The Narrative Spine Or Train

Films move forward in time, taking audiences with them. You want the storytelling to move forward, too, and to motivate the presentation of exposition. In other words, you want the audience to be curious about the information you're giving them. When exposition involves backstory—how we got to where we are now—it's often a good idea to get a present-day story moving forward (even if the story is in the past) before looking back. This overall story—your film's narrative spine—has been described by producers Ronald Blumer and Muffie Meyer of Middlemarch Films (Benjamin Franklin, Liberty! The American Revolution) as the film's train.

The train is the element of story that drives your film forward, from the beginning to the end. Get a good train going, and you can make detours as needed for exposition, complex theory, additional characters—whatever you need. Sometimes, these detours let you seed in information that will pay off later in the film; sometimes, the detours are motivated by the train, and the audience wants to take a side track to learn more. Look at the case studies in Chapter 7, and you'll see how much of a documentary can be "off track" and, if the train is powerful enough, never feel like it's doing anything but moving steadily forward. The trick is to get the train going and to remember to get back on "on track" in a reasonable period of time. If you don't have a train going, those detours will seem unfocused and, more than likely, dull. Your train will be derailed.

Here's an example: You're thinking of telling a story in chronological order about this guy named Jim Jones who becomes a Pentecostal minister in Indiana and has an interracial church and it's the 1950s and—it's not very interesting. But if you pick up this same story much later in time, as a congressman goes to Guyana to rescue some Americans from what their relatives fear is a dangerous cult, and the congressman is killed while members of this cult line up to drink cyanide-spiked juice, chances are the audience will stay with you as you break away from this train to explore the decades of social, political, cultural, and even personal change that created Jim Jones and the tragedy of Jonestown. The drama is already there; it's a matter of finding the "creative arrangement," the strongest way to tell it.

In considering the train, it helps to think about drawing in an audience that doesn't know or care one way or another about the topic you're following. Some people are deeply curious about space exploration, for example, but many people aren't. If you're creating a film that you hope will reach a general audience, whether at a museum, on television, or in theaters, you need to think about how to get a story under way that will grab that audience. Then—and this is what makes you a good documentary filmmaker, not a mediocre one—you want to see how much information that story will allow you to convey even to the disinterested, because you're going to get them interested.

In other words, rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator—creating a breathless film about space exploration that's filled with platitudes and exciting music, but little else—your goal is to create a film that's driven by a story, one that will motivate even general viewers to want to know more of those details that thrill you. They'll grow to care because those details will matter to the story unfolding on screen. The train of Super Size Me is a 30-day McDiet, for example, but look at how much information the film conveys about nutrition and obesity. The train in Daughter from Danang is a reunion between an Amerasian woman and the Vietnamese mother who gave her up for adoption 22 years earlier, but in the telling you learn about social and political history during the last years of the Vietnam War.

An interesting example of a film with a less apparent train is An Inconvenient Truth. The film is reportedly built around a PowerPoint presentation developed by former Vice President Al Gore and presented by him to a range of audiences. We see him on a lecture tour, and these speeches (and voice-overs) are intercut with sync and voice-over from a more introspective conversation Gore had with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim about his life, career, and family. The train of this film doesn't come from the subject of global climate change, nor did the filmmakers build a train around any particular lecture tour itinerary. The train builds from Gore's first words, "I used to be the next president of the United States." The personal, introspective essay about Gore drives this film, although in terms of screen time and import, it takes a backseat to the warnings about global warming.

A good exercise is to watch a number of successful documentaries that are very different in subject and style and see if you can identify the train. You also might want to see if, given the same subject and story, you could find another train. How might it change the film's look? Length? Effectiveness?

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