producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Sequencing the Book

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The next section in my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books, is on sequencing the book. I went to see Tate Taylor’s “Get on Up” a few days ago. I do recommend the film, but the storyline has a rather annoying back-and-forth in the sequence of events. The filmmaker resorted to subtitles in order for the audience to find their place—and this biopic covers a massive amount of ground. But I appreciated the editing choices overall because I know how challenging it can be to find a unique way to change up a linear plot.

Snake Trail
He’s not taking the Main Trail, right?

Books present the same types of trial-and-error methodology when it comes to figuring out exactly how to move the content artistically from page one to the end. Most importantly, you need to let the reader know which way they are headed. Your subject matter will be the first consideration. A few examples of ways books can be paced are by:

  • location (world bazaars)
  • time (biography)
  • process (restorations)
  • progression or regression (urban development)
  • individuals (great astronomical achievers)
  • departments or teams (behind-the-scenes)
  • event or entry type (rodeo life)
  • styles (wedding dresses)
  • genre or species (succulent varieties)

Once the overall structure of the story’s flow has been determined, there needs to be further blending of words and pictures within each section or chapter. You’ll need to include a mix of establishing overviews, medium shots, close-ups, cutaways, portraits, details, action, POVs, two-shots and so on. I’m all for experimentation to keep a fresh perspective but don’t get too gimmicky. These are documentary books, not whimsical exploratory avant-garde masterpieces.

The designer needs to start out with a fairly solid order of shots but they’ll also need to play around in layout to come up with the best final choices. Not all images look great running full size and others might need cropping. Color balance is also critical to the mood of each spread and section. Certain images just look wrong sitting next to or facing each other. Some images can’t work running across the gutter and others can’t be orientated where the subject is looking off the edge of the page. When something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to ask for a rework. You might also need to return to the edited outcasts to find replacement frames.

A lot of large format books open with two or three spreads of full bleeding images to represent what’s to come. These need to be very strong, representative images yet not set the reader up for disappointment because they feel they have seen everything in the first few pages. The closing pages need to hold a surprise and feeling of satisfaction and completion, just as with the final pages of any good book. For some unexplained reason, it always seems as though the image for the last page of the book is the easiest one to choose.

Geez, I’m already up to Writing a Manuscript, which is Part 18 of 33. If you want to be a singer instead of a writer or book producer, here is some advice.

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