What great documentaries can teach you about writing your show.
Netflix saved the documentary genre.
All of a sudden, these true-life films that struggled to get any attention, and rarely received real in-cinema distribution, had a place where they were featured right next to the new releases. (Think about that for a second – Netflix puts The Avengers right next to a Food Doc – have you ever seen that at your local AMC?)
That means a ton more people watch ’em. Which made documentary makers (including me!) jump up and down with joy.
And it made documentary viewers (including me!) do backflips over those filmmakers jumping up and down.
I’ve been watching a bunch lately, and I noticed something interesting.
Some of the best docs I’ve seen fell into three categories that I call the 3Cs of Documentaries:
- CONTESTS: the main characters compete in a competition (e.g. The King of Kong, Spellbound, First Position (produced by Broadway Producer Rose Caiola), etc.).
- COURTROOM: a crime drama where the main characters are proclaimed guilty or innocent at the conclusion (Making a Murderer, The Thin Blue Line, Capturing the Friedmans).
- CALENDERED: the drama takes place over a fixed period of time (Super Size Me, Hoop Dreams, etc.).
Why do these subset docs work so well?
In all three, from the get-go, there is a clearly defined conclusion. The audience knows where we’re going from the get-go . . . Who will win . . . Did he do it . . . What will happen when the clock runs out?
When the suspense is so specifically drawn so early, it’s much easier for an audience to go on a ride with you. And, the first two of these genres-inside-a-genre are even more common than the third . . . because the lack of a complicated conclusion is even simpler to digest. Win/Lose. Guilty/Innocent. Yes/No.
Does that mean every doc or every play or every musical has to be a contest, courtroom drama or calendered event?
But if your show isn’t one, see how you can make it feel like one.
From the opening scene or two, let the audiences know the simple options for your conclusion (get the girl/don’t get the girl, adopt the kid/don’t adopt the kid, live/die), and they’ll cancel their Netflix subscription altogether.