Why ‘Beckham’ is the ultimate example of narrative structure in factual storytelling


The Netflix documentary series Beckham is a masterclass in narrative structure and editorial decision-making. In this post I’ll walk through how the second episode of the series employs narrative techniques to engage the viewer over 60 minutes of factual storytelling — and why it makes the decisions that it does.

Every week on a Thursday afternoon I walk into a windowless room and teach a group of MA students at Birmingham City University about narrative techniques for factual storytelling. From the selection of characters and settings to create narrative movement, to concepts such as mimesis and diegesis (‘showing’ versus ‘telling’), time and pacing…

…And narrative structure. Which is where the Netflix documentary Beckham comes in. I’ve been watching this series with an eye on how it uses those very same narrative techniques—and boy, does it use them well.

A choice of timescale and focus

For the most part, it is techniques of structure that I want to talk about. But before that structure is created the director has to choose a timescale that their story will cover.

Episode 2 covers one year in Beckham’s life. (In contrast, episode 1 covers over fifteen.) The year runs from the wake of a World Cup exit that made him the most hated man in England, to his team’s treble trophy success, and his wedding.

These are important choices: we could have chosen to start this story earlier or later (more on this below). Why, then, are these points chosen?

The answer might lie in perhaps the most important choice to make when planning a story: identifying a central problem — what Cortazzi calls the complication—that the story will focus on.

David Beckham has faced many problems in his life, but the one chosen for this episode is arguably his biggest: becoming the most hated man in the country.

We can see Cortazzi’s narrative structure in the Beckham documentary

At the same time, he’s just discovered he’s going to be a father, so we could actually broaden the complication to simply dealing with enormous change in his life.

Once you’ve chosen that as the story’s central complication (and by extension, the likely starting point for its timescale), it’s easier to identify a second part of the narrative structure: the result of the complication.

For this, the director of this episode chooses Beckham’s victory, with his team, in domestic and European football, just under a year later.

With the complication and the result in place, the evaluation phase of the narrative will become the journey from one to the other. We’ll talk more about this below.

There’s also the abstract: this should be something that ‘sums up’ the story. Once you know what most of the story will be, that becomes much easier to identify.

There will be a short orientation phase, too, before the complication is introduced. And, after the result, there needs to be a coda. We’ll break down all of these in turn.

The ‘abstract’: not just a domestic scene

The episode opens in the Beckhams’ kitchen, in the present day. David Beckham is making a cup of coffee for the director, Fisher Stevens, while his wife Victoria sits at the dining table in the adjoining room.

Why are we starting here? The story isn’t about their kitchen, or their coffee machine, is it?

Well, in a way it is. The conversation reveals aspects of David’s personality: he wants things to be “perfect”; he works hard to keep the kitchen clean; he feels that it’s not appreciated.

These are themes that we will see explored in the episode: how his work rate and perfectionism play a role in his journey, in a scenario where he’s not just under-appreciated, but actively despised and attacked.

The scene does two important things: it hooks the audience by raising a question (why is this scene relevant?) and sets some expectations in the audience for the themes that are going to become important in this story.

And this doesn’t happen by accident: the director has asked for this interaction to be filmed—and presumably many others that aren’t used — precisely so he can capture moments that might reveal something about the central characters in this story that connect to the wider narrative he is planning to tell.

As a bonus, the scene creates an intimacy with the characters that makes us care about their story more.

The ‘orientation’: titles and context

Only after two minutes of this ‘abstract’ do we hear the title music and the title itself: the sign that we are being moved into the orientation phase of the story.

Audio is important: we hear the noises of — and see—a crowd of Argentina fans awaiting the result of their team’s penalty against England. It is the sound of tension, and then release, as they score, and knock England out. The lower quality of the video helps signal, and orientate us to, a shift back in time (analepsis).

A minor chord contrasts with the celebration. It’s an unusual contrast: we are watching joy and celebration, but the music signals the very different emotion that we should be feeling: it tells us that it is not our joy.

A quick clip of present-day Beckham talking about painful memories. Then we see a clip of Beckham being sent off (earlier in that match) and the reaction back in England: screaming; tears.

Next, we are back at the end of the penalty shootout, and English commentary: “Argentina are through, and England go out”.

In a matter of seconds we have moved in both time and space, from Argentina in 1998 to present-day US, to 1998 France (earlier in the same match), then England, then France (later), then back to present-day US. This movement creates a strong narrative pace for what could have been a slow recounting of a memory.

And the memory is our orientation: we are in 1998, at the point of England’s exit from the World Cup, Beckham’s nadir.

The complication: “I made a stupid mistake”

The orientation—depending on how you see it—lasts perhaps a minute. Beckham’s description of the events make it clear that we are already at the central complication of this story. “[It] changed my life,” he says. For the next hour or so we will find out exactly how.

But the complication itself needs to be told: Beckham kicks out at another player and is sent off; his team loses the game and is out of the World Cup.

Archive footage and present-day interviews tell the story that this was a tournament that his team could have won; that he is blamed not just for the team losing the game, but for missing the opportunity to win the World Cup. They tell the story of how he is vilified and abused.

There’s another complication to tell, too: the story of how he found out he was going to become a father.

The evaluation: battles on multiple fronts

The complication stage of the narrative lasts perhaps another minute: we are only five minutes into the documentary, and the groundwork has been laid. As is often the case, the vast majority of this story will be taken up by the evaluation phase.

In a longer narrative like this, we can start to look to other narrative structures to provide help. In Freytag’s Pyramid we have a series of events — ‘rising action’ — that escalate the tension to a climax.

Freytag’s Pyramid adds extra stages within the ‘evaluation’ phase of a narrative

You could think of these as the battles that must be fought to get from that complication to the result. In Beckham’s case these are:

  • Dealing with abuse
  • Dealing with depression
  • Maintaining performance and focus
  • Protecting his partner and child

Stage 1: building an island

Some of these battles are fought with others: the first stage of this phase — lasting around 20 minutes—looks largely at the role of his manager and team mates in creating a supportive environment, a haven from the abuse.

Stage 2: the internal battlefield

The second stage—which also provides a tonal respite from tales of the abuse—shifts the focus to David’s childhood, in particular his father.

We are now listening to the tale of his father’s love for football and how that translated into the son’s ability.

This is a mini narrative within the main narrative: it has an abstract (“I think I was able to … handle it because of the way my dad had been to me”), an orientation, and a complication (“his dream was to have a son who played for Manchester United”), and the result (“I was hard but it turns out to be the right thing”) forms part of the larger narrative.

This story lasts around 5 minutes, and ends with a subtle visual coda where home video footage of a child David Beckham being shouted at on the pitch cuts to TV footage of a 23-year-old Beckham being shouted at on the pitch. The dramatic violin music stops, and we hear the first words of the next stage…

Stage 3: the pregnancy/the turning point

“Have you had scans done of your babies? Are they kicking?” We are watching archive footage of a TV interview with Victoria Beckham and a fellow Spice Girl, also pregnant. The third stage of this evaluation phase of the narrative—about 10 minutes in length—will tell the story of Victoria’s pregnancy and birth, and again will form a mini-narrative with its own complication (the baby is overdue; he may miss the birth), evaluation (David Beckham prepares to play for the first time against the Argentina player who got him sent off; kidnap threats; paparazzi; abuse of Victoria), and (as the music track shifts to Ocean Colour Scene) resolution (“it was the one thing that spurred me on”).

The result/climax

Having escalated the tension, we are now driving (for about 5 minutes) towards the result of all the events that have been covered in the evaluation phase—the climax. His club are shown shooting up the league, we see him scoring goals, we see him celebrating winning the league, then the cup…

The pace is slowed to build the tension, and we begin the final chapter, as Beckham and his team prepares to play in the Champions League final. This is played out at length (around 15 minutes), another mini-narrative.

This is not just an anecdote. There is what Ira Glass would call a ‘moment of reflection’ from one interviewee:

“After going through the abuse … he came out of it. He grew … that game was the point he became a leader.”

The result is made explicit. There is a wonderful sequence where Beckham’s corner-taking in the final is intercut with home video footage of him taking corners as a child, while Beckham talks about his father’s guidance. Now those anecdotes from earlier have a point.

In case there’s any doubt, his father says it explicitly:

“That year made my son grow into a man.”

Now we have the point of the whole story. And it’s a point that makes it more than just a football story: it makes it something more universal about how people respond to adversity. The end.

We can imagine, for example, a different result/ending. Three years after his vilification as Public Enemy №1 Beckham was the hero again when his goal secured qualification for England in the last minute. How would choosing that as an ending for this episode have changed the story?

I would argue it would have made the story less internal, less about his own personal victory and more about others’ opinions of him. Establishing Manchester United as a “family” gathering round to protect him from the abuse reinforces this ‘us-and-them’ opposition: the choice here is not to tell a story about redemption; but a story about conquering demons.

The denouement: the wedding

Except the climax is rarely the end of the story. We need a denouement that ties up loose ends, and the Beckhams’ wedding provides the perfect material, allowing the viewer to ‘come down’ after an emotional rollercoaster, with some further moments of reflection. This is no small thing: it lasts around 10 minutes, and you can again see a mini narrative structure at play here.

The coda: what happens next?

Even then we’re not finished. Narrative structures often end with a coda that looks ahead. It’s short (only a minute or so), but sets us up for the future — in this case, for the next episode.

In this case, the director flags up a new problem: the boss, it turns out, wasn’t happy. And one episode’s coda will become the next episode’s complication.

A moment of reflection

So there you have it: the second episode of Beckham is one of the best examples of narrative structure that I’ve come across. It helps that the documentary has clearly had an enormous amount of work put into it, and involves two people who have been filmed regularly for almost all of their lives (Beckham’s dad mentions at one point he has videos of over 1,400 games; at one point we see footage of Victoria watching the game that changes her partner’s life).

The interviewees alone are a masterclass in planning a factual story like this: everyone from the footballer that got Beckham sent off, to the receptionist who opened his fan mail (and only their best bits are used).

The director is part of the story but he doesn’t have to narrate it: it’s so well edited that the pictures, the interviewees — and the silences—speak for themselves. It’s a lesson in ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a lesson that every factual storyteller can learn from.



Paul Bradshaw
Narrative — from linear media to interactive media

Write the @ojblog. I run the MA in Data Journalism and the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism @bcujournalism and wrote @ojhandbook #scrapingforjournos