Constructing a Narrative for Video

The art of telling a story goes back to the earliest of mankind’s civilizations. Gilgamesh, the stories of The Old Testament, and others show the same qualities as the modern narrative. The difference is that the medium has changed and the dominant medium today is video. Video production is an art form within the ability to tell a story and draw out emotions with editing techniques in particular.

Linear Narrative Structure

Linear structure is the primary structure and is also known as the traditional three act structure. There is also non-linear and circular structure, but it is best to start with linear. Also, most narratives are told in chronological order.

  • Act one is an introductory piece or exposition containing the inciting event that thrusts the story forward

  • Act two is composed of the primary or rising action

  • Act three contains falling action and the resolution or denouement.


*Note that the climax can come at the end of the second act or mid-way through the third act*

Tips for Constructing your Narrative

  • The concept of anecdote-reflection - build a story by telling an anecdote, followed by resolution. Take the resolution and start off on another anecdote.

  • Try chronological sequencing - First, Next, Then, Last

  • Consider your audience. Who, What, and Why are most important

  • Outline acts - then fill in the details. Don’t just start writing

  • Have a call to action or moral point  

Tricks for Narrative Video Editing

The key to a good narrative is to draw out emotions. This can be accomplished in editing with various types of cuts and shot sizes. For example, a jump cut from a wide-shot of a man being killed to a close up of his suffering expression can bring out sympathy or empathy from his pain.

       Psycho, 1960

       Psycho, 1960

Shot sequence can define the story. Consider the Kuleshov Effect, where the idea presented in a shot can change depending on the shot that follows or precedes it. See Alfred Hitchcock’s take on the Kuleshov Effect, and effects of cuts and shot sizes.

Transitions are key in playing on emotions.

  • Jump cuts are good for high paced sequences, as well as frightening scenes.

  • Slow fades to black are excellent for sad or sympathetic/empathetic shots

  • Crossfades are good for change of setting

  • Fade in from black can establish a feeling of change in the character, mood, or setting

  • Sliding or wipe transitions can establish progression or growth

Vary your Shot styles

  • For conversations it is important to know the two camera set -up and the 180 degree rule.

  • First person shots are excellent for establishing a setting, as well as suspense

  • A steadycam can add a natural feel while maintaining a stability

  • Wide shots for establishing setting

  • Remember to play with your focus

Music an extremely important aspect of the feel of a narrative. It’s amazing how drastically music can change the story. See examples below of the effects of music on the emotional feel. This also shows more examples on the Kuleshov effect of changing the shot sequence.

The Shining Trailer

The Shining Recut

Tips for Documentary Style Video

Documentaries are often presented in narrative form, but can be very different in constructing the story. Remember these tips when building a narrative documentary.

  • Do your research. By researching the primary point or location of your documentary, the story will often present itself.

  • Pre-interview people, before writing a script. The story will often present itself by pre-interviewing subjects

  • Take lots of B-roll. B-roll can become filler for sections of the story that lack interest. B-roll can especially be useful for shots laid over the voice of the interview subject

  • Storyboard planned shots not involved in interviews

Below is an example of good b-roll, shot sequencing, transitions, and of how to pick out the best pieces of an interview.

So remember when constructing a narrative to consider basic linear structure, the Kuleshov Effect / shot types, transitions, and your music selection. Also remember for documentaries to pre-interview and to load up on b-roll. Consider these, and building stories will be easier than you could imagine