April 6, 2023

How to Choose the Right Documentary Narrative Format

Chris Cullari
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Documentaries are an incredibly powerful medium for telling stories that educate, inform, and entertain audiences. Their popularity has spiked on streaming platforms, and now might seem like the perfect time to raise funds to make a documentary of your own. But even with the right subject and an interesting angle on the material, it can be hard to decide which format fits your material the best. 

Should you condense your material into a single feature film? Spread it out over multiple episodes of a docu-series? Or perhaps your story is best served by a bite-sized short.

Each format has its pros and cons, and this article will explore the factors to consider when choosing how to tell your documentary narrative.

Observational vs. Participatory

Before you start shooting your documentary, you have an important choice to make: will your film be observational or participatory? This choice must be made before you roll cameras, because it will influence the way your film - whether it’s a series, a feature, or a short - is shot.

Observational documentaries

Observational documentaries allow the audience to witness events as they unfold. These documentaries rely heavily on visuals and sound to tell the story, and the filmmaker's role is to capture the events as they happen without any manipulation. 

Some argue that the filmmaker’s presence can never be fully observational, as their presence and participation during an event implicitly affects the outcome - but we’ll set that argument aside, as it’s more of a philosophical consideration than a practical one. 

The observational format works best for subjects that require an objective approach, such as social and political issues, scientific research, or environmental topics. The main advantage of observational documentaries is that they allow the audience to form their own opinions based on presented facts. However, the disadvantage is that the audience may find it difficult to engage with the subject matter if there is no clear narrative structure.

One of the purest recent examples of an observational documentary is the 2012 film Leviathan, which illustrates the visceral, unforgiving reality of the fishing industry. It does so through the use of small, waterproof cameras that the filmmakers placed on ships, people, nets, fish, and other objects to capture the horror and beauty of the profession. 

The film was then edited to create a strange, almost hallucinatory effect that leaves the viewer adrift in strange sights and sounds. It doesn’t try to make a point about the industry it’s observing - it leaves that up to the viewer. 

Participatory documentaries

Participatory documentaries, on the other hand, involve the filmmaker as an active participant in the events - think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. In this type of documentary, the filmmaker becomes part of the story and often interacts with the subjects, which creates a more intimate and personal connection between the audience and the characters. 

This format can create a more emotional and impactful narrative than an observational documentary can. The disadvantage is that it can be difficult to maintain objectivity, and the filmmaker's presence can sometimes overshadow the subject. See again: Michael Moore.

A great example of a participatory documentary that doesn’t come with any filmmaker baggage is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. The film finds Oppenheimer visiting Indonesia and challenging the unrepentant leaders of a ‘60s era genocide to dramatize their role in the violence.

Oppenheimer’s presence is essential to the film, goading and guiding the soldiers - now celebrated as heroes in their hometowns - to face the emotional and spiritual consequences of their actions. The results are pulse pounding and powerful. They could not have been achieved through simple observation.

Let the story guide you

Whether you set out to shoot a feature, a series, or a short, the footage you capture will ultimately guide the end result.

For instance, let’s say you’ve decided you want to make a documentary series about your grandmother’s immigration story. If she’s only able to give you an hour of good anecdotes, you likely won’t be able to stretch that information into six or eight episodes. 

Instead, think about the natural beginning, middle, and end point of her story. Maybe there are some moments throughout that would be interesting to dive deeper into. Perhaps that’s where you use animation or re-enactments to illustrate what happened to her. That version of the story might sit at a perfect feature length.

Alternatively, maybe there is one part of her story that is so powerful that building a feature-length documentary around it would only dilute its strength. In that case, paring the film down to a short might be best.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three major formats for documentaries, along with the pros and cons of each.

Feature length

The first format to consider is the feature-length documentary. Feature-length documentaries are usually between 75 and 120 minutes long and are ideal for presenting complex stories with multiple characters and plot lines.

Features allow  filmmakers to go deep on a subject and create an immersive experience for the audience. They also have the most commercial potential, since the hour and a half to two hour run time is popular with buyers and audiences (although the rise of the streaming docu-series is starting to change that).

Documentary films also tend to have a leg up at festivals, where a feature can screen to completion. A series will usually only screen an episode or two, and shorts are sometimes overlooked. (And don’t hesitate to increase your feature doc’s advantage by checking out our tips for applying to festivals!)

The biggest drawback to producing a feature-length documentary film are the expenses you might incur. While not as pricey as shooting and editing an entire docu-series, you still have to consider the costs involved compared to a docu-short. Not only will your production costs be higher, but so will the costs involved in storing all the audio and visual data. That’s not to mention the length of time you’ll need to pay an editor to work on the film!

One of the most successful and popular documentaries of all time, Hoop Dreams, is a feature length documentary that takes full advantage of the format to tell the story of two boys from Chicago who have their eyes set on playing professional basketball. 

The film not only juggles two protagonists, but covers a time span of nearly five years. It could not have possibly told its story in any shorter of a format. In fact, in this day and age, a streamer probably would’ve asked for it to be expanded into our next format: the docu-series.


Docu-series consist of a number of episodes that are usually between 30 and 60 minutes long and can be watched over a period of time or binged in one sitting. They are often used to tell long-form stories that require more than one episode or film to fully explore. 

Once the territory of staid, heavy films like Ken BurnsCivil War and Baseball documentaries, the format of the docuseries has blossomed as a vehicle for true crime stories. With their twisty ripped-from-the-headlines stories and bizarre characters, they make for highly digestible streaming content.

One of the docuseries that kicked off the modern streaming Renaissance was Netflix's Making a Murderer. The film spends 10 episodes detailing the plight of a man named Steven Avery and his prosecution for a murder after serving 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It uses its expanded length to tackle his complicated case, provoking difficult questions about the justice system along the way.

It also chronicles an unbelievable series of "I can’t believe that happened!" twists that would be impossible to cram into one film. The combination of socially relevant storytelling and stranger-than-fiction events makes it impossible to turn off, and permanently changed the game for the docuseries format.

Outside of their newfound popularity, the advantage of docu-series is that they allow filmmakers to delve deeper into a subject than they can in a feature film and create a more comprehensive narrative. They also allow for a more flexible release schedule, which can increase the audience's engagement with the subject matter. 

The disadvantage of docu-series is that their long run times require a significant investment of time and resources on behalf of the filmmakers, which is not something everyone can afford. 

For instance, Making a Murderer took 10 years to produce, during which time the filmmakers moved back and forth from New York to Wisconsin on their own dime. A further disadvantage is the risk that the extended length of a docuseries may cause the audience to lose interest in the story before it is fully told. 

The flip side of that coin presents a surprising pitfall of the modern docuseries: success. If your docuseries is a hit, the audience (or television executives) may demand more. But real life doesn’t cater to the whims of viewers or buyers. It can be difficult to expand the story of a docuseries without exaggerating unimportant details or building out useless story arcs. Audiences will often tune out as soon as they realize that more isn’t always better. 

Case in point: everyone remembers Making a Murderer - but who remembers Making a Murderer Season Two?

Short form documentaries

The third format to consider is the documentary short. Shorts are usually between 5 and 30 minutes long and are ideal for telling concise, impactful stories that can be easily shared on social media or online platforms. In fact, we have a whole article on how to promote shorts online that can help you do just that!

Documentary shorts are often used to highlight a specific issue, event, or individual and can be a powerful tool for raising awareness or advocating for change. 

The advantage of documentary shorts is that they require less time and resources to produce, and they can be more easily shared and disseminated than longer formats. On the other hand, documentary shorts may not provide enough context or depth to fully explore a subject. 

This is where letting your story dictate format is important. If you have a feature’s length worth of material, don’t be afraid to expand it however you can. Alternatively, don’t stretch a short’s worth of material to feature length. You’ll risk boring your audience. 

A great example of a compelling documentary short is My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes. Despite the provocative title, the documentary is director Charlie Tyrell’s heartfelt homage to his father. In it, Charlie uses a quirky, animated style (and narration by David Wain) to explore the belongings his dad left behind.

Another example that illustrates the breadth of the format - as well as the viral possibilities - is Forest Man. With 6.9 million views over the past eight years, this film is one of the most watched short docs on YouTube. It tells the story of a man named Jadav Payeng, who single handedly planted a forest of trees larger than Central Park.

It’s a complete 180 from the quirky style of My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, but no less powerful or interesting. 

If you’re a first time documentary filmmaker, a short doc can also be a path to showing your documentary idea has the legs to become a full-fledged feature or series. If you can capture your subject or idea in a few minutes and leave the audience wanting more, investors may be drawn to your story. 

Let the buyer pick the narrative

If you do find yourself working with outside investors, you may not have the luxury of letting the story pick the narrative format. The money might have ideas on what the format should be. 

For instance, if your investors have an eye towards selling a doc to a traditional distributor, they may push for a feature length film. Alternatively, if Hulu plucks your short out of a festival, they may not want to release it as is. They might want to expand into a feature or a series. 

It’s important to develop a strong sense of when and how to stand your ground in these situations. You’re the filmmaker, and often, you know best - but knowing is only half the battle. 

Generally, flexibility is a good thing, as long as your investors’ changes don’t harm the story. They may see opportunities within the film that you don’t; ways to shape the existing narrative that expand without exhausting the material or cut without destroying what’s important.

Wrapping Up

Documentaries are only going to continue to increase in popularity as distributors and streamers continue to seek ways to feed the audience captivating true stories. 

If you have a story that you’re ready to tell, check out our guide to making a docuseries, or our behind the scenes look at the making of one of this year’s Oscar nominated Documentary Shorts, Stranger at the Gate.

Last Updated 
April 6, 2023


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About the author
Chris Cullari

Chris Cullari is a writer/director based out of Los Angeles. His most recent film, THE AVIARY, is available for streaming on Paramount Plus and Showtime. You can find him tweeting about monsters, pro-wrestling, and horror movies.

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