Are Nichols 6 modes of documentary the most reliable?


Books, Films and TV Dramas are all forms of media that have been used to share stories of the past, present and future. They provide emotional narratives that connect the world as humans, teaching audiences right from wrong, how to grow and the unwritten rules of life. But the documentary genre is the sharpest media form in the world in gathering stories,  information and images and sharing them constructively to an audience to create a narrative of truth from a filmmakers perspective.

To make these documentaries a visual success many filmmakers use the 6 modes of documentaries that Bill Nichols (shown in the image above) introduced to the world in his book “Introduction to documentary”. The modes include ‘poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive and performative’ and they are regarded as sub-genres of documentary.

Poetic mode; Filmmakers use this to arrange their film in a particular order through “tone, rythm, or spacial juxtaposition” (Trilogy, 2017). This story structure is different to the typical linear continuity. Observational documentaries allow filmmakers to focus on their subjects un-interrupted to show their truth. Participatory Documentaries “invite the subjects to participate with the filmmaker” (Trilogy, 2017) and subjects are usually interviewed.  Reflexive documentaries are essential in showcasing the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience by showing the process of their storytelling (the behind the scenes of documentary making). Performative documentaries rely on gripping audiences through emotional and deep communication, through artistic forms such as poetry, as opposed to conceptual communication.  The 6 modes provide a template that filmmakers often use to work with in many documentaries over time. David Attenborough adopted the expository mode for “Wildlife on One”,  the BBC programme he narrated over from 1977-2005 (Attenborough, Harris & Jones, 2005). Expository documentaries help to provide “a specific argument or point of view” for the audience.


There are two other modes of documentary; animation and dramatization, that are not mentioned in Nichols’ list of modes but are definitely effective. Animation is effective because it can bring stories to a visual aspect for the audience and producers can be as creative as they want to be (, 2017). If one was to speak of a dream where they were talking to a flamingo with a tracksuit on and nike trainers they could draw this and bring the image to life so viewers don’t have to use their imagination. Dramatization documentaries are equally effective because they also bring stories to life by having actors perform the narratives, like in the BBC series Crimewatch (, 2017). Out of all modes I would say that Nichols documentary are the most popular but not the most creative.




Attenborough, D., Harris, S. and Jones, D. (2017). Wildlife on One (TV Series 1977–2005). [online] IMDb. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2017]. (2017). Documentary genres. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2017].

Trilogy, G. (2017). Nichols’ 6 Modes of Documentary Might Expand Your Storytelling Strategies. [online] No Film School. Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2017].



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