Writing a movie based on a true story sounds easier than making something up from scratch. After all, you have the actual drama, characters, conflicts and events to draw from. But in practice true stories can be a stubborn challenge. One of the most difficult scripts I’ve ever written was a historical biopic. And I've often seen students struggle to find structure in a story inspired by their own experiences.
First of all, reality doesn’t always organize itself nicely. Sometimes things don’t happen in the most dramatic order, or a significant event happens to a minor character instead of the key player. I thought Changling (written by J. Michael Straczynski) had that problem with the ending. The most dramatic climax was the trial, but after that there were two other endings – the meeting between the main character and the killer on the eve of the execution, and the other victim showing up alive. That may be how it happened in real life, but it made the ending of the movie muddy.
The key, of course, is to be able to change reality to fit drama. But this can be difficult for several reasons. In an important historical or newsworthy event, you may open yourself up to charges of bias or misrepresentation. You have to walk a fine line between good drama and accuracy. And if the people involved are still alive, you have the added concern of lawsuits.
You also may have a hard time letting go of the facts you know. This is particularly true if your story is based on your personal experiences. If you’re fictionalizing something that happened to you as a child or a story about your grandparents’ romance, you probably don’t have to worry about accusations of dishonesty. But you may become slave to the idea of, “that’s the way it really happened.” Letting facts dictate your story choices can doom your script.
Things may also not occur in the most naturally dramatic fashion. In the historical piece I was working on, some of the biggest conflicts were resolved via letters. But who wants to watch people writing and reading on screen? The solution was easy – I put the characters in rooms together and had them make their arguments with dialogue. But I had to be willing to ignore the facts.
The other problem with reality is there’s just so dang much of it. Often, with historical pieces in particular, you can research and research and find so much interesting stuff that it would take a ten hour movie to show it all. You’re going to have to figure out what the most important elements are and discard the rest – no matter how cool. Have you heard the phrase “you need to kill your babies”? This is what it means – your favorite stuff may need to go to serve the bigger story.
Then there’s the challenge of finding the truth in the facts. In my historical drama, I struggled with why a significant character behaved the way he did. It defied logic. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an article about an obscure psychological condition that I found my answer. This can happen even in real life – do you always understand why your parents or significant other do things? Of course not.
A few years ago I read an excellent screenplay about a true event. The writer’s father was a crucial player in the event. Ironically that character, the one she presumably knew best, was the most ill defined and cryptic. Sometimes being too close to someone prevents you from really seeing them clearly. And there’s nobody you’re closer to than yourself.
So how do you tease out the underlying story in true events? You have to go big picture and simplify. Start by really delving into what interests you about the story. Why does this incident mean so much to you? Try to summarize it in one sentence. Then summarize the most important parts of the story in one paragraph. Then one page. (It may be easiest to start with the one page version and reduce.)
Now look at what you have. That’s the core of the story you want to tell. Build your outline around that core. Use your one sentence to determine the dramatic question. Figure out your catalyst, resolution and act breaks from the one paragraph. Fit the true events into this structure in a way that supports it – even if it means reordering the chronology or combining characters and events. And leave out the stuff that doesn’t support that core.
Next, look at your characters. If you’re writing about real people, you will have lots of surface detail at your fingertips. Now dig into their psychology. What do they want? What do they unknowingly need? Once you can answer those questions you’ll be a good way toward writing a dramatic version of the real events. It’s almost the opposite approach to developing a fictional character. Keep in mind, you don't actually have to guess their motivation correctly - it just has to plausibly explain their behavior for the purpose of the fictionalized story you're telling.
Sometimes when writing about a personal experience, you have a single incident that had a huge impact on you. But one event does not make a story. I see this problem in student writing a lot. You have to place the event in a larger context. Again, go to your main character. What do they want? What do they need? What’s the internal and external journey that demonstrates how they were changed? If the journey was mostly internal, can you create an external story that reveals it? (See my last post)
As you can see, having a true story doesn’t simplify your job. But if you figure out what moved you about the true events in the first place and then get brutal about cutting what doesn’t support that, you’ll be well on your way to creating a good fictional version of the story.
Not much time left to sign up for my seminar on writing killer screenplay openings at the Writers Store on October 15th. If you're interested, find out all the details here.