The Guide to a Perfect True Crime Documentary

A compelling case isn’t all it takes to make a compelling documentary, but these tips will help.
true crime documentary The Keepers
By  · Published on June 4th, 2018

Where disturbing, graphic, and unjust stories are concerned, some of the best are true. True crime is a genre that continues to flourish as long as the world continues to create unbelievable crimes to obsess over. It’s up to the filmmaker to create an enticing documentary around a true story, which involves a lot more work than you’d think. A lot of true crime filmmakers get it wrong, but when they get it right, it’s better than any fictional drama out there. Below are some rules for a great true crime documentary or docuseries.

1. Find what makes the case different.

True crime viewers don’t come just for the murder or graphic crime scene photos. They want an interesting story, something they can’t predict, something they haven’t seen before. To fulfill that, true crime shows and films have to focus on what makes this story different from anything viewers have seen before. For example, the murder itself in The Keepers wasn’t unusual, but the sadistic abuse uncovered in the Catholic school because of the murder made this case different. Thankfully, the filmmakers understood that and spent just as much time exploring the stories of students in the school as they did exploring the nun that disappeared. There’s an interesting angle in every criminal case worthy of a documentary or docuseries. Sometimes it is the way the case is investigated or the people involved, but whatever makes the specific case different than something we’ve seen before should be the focus of the documentary.

2. Don’t insert yourself into the narrative.

We want the story to unfold itself when watching a true crime documentary. It should play out for us as it did in reality, with those involved in the case telling us what happened. When filmmakers insert themselves into the doc, it becomes apparent that we are being led to believe a certain aspect of the case instead of investigating it through the victims, defenders, or witnesses. Showing the process of interviewing a suspect or the filmmaker’s relationship with the subject is not only unimportant to the story most of the time, but it takes away from the case itself. Now it’s more about the making of the film than the story of the case, which isn’t the point of a good true crime documentary. Perhaps the only flaw of Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist is the involvement of the filmmaker when telling the story. Whether or not the subject likes the filmmaker or how the filmmaker feels about the case shouldn’t have to be the focus of the doc. Showing the story unfold as objectively as possible is the most important aspect of true crime. If the filmmaker commits to letting the case and its story do the talking, their stance on the case will be conveyed implicitly rather than outright telling us how they feel through narration or footage of themselves. Stick to the subject.

3. Embrace multiple truths.

Everyone experiences any given event differently, especially a traumatic experience like in many true crime documentaries. It’s important to represent that when documenting a case by including the various perspectives of the crime even if they conflict each other. It’s unlikely one single person is telling the whole truth of any case, but what really happened lies somewhere in between everyone’s different stories. It’s not the filmmaker’s responsibility to find that absolute truth, because that’s simply impossible. The best they can do is show every angle of the story, leaving no stone unturned with the case. Including conflicting opinions, accounts, or theories will allow the viewer to make their own conclusion on what happened and who’s guilty, which is why everyone loves to watch true crime shows or films. If a filmmaker tries to construct one single narrative of the crime to ensure a cohesive story, they’d be leaving out aspects of the truth in the process.

4. Be terse with information.

There is nothing worse for a viewer than when the filmmaker thinks they need to be catered to in order to understand something.  Viewers know when information is important to remember, especially with true crime because they know each clue is a piece of a puzzle they are trying to solve. It’s easy to elongate a docuseries by recapping information told in a previous episode, but it just wastes time and bores the viewer. One of the most infuriating aspects of Making a Murderer was that every episode discussed the same information, beating the audience over the head with facts that led to no conclusion. In all likelihood, everyone binged that show, making the information even more redundant. Sacrificing some episodes or runtime to cut to the chase is always a good idea with true crime, which thrives on a concise nature, like the police reports that inspired the story. Lay out the facts, explore how they inform the case and move on. The audience is smart enough to figure it out.

5. Don’t be afraid to show the unreliability of the justice system.

The time of blindly trusting in our justice system is long gone, and many true crime cases are evidence of that. Evidence can be mishandled, confessions can be coerced, and many other mistakes can lead to wild turns in an investigation. They are important to the story, even if they make the police look bad. The mistakes made in an investigation can be the most interesting part of a true crime story like The Central Park Five. It may be frustrating to watch our justice system in the wrong, but it’s essential to understand they are not the final verdict in the truth. True crime docs should question everything, and the justice system is no exception. Close examination could reveal the wrong person was convicted of a crime or save someone from the death penalty. Looking into the police’s possible mistakes is just another perspective that should be explored.

6. See if the case connects to a bigger picture.

Often the issues discussed in a particular case speak to a larger issue. Whether it be mental illness, sentencing procedures, ethical policing, rape culture, or anything else plaguing our world, using a specific instance to speak to those larger ideas can be a dynamite ending to a documentary. Not all cases can be solved, and some issues remain a mystery when we want to see justice. It resolves some of that frustration when the audience is educated on the larger issue and can perhaps prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. Beware the Slenderman deals with a bizarre case where two young girls attempt to sacrifice their friend to a fictional character, but it connects the case to the larger issue of mental illness in young people, a tangible problem the audience can go out, discuss, and better combat following the documentary. The first responsibility of any documentary is to entertain. The second is to educate its audience.

7. Leave some questions unanswered.

One of the things that keep audiences seeking out new crime documentaries is the level of mystery involved in telling their stories. Some of the most mesmerizing documentaries focus on cases that were never solved. No case is ever so cut and dry that the all questions can be answered within a film or TV series. Those mysteries and loose ends haunt us as people when it comes to anything. It makes trying to figure out a certain case more exciting when there are complications and holes in a story. The obsession with things that don’t add up is why Michelle McNamara continued to search for The Golden State Killer until her death, a story that will be adapted into an HBO docuseries soon enough. Not every lead or question raised in a documentary should be answered with an absolute. We can’t know everything about a case. That’s what brings us back to them, what makes us remember them. We love an impossible chase to find the truth because it never ends.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_