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$1 4 .9 5 USA / $2 0 .

9 5 C A N

THERES NO SPEED
LIMIT IN THE FUTURE.

Bucher and Casper have cracked the code for the main
forms of short videos in common usage today. Your storytelling
will be greatly improved if you follow their lead.
Charles B. Slocum, Assistant Executive Director, Writers Guild of America, West

Demystifies creating short-form content by focusing on visual


storytelling principles from Aristotle to George Lucas.
Thomas Parham, PhD, Professor, Azusa Pacific University; writer, JAG

are award-winning writer/director/


producers in L.A. John has presented seminars on five continents
about story, film, spirituality, and pop culture. Jeremy travels the
world leading screenwriting seminars and has workshopped over
1,000 short films with students and film professionals. Both authors
teach film at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center.
JOHN BUCHER & JEREMY CASPER

CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Luke Schelhaas, television writer and producer, The Good Wife

OF THE

An essential reference for anyone making short-form


content for screens of any size. A spot-on, concise,
entertaining, and eminently useable guide.

JOHN BUCHER & JEREMY CASPER

MASTER

you must be fluent in a wide range of


storytelling forms. Discover the hidden code of story structure beneath
all short-format media in this groundbreaking volume. Learn the
precise formulas that will put you ahead of your competition.

TO THRIVE AS A MEDIA CREATOR

BUCHER | CASPER

PE RFORMI N G ARTS / FIL M & V IDEO / REF ERENCE

MASTER
CINEMATIC
UNIVERSE
OF
THE

the secret code to

MICHAEL WIESE PRODUCTIONS | MWP.COM

WRITING IN THE NEW W ORLD OF MEDIA

Published by Michael Wiese Productions


12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (FAX)
mw@mwp.com
www.mwp.com
Cover design by Johnny Ink. www.johnnyink.com
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
808.066302--dc23
2015033886

Printed on Recycled Stock

Contents
Acknowledgmentsviii
Forewordx
by Jim Krueger

CHAPTER 1 1
Introduction
The Great Media Mystery

CHAPTER 2 7
How to Use This Book:
The Secret Codes Behind Short Visual Stories

CHAPTER 318
Narrative Short Films:
Starting at the Beginning

CHAPTER 4 26
Short Documentary Films:
Pulling from Real Life

CHAPTER 5  32
Webisodes:
Scaling Down Your Epic Stories

CHAPTER 6 37
Fundraising/Crowdfunding Videos:
Using Story to Open Your Audiences Wallet

CHAPTER 7 42
Video Rsums:
Marketing Yourself Through the Power of Story
v

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BUCHER & CASPER

CHAPTER 8 47
Promo/Sizzle Reels:
Creating Desire in the Mind of the Viewer

CHAPTER 951
Commercials
Product Selling Through Storytelling

CHAPTER 10  56
Movie Trailers:
Using Story to Sell Your Story

CHAPTER 11 60
Vlogs:
Providing a Window into Your Ongoing Story

CHAPTER 12  64
Vines:
Compressing Your Story into Six Seconds

CHAPTER 13  68
YouTube Videos:
Standing Out in a Sea of Content

CHAPTER 14  73
Vimeo Videos:
Using Channels to Build Ethos

CHAPTER 15  77
Music Videos:
Experimenting with Story

CHAPTER 16  82
Sketches/Cartoons:
Laughing at Conflict

C o ntents

CHAPTER 17  87
Journalism/Newsreels:
Evolving Content from Informational to Compelling

CHAPTER 18 91
Motion Comic Videos:
Transcending a Traditional Medium

CHAPTER 19  95
Instructional Short Films:
Teaching by Telling Good Tales

CHAPTER 20100
Public Service Announcements:
Waking Your Audience to Action

CHAPTER 21 105
Kinetic Text Videos:
Painting Pictures with Letters, Numbers, and Symbols

CHAPTER 22109
Interactive Videos:
Using Story to Move an Audience Through an Experience

CHAPTER 23 114


Conclusion
About the Authors117

vii

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 grandfathers military gear, including his daily codebooks, cracked
the code in a matter of days. The code read as follows:
THEYTHROWGRENADESWEPULLPINSANDTHROWBACK.
NOTIFY REINFORCEMENTS STAND DOWNNOT NEEDED.

M A S T E R O F T H E C I N E M AT I C U N I V E R S E 

BUCHER & CASPER

It turns out that most Italian forces were no longer fighting in


the war when the message was sent. The Nazis had confiscated 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 wouldnt 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 dont? Can these elements be used to
evoke certain responses in an audience?

H o w t o U se T his B o o k

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 codebooka 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 viewers emotions. Knowing
how to use emotional elements ef fectively can be
tremendously powerful.

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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 storys
protagonistwhat 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 protagonists internal problem was resolved.
Os = Outside (External Story)
The outside story refers to the external journey of a storys
protagonistwhat the protagonist wants. This is the A story
in a film. A good outside story should have a clear external
goalsomething 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 actually 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?

H o w t o U se T his B o o 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 persons
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 discovered 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. Its the rare person who
can truly say that hes 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
A character is generally a person, animal, or inanimate object.
If the characters are inanimate, like in the movie Cars (2006),
they usually take on human characteristics. In this book,

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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. Its the I
see dead people moment of your story.
Pt = Protagonist
The protagonist is the main character of the storysometimes 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 hes 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 beginning 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
deeplyeven 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

H o w t o U se T his B o o k

goal is extremely obvious, but sometimes its so nebulous it


cant 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. Its the moment when the protagonist 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 imperative. 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, its more effective when

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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. Wellconstructed 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. Its 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 antagonist and protagonist, 2) condensing the amount of time the
protagonist has to achieve her goal, and 3) adding an additional 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

H o w t o U se T his B o o k

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 experiences 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 antagonist 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. Positivethe protagonists get both what they want and
what they need.
2. Positive ironythe protagonists get what they need but
not what they want.
3. Negative ironythe protagonists get what they want but
not what they need.
4. Negativethe 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

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end of the story. However, its important to remember that


these elements are part of a characters 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, thats not exactly how it was designed. Each
chapter focuses on a different type of short film; from documentaries 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 commercials to gain interest at festivals, and cutting a trailer or an

H o w t o U se T his B o o k

interactive interview with the director are just a few ways this
book can be used to promote a single piece of media youve
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 youve created a successful piece of
media when the audience you intended it for has seen it and
responded appropriately. Determining the size and demographic of that audience can greatly help you in planning
where to showcase and distribute the piece.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Before any of this comes
into play, everything must begin with a strong story.

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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 characters, 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 protagonist attempting to achieve an external goal without facing
any conflict is just a situation ... not a story.
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N arrative S h o rt F ilms

(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 Oceans Eleven, even though the film is an
ensemble piece with many resilient characters.
Make sure your protagonist has a deeply personal relationship 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 characters external goal should be a clearly defined,
very specific, measurable problema 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.

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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 cant see your protagonist realize or
learn something; instead, give your hero actions that demonstrate theyve 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 its 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 overcome is not nearly as compelling as a physical person who
goes out of his way to sabotage the efforts of your main
character. Whats 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 characters
internal flaw (If) and relentlessly use it against him. This is
how your protagonist grows.

N arrative S h o rt F ilms

Other Useful Elements in Narrative Short Films


(If) The Internal Flaw
If the external goal drives the plot of your film, your protagonists internal flaw drives your storys theme. All characters
should have something broken inside of themsomething
that needs to be fixed by the end of the story. Your characters flaw is the heart and theme of your film. For example,
if your main characters overarching flaw is that she is unforgiving, 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 narrative that your audience feels. The longer your film, the more
complex and nuanced your characters 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 togetheryour 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

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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 Skywalkers 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, Lukes goal sharpens and
becomes more clearly defined. By the end of the story, his
focus coalesces into one very specific goalto destroy the
Death Star. At the beginning of Star Wars, Luke doesnt even
know what a Death Star is.
In a short film, you dont 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.

N arrative S h o rt F ilms

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 youve experienced, not about
truths youve been taught.
Short narrative films are also a poor medium for tackling
complex subject matter like addiction, suicide, mental disorders, 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 trivializes a complicated problem. These topics are not off limits
for the short filmmaker, as long as overcoming the problem
isnt 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.

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Just remember, good protagonists must possess the ability


to make believable, proactive decisions to rise above their
situation. A person suffering from an addiction cant just
wake up one morning and decide that hes no longer going
to be an addict; he must go on a journeyan 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 exercise 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.
Dont think about story or plot, just write about the characteristics of the person.
2. 2 MINUTES: Come up with as many external goals for
your main character as you possibly can. Dont overthink
it! Were 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 treasure, 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

N arrative S h o rt F ilms

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! Youve just outlined a completely original
story in fifteen minutes.

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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+
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), Internalgoal (Ig), Antagonist (A)

Documentary films share much in common with narrative


short films. The best documentaries focus on a single character 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.
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Short documentaries are actually a better medium than


features to inform audiences when no typical narrative structure is present. A five-minute documentary about an extreme
sport can be informative and entertaining, but unless youre
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, Whats the point of this
film? Or in other words, Wheres the story?
There are three basic types of documentaries, and if youve
taken a speech class in high school or college, youre already
familiar with all three. Its important to note that most documentaries are actually some hybrid of all three.

Short Documentaries to Inform

In + E + L + En + Rt 10:00CODE 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 processmake 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

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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 10:00CODE 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 audiences to form opinions.
Theres 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

S h o rt D o cumentary F ilms

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 10:00CODE 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 structure 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 documentaries 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? Whats 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

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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 audiences 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 cant 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. Weve seen businesses waste

S h o rt D o cumentary F ilms

thousands of dollars on ineffective persuasive documentaries when they should have disseminated the information via
a website or a live presentation instead. Always consider your
audience and how theyll receive your doc. Communication
theorist Marshall McLuhan made famous the saying, The
medium is the message. Your choice of medium dramatically affects the way your audience receives the information.
Make sure youre 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. Its one thing to create a narrative by
starting with a character from which you develop your story.
Its 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-worlds 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 isnt 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.

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