Thursday, July 21, 2011

How the Storytelling in Documentaries Helps My Writing

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." - Robert Burns

I watched two documentaries last week that were vastly different but shared a common storytelling thread: the protagonists' plans went heartbreakingly wrong. One was darkly comedic, the other tragic-yet-inevitable.

The first, Catfish, concerned a series of online relationships, including a romance, that turned out to be false or at least deeply misleading. The slow reveal was filled with tension, dread, and even an awful kind of humor as the protag and his friends paid a surprise visit to their internet friend's family and scrambled to figure out what was really going on.

The second documentary, Last Train Home, involved a modern Chinese family's disintegration. The parents had made the impossible decision, 16 years prior, to leave the country and find factory work in the city. Their plan was to send money home to fund their children's education so the youngsters could go to university someday and never have to work in a factory.

So what happens? The oldest, a teenage girl, resents her mom and dad for not raising her and decides to rebel by quitting school, heading to the city, and... working in a factory. You could see it coming, and yet you hoped it wouldn't be so.

I love documentaries because they provide a refreshing, even jarring, change of pace to the usual movie experience. There are fewer tropes, fewer predictable outcomes, and occasionally better dialogue and more authentic human interaction, even if it's painful, awkward or even boring at times.

Just like with sports, you don't know what's going to happen, and there's absolutely no guarantee of a happy or tidy ending. At the same time, the directors and editors frame the events in such a way that audiences can see structure and purpose to the story.

With Last Train Home in particular, I was reminded that the best stories often have a deceptively simple premise (parents try to make a better life for their children; children don't understand the behavior and resent it) that can be rich and full.

Seen any good documentaries lately? Did they help with your novel writing, or remind you that going "off-book" can be a good thing?

P.S. Edited to add: Lest you think I'm a dirty rotten spoiler, the plot points I've mentioned above happen fairly early on in each documentary.


  1. See this is why I can't watch anything about my people, it's way too depressing. And watch out for Chinese films with the words "Happy" in the title - they're the most depressing of all! Everybody always dies!

    And thanks for the spoiler caveat :D

  2. Thanks for the warning about the nefarious "happy" moniker, Sophia! Good to know :)