Free training

How to find a powerful documentary idea

cinematic documentaries documentary filmmaking storytelling
One Breath: A Life Without Gravity

All stories start with an idea – usually based around a topic or a person. An idea becomes the foundation of every decision you make about your documentary. If your idea doesn’t have the right ingredients, you can waste a lot of time making a film that audiences don’t connect with and find boring which can be a very painful experience after working so hard on making your film.

But if you’re able to identify what makes a good story. You can choose an idea and bring it to life with the confidence that you’re making something that will engage with audiences.

If you already have a documentary idea or a few ideas that you’d like to bring to life, that’s great. This blog will help you check your ideas to see if they have the right ingredients to captivate audiences. 

If you don’t have a story idea yet. I’m going to go through my five steps for how I find a great documentary idea.

So, let's dive right into it:


1. Goals & Obstacles

A good story has compelling characters that are working towards something they want, a goal. It could be a physical goal such as wanting to climb a mountain or an emotional goal such as wanting to be loved. Then an obstacle gets in their way, something that’s stopping them from achieving their goal. Whether it’s not having enough money, an opposition who’s challenging them, or maybe it’s something that’s never been done before, so it seems impossible. This creates conflict which drives the story forward and makes it engaging as audiences want to keep watching the documentary to find out what’s going to happen next.


2. Work out your why

Why do you want to make your film? Make sure your answer includes a strong emotional motivation. For example, with my short film, One Breath – about a freediving couple who attempt a world record – when I started out looking for a story, all I knew was that I wanted to make a film about humans connecting with nature. Why? Because I have a huge passion for the natural world and I wanted to share my love of nature with an audience. Discovering your ‘why’ is important because it will help you find ideas you emotionally connect with and are motivated to share, and this emotion will come through in your film. It will also spur you on when you feel stuck and face challenges in the film production process.

One Breath: A Life Without Gravity


3. Seek inspiration daily

Look for stories about people you know, to books, social media, events and people you meet. If you can, I recommend dedicating a bit of time to seeking inspiration every day, even if it’s just five minutes, and keeping notes of your ideas as you go along, so you can refer back to them. It’s the things we do daily that bring us closer to our goals.


4. Identify your aim

Is your end goal to sell a product, to raise money, to change perspectives, to raise awareness or purely to entertain?  For example, with a short film I made in Nepal, my aim was to raise money for a charity called Kinoe that fund children’s education. Whereas a film I made for Canon, was to sell a product - the Canon M50. 

Storror x Canon - Commercial


5. Do targeted research

The key is to learn everything you can about the topic and your main subject. Sometimes the storyline will be obvious from the start, other times you’ll discover what the story is as you start making it. Do a lot of digging, gather facts, and search for interesting characters and storylines.


As you work through each of these steps, I strongly recommend setting up a Google Drive folder and keeping a record of all your findings and contacts in Google Sheets, Google Docs and Google Keep. Everyone is different though so you may have a different method of working, but personally, I find Google Drive to be the most reliable, user-friendly and collaborative platform. And for Internet research, I recommend using Bookmarks with organised sub-folders so you can easily come back to a website or article at a later date.

Documentary Film Academy

A step-by-step guide to creating cinematic documentaries.

Join now

Our recent posts

How to make money as a documentary filmmaker

How filmmakers can record better audio

What frame rate should you be filming in?

Documentary tips delivered straight to your inbox.


By clicking 'Subscribe' I accept and consent to receive email updates and tips from Documentary Film Academy.