Learning Comes ALIVE: The Craftsmanship of Docu-Drama Storytelling

Let’s make nonfiction that is more thrilling than fiction. Let’s use the best of what fiction has to offer and make it more exciting because what happened was real. - Ellen Windemuth from Off the Fence

You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. —Anthony de Mello, from One Minute Wisdom

product_70473.jpgDocu-dramas are non-fiction, personal narrative stories with rich and thick facts woven into a memorable plot, setting, characters, and denouement AS IF you lived in the time or experience yourself. Expressing JUST the facts develops summary reports about topics while the creative arranging of actual facts, authentic images, interviews, art and music of the times along with other archival media elements unfolds an emotional experience with information called docudramas. Docudramas are story-based but come from in-depth, non-fictional research expressing life, events, or issues NOT imagination. This personalize narrative style is meant to bring facts and experiences ALIVE into illuminated understandings delivering an explicit reflective connection (lesson learned) of self, community or humanity that reveals WHY the topic matters. Participants will explore the art of designing learning tasks across-the- curriculum, organizing the tools and processes along with coaching student mastery of these two dynamic types of communication. Assessment tools for student work provided.

Learning Objectives

Docu-Drama storytelling projects can use many different media while still meeting the standards with rigor and relevance. This topic can be as a one (1) day workshops for understanding or be extended 2-3 days for hands-on crafting your own docudramas into digital storytelling while learning processes, digital tools and assessment. An Artist-in-Residence Program is also available.

  1. What is the power of story for creating "sticking power" of facts and understandings via docu-dramas?
  2. How do docu-dramas and short stories differ?
  3. What are curriculum story-based ideas? Classroom connections for storytelling projects?
  4. How do you establish the story prompt and process to reflect rigor and relevance?
  5. How do you ensure exemplar content with Take Six: Elements of Good Storytelling?
  6. How can real-time learning of digital tools, processes and coaching skills deliver GREAT docu-dramas?
  7. What content-building steps would guide students to develop rigor in their narratives?
  8. What media-making steps would guide students to create effective craftsmanship?

More About Docu-Dramas

1150697-L.jpgA docudrama blends melodrama and documentaries mostly through the use of fact-based reenactment or dramatization of actual people, places and events. These known “stories” are shaped through rigorous research into a nonfiction drama. No matter how good your research, a docudrama must still be an interesting compelling story that not only captures the intended audience attention but also holds the facts together.

In-depth research is key to an exemplar docudrama. If there is not time for in-depth research or interest in building an authentic nonfiction story, then stop right here as fictionalized stories will likely be a better form to develop. Not all the research will fit into the story – there is much sorting and prioritizing of details and facts. Carlos Clark says that author(s) will likely only use 20 percent of the facts researched but the other eighty percent of the facts will give the author(s) a heightened understanding enabling them to illuminate the characters and their world in a way that pulls viewers into believing they are truly living the experience.

Like the documentary, the docudrama generally plays an important social or political role of informing and educating their audience on issues or topics that matter. The messages and experience conveyed in docudramas influence people’s thinking and beliefs about issues. Alan Rosenthal asserts that docudramas have a greater effect on society than more traditional documentary forms. (See Rosenthal’s books, Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on film and TV and New challenges for Documentary)

DocuDrama Scene.jpgLike historical fiction, the docudrama form is based on or inspired by reality, by the lives of real people, or by events that actually happened. The story is created out of interviews, journals, photographs, tape recordings, sounds, and other primary source artifacts. Unlike documentaries, docudramas are generally constructed with a generous amount of reenactments or re-creations of reality rather than being confined to a narration of the primary source artifacts themselves. Some docudramas do combine historical footage or images with reenactments when they can but most are dramatized versions of reality. While some elements are fictionalized, the story is overall factual. Facts and other detail information (food eaten, clothing or hair styles, transportation, daily objects used) need to be verified by at least two credible sources especially those essential to your storyline. For example, Were purses used at this time? Was the Statue of Liberty standing when the pilgrims arrived? Was John Smith really saved by Pocahantas? But facts are not just about accuracy and integrity of the docudrama, they also provide a source details and tidbits that enriches and illuminates your characters and stories making them more believable and credible to your viewers.

Directors_Chair.jpgCritics of docudramas worry that there is a potential tipping point when the storyline exercises too much dramatic license or imagining beyond the facts that serve the story rather than the facts. Authors may be tempted to invent a multitude of details or characters in order to increase emotional engagement resulting in a distortion of known facts that creates more fiction that fact. There is also a concern that viewers may not be able to distinguish between known facts and the fictionalized parts of the story. However, while the docudrama form incorporates a melodrama style that organizes dramatic conflict, setting and characters into a strong story plot, it also has a much higher responsibility to accuracy and to truth than fiction. Audiences want the storytelling, the entertainment and the drama but they also want the sense of gaining knowledge and understanding about topics that REALLY happened!

While there is a spectrum of fact-to-fiction docudramas, two general categories of docudramas can be developed without moving entirely into fiction short stories. The first is a reality-based story that is inspired by a setting, event, time period or real person but has taken considerable dramatic license to fictionalize details. Not every actual event, people and place can necessarily be verified as documented fact in a reality-based story. The key is while some details may have been conjured up to fill in the story, there is still an essential veracity that the docudrama stayed true to the real story, place, event or person. But this type of docudrama is still a nonfiction story that needs to meet the standards of developing a reality-based, credible interpretation of the topic while authentically bringing real events, places, people’s lives and issues to life!

The second type of docudrama is a fact-based story that while some very small embellishments of the story may take place to give insight or bridge gaps, the facts are rigorously accurate, characters and events portrayed can be documented as real, the setting created is authentic, and many credible detailed facts are woven together to create a rigorously factual story. For example, any re-enactment of dialogue between characters uses the actual narration from a journal or other archival source. Fact-based docudramas have an abundance of documented evidence to authenticate the dramatized nonfiction story.

Docudrama Resources

Docudrama Evaluation Tool

  • Docudrama Scoring Guide (PDF) - Download a one-page evaluation scoring guide that incorporates the essential elements of docudramas.
  • Docudrama Online Scoring Guide (URL) - Select the content and craftsmanship elements from an online database @ DigiTales website that fit your docudrama projects with the online version.