characters from scratch, it is the documentary producer’s job to carve away at the shallow outer layers of the subject, and expose the complexities underneath – to piece together a clearly structured story, centered on the actions and emotions of interesting characters who inhabit a believable world.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, the story-telling principles are fundamentally the same. Non-fiction just means you can’t cheat (with magic eagles, for example). I only really came to understand this through producing my last few documentaries, No Vans Land & Locked Out.
Documentary editing is ridiculously difficult. When you’re staring at 60-70 hours worth of raw material and no no script, knowing that you need to cut it all down to a half an hour of clear, yet emotionally moving, cinema; it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But if you treat a documentary the same as you’d treat a narrative film that you were writing from scratch, things get a little easier to manage (only a little, though).
When I get stuck, I often find myself referring back to the lessons I’ve learned from writers like Tolkien, along with stuff like Joseph Campbell’s view of The Hero’s Journey which describes broad story structures and character archetypes common across multiple story-telling traditions, and also about Emma Coates’ set of Pixar Story Rules.
Her whole set is great, but even just the first four are simple and valuable:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Most people writing about drama specifically have narrative fiction in mind, but increasingly, I find that they’re every bit as good when you’re trying to figure out how to craft a solid story out of disparate documentary footage.
All the important elements remain the same.