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

Storytelling is at the heart of most good documentaries and docudramas. Complex ideas and information are often best conveyed through powerful storytelling creating enduring understandings as well as having a memorable influence on people’s point-of-views and willingness to take action. Even when the outcome of the topic or event is known, audiences still expect a storyline with a goodly dose of suspense while artfully unfolding the facts and information. Story engages an audience in the facts emotionally and intellectually at the same time motivating them to want to know what happens next. While documentaries and docudramas differ in structure, they both are grounded in accuracy in ways that engaged viewers in worlds of ideas they might not have otherwise been able to experience.

Know the Difference

Technology is rapidly changing the definition of both documentaries and docudramas. New and innovative ways of presenting documentaries are evolving with new trends like online documentaries (Learn more about ABC’s Online Documentaries) or TV made docudramas that reenact and dramatize events sometimes tipping over the boundaries of fact into fiction. Definitions for documentary and docudrama are evolving with a spectrum of qualities shaping their form. Many movies are falsely labeled documentaries to give heightened credibility or simply because they “documented” something not knowing that more key aspects are needed. Some authors have taken liberal license to create a variety of hybrids as they experiment with communication forms. Still there are key aspects of what documentaries and docudramas are and what they are not to consider before taking flight into customized forms of communication.

Using primary sources or documenting something does NOT immediately mean you have made documentaries or docudramas. The recapping or showing of facts about a topic, person or event creates a common communication form called summary reports. This type of communication form is well practiced in our schools as students demonstrate being good information consumers by organizing existing factoids about topics and events. As exciting as online archival media sources like those found at Library of Congress and United Streaming might be – a summary report is still a summary report even if there are moving elements, authentic images and sound. Does the author take the information beyond stitching together the existing and known facts? If not, then regardless of the amount or source of media elements, it is still a summary report.

Exemplar online interactive summary reports: Colonial House Tours OR a Monk’s Life 

Creative invention develops short stories, while creative arranging of actual facts, authentic images, interviews, art and music of the times along with other archival media elements develops documentaries and docudramas. Short stories are fictional – documentaries are non-fictional. While documentaries and docudramas are certainly different types of communication as described below, they are still both considered to come from life NOT imagination.

Both documentaries and docudramas are grounded in a spectrum of accuracy and credibility so viewers can be transported into that world of information allowing them to become engrossed in real people and events. The author gives the audience an authentic reality-based feel for what the time, context and issues would have been if they had been able to really inhabit that world.


A documentary, after all, can tell lies; and it can tell lies because it lays claim to a form of veracity which fiction doesn’t – Dai Vaughn

John Grierson first coined the word “documentary” in 1926 as a creative treatment (or arrangement) of reality. A documentary is a work in a visual and/or auditory medium that presents complex or multiple-related topics in a factual and informative manner using a multitude of documents. Documentaries use an abundant number of primary source photos, video, music, paintings, newspapers, diaries, interviews, and other artifacts. For the most part, the people we see in a documentary are NOT actors but real people sharing their lives and perspectives through interviews. There is often a narrator explaining or commenting on the visuals and information.

Authors have many purposes for their documentaries including propaganda, entertainment, informing, or educating others into action. In keeping with Dr. Jane Goodall’s philosophy that “knowledge leads to compassion and understanding which then inspires action,” documentaries have an important role in creating change through understanding. In general, documentaries tend to possess some kind of relevance or higher purpose than just entertainment, be it historical, social, environmental, political or scientific. View the documentary called Streams of Gold that doesn’t just tell the family story but weaves the issues of global economics and the implication for the future into a relevant documentary.

Documentaries are considered non-fiction organizing the complexity or multi-facets of a topic or person into a presentation that can reach many others. Documentaries craft complex topics into ideas and understandings accessible to others. They are either narrated or told in the actual words of the participants themselves (perhaps re-enacted dialogue) based on diaries, letters, journals, recordings and other artifacts.

Whatever technology tool (web-based, video, interactive slideshow, radio or photography essay) might be used to create a documentary, here are five requirements to incorporate that were adapted from Michael Weinberger’s definition of a documentary:

  1. It must attempt to tell the truth – that includes providing multiple perspectives on the topic or event. Like the nine blind men and the elephant metaphor, it takes more that one perspective to provide the “whole” truth.
  2. It must appear to do so by present only factual evidence – a good documentary starts with rigorous, in-depth research – the author is dedicated to NOT inventing but building understanding and perspective by the art of arranging the facts into a pattern of understanding.
  3. It must not attempt to re-create or distort the truth – taking poetic license (imaginative interpretation), constructing intentional bias or developing a singular perspective threatens the credibility of a good documentary moving into more fiction or slanted truth than fact.
  4. It must be objective – that doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong and overt point-of-view – in fact a personal reflection of how the topic matters and connects either to individuals, communities or humanity is essential in order to push the body of information beyond summary reporting — but these embedded perspectives must be ethically grounded in accuracy.
  5. It must present all factual evidence in its original context and form – an abundant amount of primary sources needs to be incorporated, documented and credited as part of the product – this builds credibility for the documentary.

Documentary Resources

Documentary Student Examples

Using the Documentary Scoring Guide, review the following projects for elements that are working and elements you would advise to be considered changed or different IF the authors were at the storyboard step of creating their documentary. What works? What could work better for content and technical craftsmanship? Click Here for Documentary Scoring Guide


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

A 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)

Like 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.

Critics 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 Student Examples

Using the Docudrama Scoring Guide, review the following projects for elements that are working and elements you would advise to be considered changed or different IF the authors were at the storyboard step of creating their docudrama. What works? What could work better for content and technical craftsmanship? Click Here for Docudrama Scoring Guide