Knowing how to tell a story is essential to making factual programmes
Whether it’s The Great British Bake-Off or The Island, 24 Hours in A&E or Storyville, all factual programmes share an underlying structure. This course teaches you the secrets of what that structure is and how to apply it to your own work.
APPROACH You’ll see why some stories resonate widely with audiences – and why some don’t – and learn how story archetypes work. You’ll experiment with different story-structure techniques to become skilled at applying the principles of good storytelling to the television you want to make. Finally, you’ll learn how all this applies to creating original ideas for factual TV programmes then pitching them to commissioning editors.
There’s a balance of theory and practice but the key stages are underpinned by highly practical exercises based on programmes everyone knows – from Grand Designs through Oscar-winning documentaries, current affairs, history, science and arts to classic television formats like Faking It and The Apprentice.
And it’s all based on studying and applying the five-act structure set out in John Yorke’s acclaimed book, Into The Woods. Peter and John are on-hand to answer your questions during the course and to critique your pitches at the end of the course.
WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone working in factual television, whether factual entertainment, formats, rig shows or straight ob docs, including producers, directors, APs, researchers, editors. Even Executive Producers. Everyone who works in factual television will benefit from understanding how and why these basic principles work.
The course is also suitable for freelance documentary video producers and in-house production teams developing online factual content for businesses, charities and other organisations.
HOW DOES IT WORK? The course is delivered online so is ideal for people juggling full-time work with busy lives. It suits those living outside London with limited access to training and is accessible for people with disabilities who may find face-to-face training inconvenient. All you need is a computer and a good internet connection. Course materials are available 24/7, so you can work at a time that suits you.
LEVEL Appropriate for novice story-tellers – junior APs, researchers – and for those taking responsibility for making programmes – PDs, Edit Producers, Series Producers. Also useful as a back-to-basics refresher for experienced practitioners or teams who want to unify their approach to the craft.
DURATION 6 sessions over 7 weeks.
DELIVERY The course is accessed through an Into the Woods virtual classroom, hosted by the Professional Writing Academy.
Developed in collaboration with Peter Dale
Peter Dale has worked closely with John Yorke to shape a course relevant for professionals working at all levels in factual TV.
Peter is associated with some of the most popular and acclaimed documentaries and formatted reality shows of our time. He started life in television directing, producing his first documentary for BBC One in 1980. He went on to direct BBC documentaries for the next 18 years.
In 1998 he went to Channel 4 as Commissioning Editor for Documentaries, and later Head of Documentaries. He was responsible for commissioning shows such as Faking It, Wife Swap, Supernanny, Cutting Edge and Jamie’s School Dinners along with drama-docs like Death of a President, Tony Blair on Trial, The Government Inspector and Hamburg Cell. He has worked with luminaries such as Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Errol Morris, Penny Woolcock, Ronan Bennett and Peter Kosminsky.
In 2005 Peter conceived and launched More4, Channel 4’s third digital channel which won Digital Channel of the Year in its first year. And during his time at Channel 4 his departments picked up 150 national and international awards, including 16 BAFTAs, 29 RTSs, 9 Grierson’s and an Ivor Novello.
As founder of the production company Rare Day Peter has produced documentaries for all the major broadcasters including the BAFTA nominated We Need To Talk About Dad, Police Under Pressure, One Mile Away (winner of the Michael Powell Award for Best British Film), Big Ballet and Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar. Rare Day’s latest production, Chasing Dad: A Lifelong Addiction recently became the most requested programme on the BBC’s i-Player.
He’s a passionate advocate of applying classic story-telling principles to factual TV. Find out more about Peter at www.rareday.co.uk.
Session 1: Introduction to Storytelling
We start by thinking about the grammar of storytelling and the essential elements a story needs, and experiment with summing up a protagonist’s wants and needs. We’ll look at what happens in dramatic storytelling before assessing why that’s relevant to factual TV.
Session 2: Building Blocks
We build on the basic building blocks of the archetypal story, examining structural form in more detail by examining the need for an inciting incident, a character’s journey and story endings (crisis, climax and resolution). For each, we look at the relevance to factual formats and programmes.
At the end of Session 2 there is a Q&A with John Yorke.
Session 3: Essential Storytelling Tools
Here you learn how to ‘break’ a story to see if it works. You’ll start by learning the 10 key questions to ask every story, and experiment with three-act structure. By the end of this session you should be able to deconstruct a story and will understand the three key documentary models.
Session 4: Five Act Structure
In this session we break down a story into five acts and look at why this is such an invaluable tool for storytellers working in all formats. Practical exercises include identifying turning points and midpoints and rewriting a factual story in five parts.
At the end of Session 4 there is a Q&A with Peter Dale.
Session 5: Developing Your Own Stories
We start by looking at how to plan your own original factual stories to work in a truly dramatic way. You’ll work through the process of distilling a story to its essence before learning how to package it into a professional pitch.
Session 6: Pitching Your Own Stories
Finally, we step into the world of pitching and commissioning, looking at everything that goes into the moment when you try to convince a commissioning editor to back your idea. John offers his top tips for checking whether your story is as good as it can be, while Peter lays down the do’s and don’t s of pitching. At the end of the session you submit two short pitches for factual programmes, and receive written feedback notes from your tutors.
How the course is taught
The course is delivered via The Professional Writing Academy online classroom. The learning model is structured around a combination of peer and tutor feedback, and aims to develop and hone your critical faculties through constant practice and revision.
The course lasts 7 weeks, and comprises 40 hours of learning divided into 6 sessions and includes:
• Short podcasts from John Yorke
• Short videos from John Yorke and/or other industry experts
• Online guidance notes and directed prompts and exercises, devised by John Yorke and Peter Dale
• Directed reading and viewing lists from John Yorke and Peter Dale
• Webinar and Q&A sessions with John Yorke and Peter Dale
• Guest lectures from industry experts
• Online peer critiquing from other participants in the group
• Tutor moderation
• The support of an online community and virtual classroom.
After the course you will have the option to continue working with your peers in an online alumni area. This includes an archive of your course materials and forums to continue discussions with your peer group and others who have completed the course.
Shape your idea into a story
Find out which story elements resonate deeply with factual TV audiences, learn how to deconstruct a story to work out how to tell it more effectively, and master the 10 questions you need to ask every story to find its dramatic content. As you work through the course you will:
- Master story structure, step-by-step
- Learn to recognise and highlight the key dramatic elements in all formats and genres
- Apply the principles to your own ideas
- Receive written notes on your final pitch from John Yorke, Peter Dale and the tutor team.
You will work in small groups of no more than 15 and take part in guided discussions and critiquing sessions with peers.
Work with us
If your organisation would like to run a course as part of a formal or informal professional development programme, do get in touch. We can:
- Adapt content, learning hours and course timings to suit your needs
- Brand the online classroom for your organisation, and track or monitor individual learning in great detail
- Offer discounts for block bookings and a subscription model for ongoing training.
To find out more, or discuss any aspect of the course please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Storytelling for Screen (Factual TV) was made possible by the support of Creative Skillset, and has been approved as part of an informal or formal (CPD) programme.
I’m a journalist and documentary-maker so I have quite a lot of experience with pitching. However, I had never thought about my pitches in terms of story elements, story structure – I’ve always just done them on instinct. So I’m finding this course hugely illuminating and it’s already causing me to think differently about my own work.
This course has truly transformed the way I frame and structure my stories, and I have been really touched by the genuinely supportive and encouraging atmosphere on the forums from fellow learners and tutors alike.
The course, alongside Into the Woods, has had a huge impact on my writing! I now use the skills I have learnt to help structure all my narratives.
The course has given me a solid understanding of how storytelling techniques can be applied to factual TV, and I feel inspired in an area I never thought would be my “natural habitat”. I’m looking forward to see where I might take it next