The Economy of Wonder: A Documentarian’s Pact With His Viewers
I am a screenwriter. I’ve been writing fiction and documentaries for television for over ten years now. Before writing, in a determined effort to avoid an irreparable disagreement with my parents, I studied in a geology school where I went on to attain an engineering degree. I have always found it natural to combine a certain scientific rigor with the desire to tell stories.
Therefore, when I was offered the opportunity to write a documentary using the dramatic tools usually found in fiction, I accepted without hesitation. It was thirteen years ago, for a primetime slot on a French national TV channel. Indeed, the journalists who usually wrote for that particular slot could no longer keep the viewer’s attention for 90 to 120 minutes.
I resorted to using elements of the “dramatic grammar” that I had learnt from writing fiction: “cliffhangers” at the end of sequences, “narrative arches” to improve the structure of the storyline, buildups leading to a climax. I was juggling these tools instinctively, without prior analysis or global understanding that could justify why these elements were as effective in documentaries as in fiction.
Most importantly, I didn’t have a strategy to adapt them properly to the specific features inherent to documentaries. At the risk of sounding pompous, I lacked some kind of “unified theory of dramaturgy” that would draw once and for all a parallel between writing fiction and writing documentaries. Indeed, much as literature on narrative tools specific to fiction was overabundant, references about writing documentaries hardly existed.
Notions such as the catalyst, used a lot in fiction, or the hard-to-avoid trio “character-objective-obstacles” didn’t have any obvious equivalent when it came to documentaries. Likewise, structures studied in fiction for years, whether they were 3, 5, 12 or 17-acts-long, were difficult to transpose without a more global approach with regards to dramaturgy.
Consequently, I decided to go back to the fundamental concept of narration: a pact made with viewers that they accept to follow the story until its conclusion. In fiction, this unspoken agreement revolves around a universal bargaining chip: emotion. Each scene, each story hinges on the idea of getting viewers to feel increasingly intense emotions. Each part of a film is shaped around their changing emotional states. In short, every element of a story centers around this universal “bargaining chip,” until it generates some kind of “economy of emotions” whose main guarantor is the author themself.
From that moment on, the question of a unified theory on dramaturgy became about finding a “bargaining chip” specific to the documentary genre, a pact which is apparent to the viewers from the very first minute of the film. And the answer was self-evident. It’s all about a particular emotion, developed by every single human being from a very young age, maybe even inherent to the existence and development of our species itself: curiosity!
The “pact” agreed on for a documentary comes down to this simple proposition made to the viewers in order to fulfil their thirst for discovery, understanding, and learning. In short, to be amazed. That’s how I came up with the idea of an “economy of wonder” (and also because I liked the sound of it). An idea which would underpin documentary writing as a whole. In that vision, each time a viewer would marvel at a new piece of information, they would feel the excitement fueling one of their most fundamental needs.
From that point onwards, all of the “instinctive” dramatic choices made in my early writing days were being justified: the build up to a “climax of wonder” by distilling the information progressively as sequences go by, from the most obvious to the most upsetting revelations. Hence the buzzword in the documentary world: the “wow effect.” In other words, the ability for a film to fill the viewers with wonder, thus guaranteeing their attention for long periods of time. In the 2000s, American series tended to opt for turning points approximately every 10 minutes (the length between two commercial breaks on US television). Documentaries followed the same frantic pace by offering their viewers a new discovery every ten minutes, so be it.
Here’s another example. You may have already wondered why many scientific documentaries follow a similar and common structure: “For a long time, scientists thought that…” – “but discoveries made in the last few years are challenging everything." Actually, this structure is the mirror of the classic pattern used in fiction: “set-up” – “catalyst” – “hero’s journey.”
Speaking of heroes, there is still one key point left to solve. The famous trio: “character” – “objective” – “obstacles” that can be found in any decent book about writing fiction. It’s hard to find an equivalent when it comes to documentaries, especially because there rarely is a main character in that genre. Sometimes, a scientist or an historian acts as a “knowledge holder” or appears on screen more often than other speakers, without necessarily giving them the status of “protagonist,” that is “a character experiencing the most conflicts.” In documentary terms, we should translate this definition by “a dramatic element generating the most curiosity.” So, what is the equivalent of a main character in a documentary?
If you consider that the protagonist’s role in fiction is used to create empathy in the viewers, you have to envisage, that for a documentary, the subject itself becomes the main character stirring the viewers’ curiosity. To give you a concrete example, in the documentary “The Blob: A Genius Without A Brain” directed by Jacques Mitsch, and co-written by myself, the protagonist isn’t the scientist making the main discoveries about this peculiar living organism, but the Blob itself, which encourages us to question the notion of intelligence.
The “obstacles” are none other than those encountered by the scientists during their study: hard-to-access-and-to analyze data, the complexity of developing experimental protocols, human challenges… And the “objective”? The eternal, unattainable dream to one day solve all the mysteries surrounding this creature.
In this example taken from our scientific documentary on "The Blob" that won a 2020 AAAS Kavli award, we can see that tools used in fiction could be almost entirely transposed to writing documentaries, as long as we accept two prerequisites: that the bargaining chip with the viewers is their own amazement, and that the film’s protagonist is none other than its subject.
So, here is a first draft of my sought-after “unified theory on dramaturgy.” Is it enough by itself to guarantee the writing of good documentaries? Certainly not. Is it entertaining, intriguing, and potentially useful in doing the groundwork for this huge undertaking that is the writing of documentaries? I certainly hope so.
Laurent Mizrahi and director Jacques Mitsch won the 2020 AAAS Kavli Silver Award in the Video: In-Depth Reporting category for their documentary "The Blob: A Genius Without a Brain."
Related homepage image courtesy of Laurent Mizrahi