So, do you write fiction or fact? I started as a short story and article writer but I very soon decided which one I was – a fiction writer at heart. Just recently however, I was tempted out of my comfort zone by a series of courses organised by Nine Lives Media who produced the recent terrific Poundland Wars. They were funded by Skillset and focused on different areas of factual television from documentaries to format shows.
The excellent Robert Thirkell came to Media City in Salford and spent two days talking us through his career as a documentary film maker. Even though you know the story you’re watching has been edited, it’s only when you see the process that you begin to realise that storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s fiction or fact. Both of them have a script because a story has to have structure and a beginning, middle and end and just as with fiction, it helps to know where you want to end up with. If you don’t know Robert Thirkell, he’s the man behind Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and a host of other successful shows.
I was the only writer in a room of producers and assistant producers but Robert pointed out that he sees his job as being a writer also, finding the best way to tell his stories.
The same elements that work in fiction also work in factual storytelling. It’s all back to character, character, character. Just as you have to spend time working with your characters, finding their fears and how they drive them, how everything they do will be driven by these fears, so producers of factual stories have to find characters who will stand out, who are literally larger than life and who will drive those stories.
As fiction writers, there’s much we can find in these stories, from their structure to their characters, that we can borrow. The hero will be there and there’ll be an antagonist, someone or something that’s standing in his way. The most successful work when the story’s tight and keeps the hero/heroine in almost every scene, for it’s him/her that’s driving everything. When there are too many stories being interwoven, it’s like too many sub-plots. You can lose track of what’s going on, unless the theme is strong and keeps them all going in the same direction.
Watching good factual programmes like Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Poundland Wars, both UK television shows, and comparing them to fictional feature films, will tell you a great deal about structure and character. Good ensemble films will show how some of these factual films are put together – take a look at “Magnolia”, (1999) with its use of opening narrative and two parallel stories with interweaving stories. Check out the storyline and plot on IMDB – a word of warning – sometimes it’s best to read the shortest, most concise version and not become mired in too much character detail.
In her book “Secrets of Screenplay Structure“, Linda J. Cowgill sums up ensemble films and, in my opinion, the elements they have in common with documentaries with multiple story lines and characters:
“To create a seamless intertwining of plot lines, a filmmaker needs three things;
1. A clear issue or theme for the characters;
2. A context in which the characters relate;
3. An event which frames the story.”
In the end it comes down to basic storytelling no matter whether it’s come out of our imagination or true life.
“Secrets of Screenplay Structure” Linda J. Cowgill, (1999) ISBN 1-58065-004-X
“Conflict” Robert Thirkell, (2010) ISBN 978 1 408 12909 8 This has a good section on scripts and a breakdown of an episode from “Jamie’s School Dinners.”