A good way to plan and edit a non-fiction piece is to structure the storyline like you would a formal essay. In this post we’ll take our cues from writing fundamentals and show you how.
Think back to high school English class, and having to write essay after essay. I don’t know about you, but my english teachers drilled a very specific structure into my head for writing these essays and reports. This structure proved incredibly useful when I aced my college writing class, but I also realized over time that I was subconsciously using the basic fundamentals of essay organization in my videos – specifically non-fiction ones.
Some of this came through in the initial planning stages, but a lot of the time I was handed several reels worth of interviews in the editing phase with no clear plan besides “this is what they want the video for.” The basic essay structure was incredibly useful in taking all of that content and forming it into a coherent piece that was easily followed by the audience. So, indulge me for a second while I recap “Essay Writing 101” for you and you’ll see how applying these concepts to an “essay structure” of editing can make things easier for you to edit together a cohesive story and easier for your audience to get the point.
There are three important characteristics of a well-structured essay that can easily apply to editing a video: An “hourglass shape”, a thesis statement and a “roadmap”.
The Hourglass Shape
The idea behind the hourglass shape is to start broad: general background on your topic to introduce it to your audience. As the intro goes along, you quickly get more specific, ending with your thesis statement/main idea, which sets the tone for the main body of your content.
Your main content stays specific to your subject and is meant to backup your thesis – it’s your evidence for your main point. Then at the end, you reach your summary. Your summary reiterates your thesis in a new way to sum everything up, then you start to get broader in topic, explaining why your main idea matters in the big picture of things.
So: start with a broad background, get more specific until you reach your thesis (main idea), stay specific and support your thesis, sum it all up, then get more general and explain why it matters to your audience in the big picture.
One advantage of structuring your video like this is that your audience doesn’t get thrown into the story “in medias res” (latin for “in the middle of things”). Starting “in medias res” is a great technique for narrative and fiction pieces, but it can often be a hindrance to non-fiction work, especially short form where you need to get the audience up to speed quickly.
Another advantage is that you have a clear understanding when organizing the story of what will support your main idea and what won’t, so you can cut your content down to what really matters.
A third advantage to structuring your video this way is that by finishing with how this relates to the big picture, you give a global/grand scale of importance to your message and leave this as the final lasting thought for the audience.
The Thesis Statement
The thesis is the point you are trying to make. Every good essay and every good video try to make a point – a reason why the audience should pay attention. A good thesis has a number of components, but the main two that apply here are:
- A clear and specific message/point you are trying to get across
- Evidence to support your point
There are actually three types of thesis statements: analytical, expository (explanatory), and argumentative ; these just so happen to fit well with common reasons someone would want a video!
- An analytical piece breaks down research/evidence on an issue into the key points so the audience can better understand it, and usually comes to a non-controversial fact-based conclusion (if it even has a conclusion).
- An expository piece explains something to the audience, but it’s not trying to make the audience think one way or another.
- An argumentative piece tries to convince the audience that an opinion or claim is true/valid and supports it with evidence. It can be similar to an argumentative piece, but the thesis and the conclusion drawn are subjective, even when supported by evidence.
Knowing what type of piece you are editing informs what supporting content you need to find and how best to order that content. You need to know what you’re saying and you need to know how to back it up!
One of the things I was taught in school is that your essay thesis should contain the topics of your supporting evidence, and these topics should be arranged to match the order of your body paragraphs, basically creating a roadmap for your essay.
For example: “People should do [thing] because of [evidence x], [evidence y], and [evidence z]”. The supporting body paragraphs would cover the topics of x, y, and z in that order. This gives the audience an understanding of what’s to come.
In video, you don’t always have the luxury of having your talent or interviewee say that perfect statement that summarizes all of the evidence in the right order. What you do have is the ability to either create your roadmap ahead of time and make sure you get those topics covered, or you can group all of the content you have into the different topics and decide on what best supports your message and how best to arrange it for flow.
This is the basic function of an editor, but you’d be surprised how many go right into laying things in the timeline without an actual plan in place! Having this “roadmap” lets you quickly sift through content to find what fits, have an idea of what transitional content you’ll need, and lay it all in the timeline without having to guess what order works best.
A Practical Example
Earlier this year I did a project for KIPP Academy in Nashville, TN, to be shown at a fundraising event for the expansion of the program from one middle school to K–12 and 6+ schools. I’ve written about this project before from a post-production perspective, but one thing I haven’t talked about is the planning. We sat down with some of the staff from KIPP, listened to their vision and reason for wanting this piece, and we asked them questions about the school, what the ultimate outcome they were trying to accomplish, etc. As we went through this meeting, I started forming a thesis and roadmap for the project.
Their ultimate goal for the video was to “develop a case for why KIPP needs to grow” and based on that, why people should donate and invest in KIPP:
I had my message, they had given me an idea of what evidence we would cover, so I drew out a (super messy) handwritten timeline in my notebook:
Since you probably can’t read my terrible handwriting, here’s how it was structured:
- History of the school
- What they’ve done at the middle school (results)
- Where they’re going (goals for community impact)
- Practical (better high school & college grad rate, etc.)
- Personal (character building, neighborhood transformation, etc.)
- How the audience can help
You can see how this initial idea of a timeline in pre-production came together:
This “essay structure” of editing had a huge impact on how we made this video, but I use it on everything from small corporate testimonials to huge multi-interview videos for marketing campaigns. This structure can give you a head start in your planning, even when there wasn’t a plan in place to begin with. Give it a try and share your thoughts/experiences in the comments below!