Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

5 Lessons Every Adventure Filmmaker Should Learn About Storytelling

Without a story, your adventure film will fall flat, no matter how interesting you think it is. This article is a crash-course in the building blocks of story, specifically for adventure filmmakers.

No two journeys are the same, and so no two videos will tell quite the same story. But regardless of the specifics of your project or your filming ambitions, the same key considerations will make your film as successful as possible.

1. First, Find The All-Important Big Question

Remember the age-old business concept of an ‘elevator pitch’, in which you have ten seconds to convince a perfect stranger that they should pay attention to you and your ideas?

Take that concept and apply it to your journey. You are in an elevator with a disinterested TV executive. Cutting through all the layers; what is the big question that needs an answer, or problem that needs solving? Where does the drive to answer or solve it come from? And why should the viewer care?

The question might be in the realm of pushing human limits. It might be cultural, social or environmental. Or it might be a very personal one. With my first film Janapar, it began as the naive curiosity of a 23-year-old setting out from home to see the world for the first time. What exactly is out there? What might I learn from exploring it? How will it change me?

Focusing on the big question will direct your filming efforts while you are on the road, as you look for the events, conversations, challenges and developments that signpost the direction towards the answer.

You’ll be asking it again during the editing process, when you’re sifting through material, seeing what remains relevant and considering how it might best be used to build the story.

And it’s the question you’ll be presenting to the audience when they sit down to watch your finished film, whether two minutes or two hours in length.

The importance of this big question cannot be underestimated. It lies at the heart of all storytelling projects, regardless of medium.

2. Identify Your Protagonist As Soon As Possible

While finding that big question, you’ll probably have to figure out who is asking it. It could be you yourself, the filmmaker, or it could be another member of your team. This person will be the story’s protagonist. The story will move forward through their thoughts, words and actions. So the lens should keep coming back to them.

If it isn’t obvious, ask yourself: who has the strongest motivation for going on this journey? In any group endeavour, there is almost always one person whose need or desire drives things forward, even if they have not explicitly positioned themselves as the leader.

There may be other characters with other motivations, too. But one must emerge dominant in your narrative, else you’ll end up with a soap opera.

It’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to fabricate your protagonist’s motivation. It already exists. It’s why they’re going on this journey. Non-motivated people stay at home. You might have to cut through several layers of otherwise superficial reasoning, but it’s in there. Dig it out and film it.

(Tip: the strongest motivations are those that are universal, relating to the broadest themes of the human experience.)

3. Understand The Critical Importance Of Conflict And Jeopardy

Interesting questions are ones which require their askers to make significant changes to their paths through life to find the answer, because doing so will inevitably lead to conflict.

Conflict situations will drive the story, because, by watching how people respond, they expose people for who they really are. In the aftermath, characters also have the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about themselves through retrospection, and with luck, it will bring them closer to an understanding of themselves, their deepest motives, and the answer to the big question.

It is inherently entertaining for an audience to watch cause and effect play out within these conflict situations. When the audience cares deeply about the question the characters and the question they’re trying to answer, and a conflict puts that journey in jeopardy, it is where audience empathy is at its strongest.

Empathetic audiences also compare their own reactions with that of the people they see on the screen. They too learn something about themselves by doing so. And that is what makes a story satisfying to follow.

The helpful thing about adventure filmmaking is that the ‘significant change’ mentioned above is built into the genre. It happens when the characters leave home and set out on their journey. That’s why it’s critical that you film both the first steps of the adventure and the world your characters are leaving behind.

Conflict, by the way, does not necessarily mean violence. It can be internal, stemming from thoughts alone. It can come from the environment, the physical aspects of the trip, or from the clashing of several characters’ motives. And it can be positive, in the case of a happy surprise.

One challenge with conflict in adventure filmmaking is that it will often coincide with the moments you least want to be filming. But you must! If you shoot with a single rule of thumb, make it this:

If the last thing you want to do is get out the camera – then get out the camera.

Conflict is difficult to make sense of without context, and this is where a film must build a story world of landscapes and daily routines that sets the scene for stories within the film. Neither can be effective without the other, and it is critical to capture both. In other words – you have to show the ordinary for the extraordinary to make sense.

4. Know How To Get Your Future Audience To Care

Your audience must invest emotionally in your story to watch it to the end. To do that, they need to empathise quickly with the unfulfilled needs of the protagonist, or otherwise understand the stakes of the situation you meet them in.

In a feature-film, you have mere minutes to achieve this. For a short film, the time is measured in seconds. In a book, it’s the contents of the first page.

For this investment to take place, audience must be able to identify with the big question, which must be communicated clearly and early. What is at stake here? What does the protagonist care most about?

If your intended audience is already interested in the context (adventure, the outdoors, travel, expeditions, etc), this is easier to achieve. But for a broad audience that also included non adventure-enthusiasts, the context may be highly unfamiliar, and so the question must be universal.

In Janapar, the film begins in the middle of the journey in a situation of jeopardy, the main character alone in the Sahara Desert. The questions presented in that first scene are universal: what’s a grubby European doing alone and so far from home? Why all the self-doubt in his video diary? And who’s the girl in the flashbacks?

(Tip: It’s a familiar trope to begin a story in the middle, out of context, and with a scene of great jeopardy; then jump back to ‘how it all began’. But it works, because it sets the stakes high and gets the viewer asking questions from the first scene – questions you are implying the rest of the film will answer.)

5. Know What To Film (And What Not To Film) While Actually On The Adventure

Rather than setting off and hoping that a story will magically emerge from your footage, identifying the big question and the protagonist will help you to visualise the film you’re going to make before you begin your trip. This is the single biggest step in focusing your filming efforts while you’re out on the shoot.

But one of the defining characteristics of adventure, of course, is the freedom to be spontaneous, and the freedom that the world has to throw the unexpected into the mix. This can make it seem difficult to know what to film and what not to film.

Nevertheless, there are certain categories of event typical to adventure that you can anticipate and prepare for:

  • No matter what your journey, you’re likely to meet with physical obstacles – challenging conditions due to remoteness or terrain or weather; tiredness, exhaustion and hunger; and that old favourite: getting completely lost.
  • In a group, you’ll always have politics and disagreements, which may affect the story in ways that you didn’t foresee.
  • Especially on your own, the politics can become internal, and there will be times of fear, doubt and uncertainty that only individuals will be able to explain and process. This is when the video diary format is particularly useful.
  • And, by exposing themselves to the world through the medium of adventure, the protagonist will inevitably have their worldview challenged.
  • In many cases this will be by people you meet on the way, for whom your dramatically alien environment is completely normal. And it might not be immediately obvious what these meetings mean, so capture them.

As well as these types of event, you will need material to build a story world for your characters to exist in. You’ll need shots of your characters on the move; shots of the landscape and the places and people you see, stunning-looking sunsets, and so on.

But don’t forget that – in any narrative film of any length – the story world will only ever be a backdrop to the events that drive the story forward. In general, a good rule of thumb is to always film something the first time it happens, but to question thereafter whether you need to film it again.

Storytelling For Adventure Filmmakers: In Summary

There are two main types of adventure travel film:

  1. slideshow-style videos with beautiful landscapes and background music which will appeal to genre enthusiasts, and
  2. narratives in which a broader audience follows a character and their personal quest for an answer to a universal question.

In this article, we’ve covered the key story-based considerations for a film of the latter type.

It’s a challenging undertaking, and there are ever so many ropes to learn along the way. But by taking a little time to find the big question driving your journey, building a rich story world, focusing on your protagonist and their motivations, being on-the-ball enough to shoot the moments of jeopardy, and capturing the reactionsconversations and introspective thoughts you’ll need to eventually answer that big question, you’ll be well set up to tell a story that does your adventure justice.


5 responses to “5 Lessons Every Adventure Filmmaker Should Learn About Storytelling”

  1. Hi Tom! Finally, after hundreds of visits to your site is time to tell you how nice and useful it is!
    We’re planning our film making expedition for 2014 and what i want to ask you is give a look at our site and give us an opinion. Here’s the link cycloscope.weebly.com
    Let me know and keep in touch!

    1. Looks like a great project! And I love the website design. Have you thought about putting a picture of you both on your homepage? It’s good to put a face to a name 😉

  2. This is a great web site. I’m hoping to do a video of my trip in July , Vancouver to Calgary this has been sooooo helpful.
    Tom you rock
    Trevor Fletcher
    Calgary Ab

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