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the secret code to


Published by Michael Wiese Productions 12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111 Studio City, CA 91604 (818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (FAX)

Cover design by Johnny Ink. Interior design by William Morosi Copyediting by David Wright Printed by McNaughton & Gunn

Manufactured in the United States of America Copyright © 2016 by John Bucher & Jeremy Casper All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bucher, John K. Master of the cinematic universe : the secret code to writing for a world of new media / John Bucher & Jeremy Casper. pages cm ISBN 978-1-61593-241-2 1. Mass media--Authorship. 2. Motion picture authorship. I. Casper, Jeremy, 1975- II. Title. P96.A86B83 2016


Printed on Recycled Stock



Acknowledgments � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �



Foreword � � � � � � � by Jim Krueger


� �x



Introduction The Great Media Mystery



� 7

How to Use This Book:


The Secret Codes Behind Short Visual Stories




Narrative Short Films:


Starting at the Beginning



� � � 26

Short Documentary Films:


Pulling from Real Life



� 32


Scaling Down Your Epic Stories


CHAPTER 6 � � � � � �

� 37

Fundraising/Crowdfunding Videos:


Using Story to Open Your Audience’s Wallet



� 42

Video Résumés:

Marketing Yourself Through the Power of Story




CHAPTER 8 � � � �

� � � 47

Promo/Sizzle Reels:


Creating Desire in the Mind of the Viewer




Commercials Product Selling Through Storytelling



� � � 56

Movie Trailers:


Using Story to Sell Your Story


CHAPTER 11� � � � � � �

� 60


Providing a Window into Your Ongoing Story



� 64


Compressing Your Story into Six Seconds



� � � 68

YouTube Videos:


Standing Out in a Sea of Content



� � � 73

Vimeo Videos:


Using Channels to Build Ethos



� 77

Music Videos:


Experimenting with Story



� 82


Laughing at Conflict




� � � 87



Evolving Content from Informational to Compelling




Motion Comic Videos:


Transcending a Traditional Medium



� � � 95

Instructional Short Films:


Teaching by Telling Good Tales


CHAPTER 20 � � � � �


Public Service Announcements:


Waking Your Audience to Action




Kinetic Text Videos:


Painting Pictures with Letters, Numbers, and Symbols


CHAPTER 22 � � � � �


Interactive Videos:


Using Story to Move an Audience Through an Experience


CHAPTER 23 � � � � � � �










How to Use This Book:

The Secret Codes Behind Short Visual Stories

A Message in a Bullet

In 2014, a small team of Italian treasure hunters, armed only with metal detectors, unearthed something rather unusual in the south of Tuscany. They found a small pin with the insignia of the 372th Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division. Normally, this would not have raised any eyebrows except for the fact that the regiment never fought in Italy.

Next to the pin was a bullet inverted into its case. When they removed the bullet from the case, there was a paper inside with a secret message. This was a common hiding place for messages in World War II. Ammunition was everywhere on the battlefield, so if a soldier was captured, it was easy to toss a shell on the ground without anyone being the wiser.

The secret code on the paper was quickly deciphered when posted to an Internet forum. A man who had kept his grand- father’s military gear, including his daily codebooks, cracked the code in a matter of days. The code read as follows:



8 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE BUCHER & CASPER It turns out that most Italian forces


It turns out that most Italian forces were no longer fighting in the war when the message was sent. The Nazis had confis- cated the Italian equipment and were fighting with a few troops still loyal to Mussolini. The Nazis were unfamiliar with the Italian grenades, which had two safety pins instead of one. They were pulling the first pin out and throwing unarmed grenades at the American troops, only to have live grenades thrown back at them a few seconds later.

The secret message was encoded to let other Allied forces know that reinforcements wouldn’t be necessary as they were going to be able to defeat the Nazis with their own weapons. We are able to enjoy this humorous story seventy years later, all because someone was able to decipher a code.

Communication Codebooks

Basic communication consists of 1) a sender who encodes a message, 2) the message itself, and 3) a receiver who then decodes the message. For thousands of years human beings have been perfecting the art of encoding and decoding messages. While the messages themselves have become more complex, their basic functions have not changed greatly.

Storytelling is, of course, one of the oldest forms of communication. It too involves a sender (or a storyteller) who encodes a message (or a story), and sends it to a receiver who decodes the message. But what elements can be encoded into a story? How do people decode these elements? Are there elements that achieve certain purposes that other elements don’t? Can these elements be used to evoke certain responses in an audience?



When you think of story, you might not immediately think of spies, double agents, and cracking codes. However, the hidden elements within stories are just as finely crafted as the most elaborate secret message. In order to break the codes, you will need a codebook—a guide to the ciphers from which short films are constructed.

The Story Cipher

A code is a system of symbols, letters, numbers, and words.

Not all codes are used to protect secret information. For example, Morse code was created to send simple messages great distances. The following codes are hidden inside the most well-crafted stories. They have been decoded here to help you on your mission. The codes below will be used throughout this book to help you determine what elements in a given type of story or medium are most useful or most common.

E = Ethos

Ethos literally means character. It refers to the “ethics” of

a speaker or her credibility. A story that relies on ethos is

relying on the credentials, authority, experience, likability, and background of the storyteller.

P = Pathos

Pathos refers to emotion or the use of emotional appeal in storytelling. The language, images, and music used in a story all affect the viewer’s emotions. Knowing how to use emotional elements effectively can be

tremendously powerful.




L = Logos (Logic) Logos refers to the use of logical reasoning. Even the most entertaining stories need to make logical sense. Certain types of films rely more heavily on logos than other types of films.

Is = Inside (Internal Story) The inside story refers to the internal journey of a story’s protagonist—what the protagonist needs. The inside story requires that your main character have an internal weakness or flaw that needs to be fixed. While on an internal journey, the protagonist must discover and confront this weakness. In the end, the inside story reveals whether or not the protago- nist’s internal problem was resolved.

Os = Outside (External Story) The outside story refers to the external journey of a story’s protagonist—what the protagonist wants. This is the “A” story in a film. A good outside story should have a clear external goal—something that, when achieved, we can photograph.

En = Entertain The role of entertainment in our modern culture cannot be overestimated. Many of the largest providers of visual content (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) exist largely for the purpose of simple entertainment. However, creating a piece that is actu- ally entertaining in the sea of competing content has become more and more elusive. What methods are most commonly used to entertain an audience in a short amount of time? Must content be either funny or sad to entertain? Can a content creator establish a committed audience through the use of certain methods of entertainment?




T H IS Boo K


Pr = Persuade In the massive galaxy of content available to viewers at any given time, our tendency to be persuaded by what we see has become more refined and nuanced. Short form media may very well still be the quickest path to a person’s “decision maker.” But when does content begin to feel like propaganda? When do audiences begin to feel manipulated? What causes content to feel sincere and yet persuasive?

In = Inform Businesses, students, and concerned individuals have discov- ered the power short form media holds when used to inform an audience. Short films have the power to convey simple information through pictures (both moving and static) that stay trapped in the human memory. It’s the rare person who can truly say that he’s never learned something or become better informed about an issue after watching an informative short film.

Rt = Run Time The run time refers to the length of a story when executed. In short films, this refers to how many minutes and seconds the story is on screen from the first opening credit (if there is one) to the final closing credit. In the codes we use in this book, the run time (shown in hours, minutes and seconds, e.g., 1:06:30) refers to the length that is either ideal or typical for a given piece.

C = Character


character is generally a person, animal, or inanimate object.


the characters are inanimate, like in the movie Cars (2006),

they usually take on human characteristics. In this book,


12 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER character might refer to any person


character might refer to any person within the narrative but usually refers to the protagonist or main character.

H = Hook

The hook is a major theme, concept, image, or other element in a story that immediately draws an audience in. It’s the “I see dead people” moment of your story.

Pt = Protagonist The protagonist is the main character of the story—some- times called the hero or heroine. This is the character through which the entire story unfolds. The protagonist should have a very specific external goal he must pursue over the course of the story as well as an internal conflict that needs to be resolved. The protagonist must be a person capable of making a believable, proactive choice at the end of the story in order to reveal to the audience that he’s completed his character arc.

If = Internal flaw The internal flaw is the inner weakness that the protagonist must overcome. The internal flaw often stems from lies the protagonist has come to believe about himself. At the begin- ning of a well-constructed story, the protagonist is unaware of his internal flaw, but as the story progresses, he discovers it; contends with it; and by the end he must choose whether or not to overcome it.

Ig = Internal Goal

The internal goal refers to what the protagonist wants most deeply—even more so than achieving an external goal. Many times this will be to find love, to gain acceptance, or to fulfill some other universal human need. Sometimes the internal






goal is extremely obvious, but sometimes it’s so nebulous it can’t be articulated.

Ii = Inciting Incident Story gurus have called the inciting incident by many names over the years, but regardless of what they call it, they all agree you need one. The inciting incident is the moment that starts your story. It’s the moment when the protago- nist becomes aware of his external goal. Think of this as “the phone call that changed your life.” After the inciting incident, nothing should remain the same for the protagonist. The inciting incident forces the protagonist to make a decision about whether or not to go on the journey.

Ca! = Call To Action The call to action is an element in the story that forces the protagonist to make a choice. Life can no longer remain the same. This element is similar to the inciting incident, however the inciting incident only occurs near the beginning of a story. The call to action can occur at any point in the story and may occur more than once. In many of the types of films we will be discussing in this book, the call to action is meant for the people watching the films rather than the characters in the films.

Ex = External Goal The external goal is what the protagonist spends most of his time trying to achieve. Regardless of whether or not the protagonist likes the goal, the goal should be impera- tive. It should be the thing that drives him. The ending of a film should always reveal whether or not the protagonist achieved his goal, and sometimes, it’s more effective when


14 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER the protagonist does not get what


the protagonist does not get what he wants in the story but instead gets what he needs. (See Irony.)

A = Antagonist The antagonist is the opponent to the protagonist. Well- constructed antagonists want the exact same thing as the protagonist (to win the game, to get the job, to rule the universe, etc.), but their reasons for wanting the same goal are vastly different. Antagonists should have compelling but flawed reasons for doing what they do.

Cn = Conflict Conflict is the engine of story. It’s what makes things move. Protagonists have little reason to go on any journey until conflict comes into their lives. Conflict may come in the form of another character (such as an antagonist), a ticking time bomb, a natural disaster, an inner demon, or any other force that presents a problem for the protagonist or the achieving of his goal.

Cn+ = Increase Conflict The need to increase conflict is one of the most common problems a story can run into. While there are many ways to raise the stakes in a story, three of the most useful are 1) compressing the geographic space between the antago- nist and protagonist, 2) condensing the amount of time the protagonist has to achieve her goal, and 3) adding an addi- tional character who opposes the protagonist as she pursues her goal.

Su = Setup In many ways, stories are greatly about setups and payoffs. A setup is narrative information that the audience will need



later in the story. Sometimes, a setup will not feel important

to the audience until it is paid off.

Po = Payoff The payoff refers to the emotional relief an audience expe- riences when an element referenced earlier in a story is completed or referenced again in some way.

Rv = Reversal

A reversal occurs when something unexpected occurs in a

story. This tool can be especially effective if the audience is expecting a character to make one decision and he makes the opposite choice. This idea can also refer to the changes of fortune that occur between the protagonist and antago- nist as the story progresses.

Ir = Irony For our purposes, irony refers to the ending of a story and the relationship between the outside story (wants) and the inside story (needs). There are four types of endings:

1. Positive—the protagonists get both what they want and what they need.

2. Positive irony—the protagonists get what they need but not what they want.

3. Negative irony—the protagonists get what they want but not what they need.

4. Negative—the protagonists get neither what they want nor what they need.

Ar = Character Arc Character arc refers to how the protagonist changes over the course of a story. In every good story a character grows, develops, learns something, or realizes some truth by the


16 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER end of the story. However, it’s


end of the story. However, it’s important to remember that these elements are part of a character’s internal journey and not something the audience can experience directly like the external journey.

Rs = Resolution The resolution of the story is the revelation of the answer to the problem the protagonists have been trying to solve. Did they or did they not achieve their external goal? A good resolution also addresses the world in which the story took place: Is the world now a better place after the protagonists have completed their journey?

The Chapters

Although much can be gleaned from reading this book from cover to cover, that’s not exactly how it was designed. Each chapter focuses on a different type of short film; from docu- mentaries to YouTube videos, there is something here for nearly all creators of short form content.

After reading these first two chapters, peruse the table of contents and pick the chapters most relevant to you. We would, however, strongly encourage you to read Chapter 3 on narrative short films. The narrative short film chapter covers nearly every story element and serves as a strong foundation for all the other chapters.

Beginning with Chapter 3 will also be helpful if you are using this book to create ancillary media around a core product, such as a film. Developing media to promote the film on YouTube and Vimeo, creating sizzle pieces or commer- cials to gain interest at festivals, and cutting a trailer or an


T o


T H IS Boo K


interactive interview with the director are just a few ways this book can be used to promote a single piece of media you’ve already created.

Nearly every piece of media has a specific and unique purpose. You should determine two things for any segment you create. First, who is your audience? Second, what do you want them to walk away with, or how do you want them to respond? You will know you’ve created a successful piece of media when the audience you intended it for has seen it and responded appropriately. Determining the size and demo- graphic of that audience can greatly help you in planning where to showcase and distribute the piece.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before any of this comes into play, everything must begin with a strong story.


Narrative Short Films:

Starting at the Beginning

Short films designed to tell stories

PtExCnRt 2:00+

CODE BREAKER: Protagonist (Pt) + External Goal (Ex) + Conflict (Cn) + Run Time (Rt)

Other Useful Elements in Narrative Short Films

E + P + L + Is + En + Pr + A + Rv + Ir + If

CODE BREAKER: Ethos (E), Pathos (P), Logos (L), Internal Story (Is), Entertain (En), Persuade (Pr), Antagonist (A), Reversal (Rv), Irony (Ir), Internal flaw (If)

Since narrative short films span such a wide range of char- acters, situations, genres, themes, and topics, it would be misguided to suggest a “one size fits all” formula, but even this complex medium of storytelling relies upon a few basic, fundamental elements.

The most basic story one can tell is a character trying to

solve a problem while overcoming opposition. A protagonist

(Pt) + an external goal (Ex) + conflict (Cn) = a story. You cannot have a story without these three elements. A protag-

onist attempting to achieve an external goal without facing

any conflict is just a situation

not a story.



(Pt) The Protagonists

All good narratives are told through the lens of one central character. Even in films with multiple characters there is usually a primary person through whom the screenwriter chooses to unfold the narrative. Danny Ocean is the central protagonist in Ocean’s Eleven, even though the film is an ensemble piece with many resilient characters.

Make sure your protagonist has a deeply personal relation- ship with the main problem of the story. For example, a story about slavery is best told through the eyes of character who has been or is currently enslaved.

In order for your narrative to be well crafted, your protagonist should possess the following two characteristics: 1) A strong external goal (Ex) and 2) a well-defined internal flaw (If). (We will discuss the internal flaw at the end of this chapter.)

(Ex) The External goal

The external goal is the main objective your character is trying to accomplish over the course of your story. It not only drives the plot of your story, it is the plot of your story, which makes it the single most important element in your narrative. The pursuit of this goal is called the outside story (os).

Your character’s external goal should be a clearly defined, very specific, measurable problem—a problem with an action-based, cinematic solution. By cinematic, we mean an external solution that can be vividly captured in pictures. The audience should know, through images alone, whether or not the main character has achieved his or her goal.




To test whether or not your story is cinematic, pitch your film idea to a friend and see how many times you use the words “realizes” and “learns” when describing the journey of your main character. You can’t see your protagonist realize or learn something; instead, give your hero actions that demon- strate they’ve realized or learned a lesson.

(Cn) Conflict in Narratives

Conflict in short narrative films can take on many forms: man, nature, society, self, supernatural, or machine. Regardless of the form your conflict takes, just make sure your story has some! Conflict works best, however, when it’s embodied in actual human form. We call this “person of conflict” the antagonist (A). It is difficult to draw out the theme of your film without a well-developed antagonist.

A series of lifeless obstacles for your protagonist to over- come is not nearly as compelling as a physical person who goes out of his way to sabotage the efforts of your main character. What’s more interesting, an inanimate roadblock or a roadblock that can plot, plan, manipulate, and destroy?

There are many elements that comprise a good antagonist, but here are the three most important:

1. Your antagonist should share the same external goal as your protagonist.

2. Your antagonist should have a compelling, logical, and convincing reason for doing what he does.

3. Your antagonist should be aware of your main character’s internal flaw (If) and relentlessly use it against him. This is how your protagonist grows.



other Useful Elements in Narrative Short Films

(If) The Internal Flaw

If the external goal drives the plot of your film, your protago- nist’s internal flaw drives your story’s theme. All characters should have something broken inside of them—something that needs to be fixed by the end of the story. Your charac- ter’s flaw is the heart and theme of your film. For example, if your main character’s overarching flaw is that she is unfor- giving, then the theme of your film is more than likely going to be “forgiveness.”

The journey your character goes on to fix this flaw is called the inside story (Is). The inside story is the part of your narra- tive that your audience feels. The longer your film, the more complex and nuanced your character’s flaw (and theme) can be, but to keep a film short, choose a character flaw that is universal and relatable.

To give your film a powerful, resonant ending, weave the internal flaw and the external goal together—your character should have to overcome her internal flaw in order to achieve her external goal.

(Ir) Irony

A narrative is actually two stories being told simultaneously— an outside story and an inside story, or in other words, a character trying to achieve an external goal while overcoming an internal flaw. Since either of these sub-stories can end positively or negatively, there are multiple ways that the overarching story can conclude. When you mix a positive ending with a negative ending you create irony (Ir). Some of


22 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER the most powerful stories end with


the most powerful stories end with their protagonists failing to achieve their external goals, but succeeding in overcoming their internal flaw.

Challenges of Narrative Short Films

The greatest challenge of the narrative short film is trying to be concise. Many filmmakers believe they can “do it all” in a short film, but cramming a feature length idea into a short film is a recipe for disaster.

In a feature film, the external goal of the main character can evolve over time. For example, at the beginning of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s external goal was broad and vague— to go with Obi-Wan Kenobi to the planet Alderaan; to learn the ways of The Force; and to become a Jedi like his father. But through the course of the film, Luke’s goal sharpens and becomes more clearly defined. By the end of the story, his focus coalesces into one very specific goal—to destroy the Death Star. At the beginning of Star Wars, Luke doesn’t even know what a Death Star is.

In a short film, you don’t have time to develop your goal over the course of the film. The external goal of your main character needs to be stated very clearly right up front. In a short film, you might have time for one dramatic reversal (Rv)—a major redefining of a narrative goal. But the best way to attack a short film is by keeping your story structure as simple as possible. Make your characters complex, but be very straightforward with your plot.



What Narrative Short Films Cannot Do

Nearly all forms of communication and storytelling are unavoidably manipulative. But narrative short films that persuade (Pr) without any regard to ethos (E) at all run the risk of becoming propaganda. In the world of storytelling, the line that separates the ethical from the unethical is gray, and that line looks different depending on the form of media in which you are working. The level of ethos necessary for a public service announcement (PSA) might be quite different from the level of ethos used in a promo/sizzle reel. However, if you are a narrative filmmaker who is interested in deeply affecting the hearts of your audiences, we encourage you to write stories about truths you’ve experienced, not about truths you’ve been taught.

Short narrative films are also a poor medium for tackling complex subject matter like addiction, suicide, mental disor- ders, etc. A character realizing he is a drug addict, seeking help, and overcoming his addiction in the course of five minutes is not only difficult to do, it feels dishonest and trivi- alizes a complicated problem. These topics are not off limits for the short filmmaker, as long as “overcoming” the problem isn’t the overarching goal of the story.

Exploring difficult topics is possible in some forms of short media. A slice-of-life short film bears the semblance of a story (a character with a problem), but these types of films often lack external goals. The characters in slice-of-life stories are usually not trying to accomplish or overcome anything; the audience simply witnesses them living in their problem for a set amount of time.


24 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE BUCHER & CASPER Just remember, good protagonists must possess the


Just remember, good protagonists must possess the ability to make believable, proactive decisions to rise above their situation. A person suffering from an addiction can’t just wake up one morning and “decide” that he’s no longer going to be an addict; he must go on a journey—an honest journey that should take more than five minutes of screen time.

Exercises for Short Narrative Films

This exercise is a must for everyone, regardless of the type of short story medium in which you are working. This is an exer- cise we encourage all beginning writers to practice multiple times; use this exercise to “brush up” on your story skills. The only tools you will need are as follows: something to write with and a timer.

1. 5 MINUTES: Begin by writing a one-page description of the most interesting character you can possibly conceive. Don’t think about story or plot, just write about the char- acteristics of the person.

2. 2 MINUTES: Come up with as many external goals for your main character as you possibly can. Don’t overthink it! We’re looking for quantity, not quality, so these goals can be random (e.g., to propose to a girl, to win the “pizza delivery girl of the month” award, to find a buried trea- sure, etc.).

3. 3 MINUTES: Once you have your list of external goals (plots), choose your favorite three. Now, ask yourself, “How far is my main character willing to go to achieve her goal?” Play around with different answers for each storyline. Try pushing it to the extreme or playing it safe, and watch



how the answer to this question dramatically affects the genre of your story. 4. 5 MINUTES: And last, for each story, come up with a very specific opposing force that your character will have to face and overcome in order to achieve her goal. (Hint: the best opposing forces are people— antagonists.)

Congratulations! You’ve just outlined a completely original story in fifteen minutes.


Short Documentary Films:

Pulling from Real Life

A short film that documents real life and presents its content in an entertaining fashion

InEnRt 2:00+
InEnRt 2:00+

CODE BREAKER: Inform (In) + Entertain (En) + Run Time (Rt)

Other Useful Elements in Documentaries

E + P + L + Is + Ig + A

CODE BREAKER: Ethos (E), Pathos (P), Logos (L), Internal story (Is), Internal goal (Ig), Antagonist (A)

Documentary films share much in common with narrative short films. The best documentaries focus on a single char- acter facing opposition while trying to overcome a problem. But not all documentaries follow a typical narrative pattern. The most basic documentaries simply attempt to inform (In) their audiences in some sort of entertaining (En) fashion. This is not to say that all documentaries should be fun; but like all forms of short media, short documentaries need to be constructed in a way that stimulates the senses and makes us want to watch more.



Short documentaries are actually a better medium than features to inform audiences when no typical narrative struc- ture is present. A five-minute documentary about an extreme sport can be informative and entertaining, but unless you’re an extreme sport junkie, a documentary on BASE jumping that drags on and on will tax the average audience member.

The longer your film, the more crucial it is that you have a strong narrative. A short documentary that tantalizes the visual senses can be thoroughly entertaining for a few minutes, but a film that crosses the ten-minute threshold will prompt audiences to wonder, “What’s the point of this film?” Or in other words, “Where’s the story?”

There are three basic types of documentaries, and if you’ve taken a speech class in high school or college, you’re already familiar with all three. It’s important to note that most docu- mentaries are actually some hybrid of all three.

Short Documentaries to Inform—

In + E + L + En + Rt 10:00-

CODE BREAKER: Inform (In), Ethos (E), Logos (L), Entertain (En), Run Time (Rt)

The purpose of the informative documentary is to educate. Informative documentaries are at their best when they demystify a process—make sense out of confusion. Begin by choosing your subject matter and make it as specific as possible.

Structure your informative documentary with logic (L). Just like a narrative, your informative documentary should be divided into three acts. Act 1: Introduce the subject matter


28 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER in an engaging, entertaining fashion and


in an engaging, entertaining fashion and demonstrate to the audience why it is relevant to them. Act 2: Focus on three major, clearly defined points, all of which should build on each other. Act 3: Summarize your three points and leave your audience wanting more.

Even if your documentary does not have a single, overarching narrative, utilize snippets of stories and anecdotes whenever possible. This will help humanize your story.

Short Documentaries to Persuade—

In + E + P + L + En + Ca! + Rt 10:00-

CODE BREAKER: Inform (In), Ethos (E), Persuade (P), Logos (L), Entertain (En), Call to Action (Ca!), Run Time (Rt)

Persuasive and informative documentaries are very similar in structure. The key difference between the two is the fact that persuasive documentaries usually have some sort of call to action (Ca!) embedded into their framework, and they usually present opposing arguments that encourage audi- ences to form opinions.

There’s a big difference between an argument and a fight. An argument seeks to find common ground between two opposing sides, while a fight pits diametrically opposed ideologies against one another in the hopes of a dramatic showdown (e.g., daytime talk shows).

Documentaries to persuade tend to rely more heavily on narrative elements in order to add pathos (P). For example, an informative documentary on Ebola educates the public about the disease by giving scientific data and statistics. A



persuasive documentary does the same but also tells the story of someone afflicted by the illness and motivates the audience to consider how society is responding to the crisis.

Short Documentaries to Entertain—

E+ P + In + En + Rt 10:00-

CODE BREAKER: Ethos (E), Pathos (P), Inform (In), Entertain (En), Run Time (Rt)

The vast majority of entertaining short documentaries find their way to the Internet. They give us glimpses of hidden aspects of the human condition but do so in some highly engaging and entertaining fashion.

Entertaining documentaries can utilize the three-act structure we discussed above, but often they follow a two-act struc- ture instead. Act 1: an engaging setup, and Act 2: a satisfying payoff. The more tension you can build during the setup, the longer your entertaining documentary can be. GoPro docu- mentaries follow this pattern. Act 1: A stunt driver prepares for the big jump. Act 2: He either makes the jump or does not.

other Useful Elements in Short Documentary Films

Another way to approach documentaries is to tackle them just like you would a narrative. Look for basic story elements (Pt + Ex + Cn) as you gather your information. Who is the main character? What’s the greatest challenge they face? How did they overcome this challenge (Ig)? Is there a central antagonist (A)? Use this information to inform the questions


30 MASTER OF THE CINEMATIC UNIVERSE B UCHER & CASPER you ask your interviewees. The best


you ask your interviewees. The best documentaries have some basis of a script.

Challenges of Short Documentary Films

The challenge of the persuasive short documentary is to present opposing arguments with the least bias possible. The intention of a persuasive documentary is not to give audi- ences answers but rather to encourage them to weigh the evidence and think for themselves.

Even though some documentaries do not necessarily need to have a narrative to be interesting, the more personal you can make your subject matter, the more engaged your audience will be. When outlining your subject matter, ask yourself, 1) who in society is most deeply affected by this particular situation, and 2) can I tell my story through their eyes? A general documentary about HIV can be interesting, but a documentary about the twelve-year-old African girl who was left to raise her siblings by herself after her parents died of the illness is far more compelling.

What Short Documentary Films Cannot Do

As stated above, one thing that a short documentary can’t do is tackle subject matter beyond the scope of its running time. In a narrative short, the external goal of your main character should be extremely specific and well-defined; the same is true for your short documentary subject matter.

Another thing to consider before you make a documentary is whether or not film is actually the best medium through which to relay your information. We’ve seen businesses waste



thousands of dollars on ineffective persuasive documenta- ries when they should have disseminated the information via a website or a live presentation instead. Always consider your audience and how they’ll receive your doc. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan made famous the saying, “The medium is the message.” Your choice of medium dramati- cally affects the way your audience receives the information. Make sure you’re using the right medium for your message.

Exercises for Short Documentaries

For this exercise we are going to practice the art of reverse engineering a story. It’s one thing to create a narrative by starting with a character from which you develop your story. It’s another thing to start with a concept or topic and “mine” the story from the material.

For this exercise we are going to write a documentary to persuade. Identify a broad, global topic about which you could make a documentary; persuasive documentaries nearly always focus on some problem in the world. Now reverse engineer your story and create a basic story outline by addressing the following points:

1. Identify the story-world’s central problem.

2. Identify your main character. This should be a person who has a personal relationship to the central problem. has a great deal to lose if the problem isn’t solved.

3. Identify what your main character must do (a very specific solution) to solve the problem.

4. Identify an opposing character or antagonistic force that your character must overcome in order to solve the problem.