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Take Two: Writing a Screenplay Based on a True Story

Adapting a true story requires research, honesty, and sometimes, a little bending of the truth. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips on writing a screenplay based on a true story and the importance of finding the balance between fact and fiction.
Adapting a true story requires research, honesty, and sometimes, a little bending of the truth. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares tips on writing a screenplay based on a true story and the importance of finding the balance between fact and fiction.

In theory, adapting a true story should be simple. The writer documents a real-life event, and voila! You have a fascinating story. Not so fast, Grasshopper.

“Write what you know” may be the number one piece of advice writers receive when launching into their first project, but when I did just that, I quickly realized I didn’t know squat. Turns out, “what I know” wasn’t cinematic at all; it was self-indulgent.

Solution: Get a therapist. Talk to them about “what you know,” so you can let your creativity loose and write better stories.

The problem with writing “what we know” is that it’s hard not to protect the protagonist whom we identify with. When the feedback comes rolling in and screams, “She’s boring; I don’t understand her motivations; I don’t like her,” our instinct is to shoot the messenger when we should be thanking them. Some writers interpret “Your protagonist is boring” as “You are boring.”

When you write a personal story, tackle it like you would any other story—outline plot points and character development. Try to remove yourself from the equation and think of your characters as their own unique individuals.

Beyond writing “what we know,” too many writers put pen to paper and write about whom they know, which usually involves a grandparent.

Newsflash: No one cares about your grandpa.

I admit, even I have a rough outline of my own Grandpa Story in my files. My Sicilian, dark-haired, baby-blue smoldering-eyed grandfather had connections with Mussolini, won the Irish Sweepstakes, squandered all his money on a Spanish countess—who subsequently dumped him, so he fled to America, tail between his legs, while under the watchful eyes of the FBI. Sure, on the surface that may sound intriguing, but until I can write it without filters, without worrying about what other family members would feel, without the instinct to protect him because his blood pulses through my veins, I won’t write it.

Because no one cares about my grandpa, either.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of grim news, but most of our lives just aren’t interesting enough to engage a reader for 400 pages of a novel or 110 pages of a screenplay.

That leaves us with the task of writing what we don’t know. Gulp.

Let’s take Slavery by Another Name as an example—my screenplay adaptation of the Pulitzer-prize-winning book that exposes the continued slavery of African Americans post Civil War, in the form of prison leasing. What does a white woman raised in the New York state countryside by middle-class, educated parents know about being African American in 1903, or even being a white, prejudiced Southerner living in that world?

Not so much.

Yet, I was drawn to the story in a way I didn’t initially understand until I was deep into writing the adaptation.

[Pursuit of the Project - Going After the Project of Your Dreams]

To write a world you have never experienced, find the nuggets readers can relate to, and you’ll bring authenticity to your story. Unravel and stay focused on the essence of the story: Who are these people and why do their stories matter?

While crafting the plantation scenes, I felt surprisingly comfortable and had to analyze what feelings these scenes were evoking in me, and why I related to them. I couldn’t relate to the brutality of them, but there was something about the emotions of those men and women who were enslaved that resonated with me.

As I kept writing, the story evoked unexpected emotions. Then it finally hit me: While I am not African American and have never been a slave, I could relate to these people simply because I could imagine what it felt like to be trapped and to have no control over my life. Since I couldn’t use personal knowledge, I used those familiar feelings to fuel the story.

Now, for the pink elephant in the room: How does a white writer tackle a black story? That’s a tough one, and deserves more space for an in-depth discussion than allowed on these pages. However, in an effort to create diverse stories, it’s important for us to explore that question with honesty.

If you choose to undertake a story outside of your race, class, gender, or sexuality, you must research, research, research. Interview people who live in those worlds or ask them to be beta readers. Respect their viewpoints and life experience, mindfully bringing their advice to your pages and characters. If you can't find beta readers, hire a sensitivity reader. Do not guess. Ever. Learn their world and put a Herculean effort into understanding their unique perspectives.

In screenwriting, writing partners are common. Consider bringing another writer or creative into the project who does have that perspective to add more authenticity to your work, as well as credibility. It's about the project; it's not about you. Always, always do what is best for the project.

Beyond interviews, look in the Library of Congress. Sometimes you can even find personal letters. What better way to understand someone’s journey than to read their personal writings?

As a writer, and a human, know you have an enormous responsibility to the truth and to portray those worlds with authenticity and care.

[Based On A True Story: 4 Advantages to Fictionalizing the Truth]

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. “What I know” is, I found writing a story outside the context of my life challenging and inspiring. I uncovered something I could relate to and bled on the page, not in a literal way, but in a thoughtful way, with great care. The weight on my shoulders to bring these deceased victims’ stories to life was suffocating at times. But if we aren’t challenging ourselves and pushing boundaries, what’s the point of being an artist?

When I polled other writers about writing “what they know,” one expressed it perfectly: “I try to write the emotions I know, in the situations I don’t.” You might want to copy that one down.

In pondering your writing projects, that’s exactly what you should strive to do—use your emotions, more than the “facts” of your life, to craft a story. After all, your main goal is to move people with your words. If we can find an emotional connection to the story, then one hopes we can find it for our readers.

For all who are writing scripts based on true stories, try giving yourself permission to stretch the truth and let your imagination and emotional core take over. Don’t stay married to the facts. Sometimes facts are boring. Instead take those facts and ask, “What do I suspect this person was feeling at the time this happened to them?” Or explore what you were feeling if it was a true event in your own life.

Whether based on a real event or fiction, all stories start with characters. Since you may have no idea what these real-life figures felt and an interview may be impossible, you must create personalities where you have no concrete evidence of what made these people tick. Determine their wounds and character traits by the actions they took in their lives and ask, What would make someone do that? It’s backward character development. It works well when adapting nonfiction—which is exactly what a story about “what you know” often is.

Go ahead and take the advice to write “what you know,” but sprinkle in a little of what you don’t know, too. Writing with empathy, compassion, and unbridled creativity creates the most compelling stories, even if you don’t know squat. 

For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman on WD and on Script.

Learn more tips in Script University's online course, How to Write Based on a True Story

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