“Based on a True Story.” Five very powerful words. But also kind of complicated…
Yet, despite the complications and often polarizing reviews when “true stories” debut, there’s no denying there’s something about a “true” story that’s value-added.
The voyeurism intrinsic to our psychology is essential to engaging with Narrative, and those five words enhance the marketing, anticipation, and audience experience.
Take the decades-long success and spinoffs of Law and Order, which used “ripped from the Headlines” as another way to say “based on a true story.”
Another example of alternative phrasing is from the 2018 film Winchester. The filmmakers used “Inspired by actual events.” I like this. It gives storytellers more leeway than “based on a true story” by evoking Inspiration outright.
And, as anyone knows who’s been involved with telling “true stories” through page, audio, stage, or screen, narrative storytelling barely resembles the truth of its source material.
Admittedly, “truth” is a thorny concept. Human memory’s famous unreliability and self-protective ego mechanisms have necessitated the maxim, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.”
For 30 years I’ve written, acted in, produced, and/or directed nearly thirty plays, one-person shows, screenplays, historical education-entertainment programs, and historical fiction novels “based on a true story.” It’s my passion, and I take the responsibility seriously, so I’ve thought a lot about it.
There are immense challenges with bringing “true stories” to life. Regardless of the source material, we have to follow tried and true narrative rules. Most of us adhere to some form of the 3-Act model and Hero’s Journey.
Therein lies our first mountain to climb: “Real life” rarely holds to these rules.
The following essentials will help.
I learned this from playwright/screenwriter David Mamet. Think about your life. Even if it’s at times more dramatic and filled with tension points than you want, it is probably far from a constant stream of plot points, twists, and obstacles.
Most lives aren’t.
As writers, though, we’re telling a story that averages 120 minutes. So tensions have to be heightened (made more dramatic, with bigger stakes and harder adversaries than might have been true) and events (and the time between them) compressed.
Here’s a metaphor I use with my students: Hold a tube of toothpaste vertically and compress it. The toothpaste will heighten in the sense of rising out of the tube. The more compression, the more dramatic the escape of the toothpaste.
Black Sails is a good example of heightening and compressing, especially when it comes to Blackbeard and other historical characters, although timelines, locations, and even some socio-political aspects were manipulated to heighten and compress.
Staying with maritime themes, I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. He spends a lot of ink explaining his rationale for where he heightened and compressed, though he doesn’t use these terms. It’s an excellent primer for anyone interested in writing Historical Fiction (aka “based on a true story”).
Another example is Steven Soderbergh’s 10-year journey to make Che. Although there was great commitment to authenticity (to which I can attest, having spent 18 months researching and rehearsing a one-man show I’m touring as Che), there are still places—and the screenwriters explain this in various documentaries—where they heightened and compressed, and others where they filled “gaps” in history with educated guesses, chosen in part for narrative strength.
Life, even for the famous, is rarely nonstop and intense all the time. There are lulls in the most adventurous of lives. These lulls can be deadly to narrative drive and tension. More compressing and heightening is needed in order to fill the “gaps.”
Gaps are also the place where the characters are going from where they are to where they want to be.
How much liberty you take with a gap dictates the distance you travel from the source material (and the truth).
Gap-filling is a reward of telling “true stories.” Is there a period in the person’s life that’s unknown (e.g., there are endless “takes” on the 18 years between Jesus’s episode in the temple at 12 and re-emergence at 30, when he gathered his disciples)?
These gaps are the places where I and other writers take the most liberties.
Consider Dan Simmons’s 2017 AMC series The Terror, based on his novel. Simmons is a master of filling the gaps with paranormal elements. His novel Drood is a brilliant take on the last months of Charles Dickens’s life.
Vice, the Adam McKay follow-up to The Big Short, uses highly stylized storytelling in order to fill the gaps in the life of the secretive Dick Cheney.
At times a writer will opt for a “cleaner” version of the truth, such as Peter Morgan did with Ep. 109 of The Crown, when he had Churchill’s wife burn the controversial Graham Sutherland portrait of the PM rather than having a maid hide it. In an episode that centered very much on character (with strong interpretative performances by Stephen Dillane and John Lithgow), it would have been too “busy” to unfold a conspiracy to hide the painting. It’s a minor change with great effect.
Some writers take considerable liberties with the timeline and truth. Oliver Stone’s The Doors, a film that created tensions among the band’s remaining members, exists in the realm of Myth. Rob Roy (with Liam Neeson) also takes big liberties, again elevating the character and the story to Myth.
With The Doors and Rob Roy, it’s important that Jim Morrison and Rob Roy went a long way toward creating their own mythologies. This is a good litmus test for work with historical figures.
This connects with heightening and compressing. Many of our tension points happen day in and day out (disagreements with colleagues, lovers’ spats, the frustrations of commuter traffic) but rarely devolve into blowups and screen-worthy conflicts.
As writers, instead of showing a dozen small arguments, we build early tension moments between characters, followed by a mid-level argument, followed by a major conflict that puts the hero’s goals in jeopardy (“raising the stakes”), which catalyzes Change Moments.
The same goes for skirmishes before a major battle or stops on a speaking tour for a politician. Once we’ve shown some quick, less stakes-oriented examples to establish scale (i.e., importance to the character’s narrative arc), we can move on. And must.
Robert McKee, the celebrated screenwriting teacher, says personality and behavior are revealed through action. In other words, “show, don’t tell.” If you put a person in intense circumstances, their true “character” is revealed. Do they stay and fight? Do they run? Do they commit acts of betrayal? To reveal a person’s true character through action, we need Rivals and Villains to drive and challenge them. The bigger the obstacles created by antagonists, the more the protagonist is forced to dig deep and show who they are. In real life, true Villains are rare. With “true stories,” the writer’s need to make antagonists stereotypical Villains can cause tension with either the person who serves as the model for the Villain or the person’s family.
Art Howe, former manager of the Oakland A’s, was offended by how he was portrayed in Moneyball (by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Olivia de Havilland sued the writers/producers of Feud, about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for lying about what she said and did. The family of the real Commander Denniston, a character in The Imitation Game (Charles Dance), was upset by how he was portrayed. This was the character chosen by the writer to relentlessly threaten and deride Alan Turing. In truth, Denniston did neither.
As two of the best actors in the business—Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell—have said about their portrayals of real people (Truman Capote and Chuck Barris, respectively), they are simply doing an actor’s interpretation of a writer’s interpretation of the person in question.
That’s a brilliant assessment of the storyteller’s craft.
I write and perform Chautauqua pieces based on real people, from several pirates who sailed with Blackbeard, to a Civil War captain who fought with an all-Black regiment, to the iconic “Che” Guevara and poet-activist Allen Ginsberg.
Although extensive research, preferably using first-person documents and video, is central to Chautauqua, what moves audiences is a personal story. This means finding the motivations behind their actions and illuminating their psychological complexities and contradictions. In Chautauqua, the performer answers audience questions for 15 minutes. So there’s an element of improvisation and a need to fill the gaps.
Enter the character arc.
The previous points I’ve addressed contribute to creating circumstances in which our hero can substantially change from start to finish. But this creates a problem: People rarely change in real life to the extent required by narrative storytelling.
What’s a writer to do?
First, look for the big events in the character’s life. You can’t fit them all into a single story, so choose ones with substantial Change Moments. Being elected president, a miscarriage, an arrest, a change in monetary status (from rags to riches and vice versa): These are moments that fuel narrative arcs.
Storytellers also seize opportunities for “redemption” in the arc, meaning the Hero has to make mistakes. Big ones: a hit-and-run or scandal they try to hide, an affair that leads to major familial/public consequences, ordering a charge during a battle that causes thousands of deaths, or ignoring a problem for some political or financial expediency that causes considerable harm. The subsequent Redemption moments also move the Change narrative.
A caveat: Families of subjects for biopics and other historical fiction will often fiercely promote the image of a loved one as flawless and always on the right side of history. This makes telling a compelling story impossible. What they want is a tame, boring documentary. Without specifics, there are many examples of “true story” projects that were in development with A-list actors and directors that were stalled or never made.
It’s something to keep in mind as you look for “true stories” to adapt.
This is important. There’s a modern elitism that has developed in the way people from the past are viewed. “Those horrible, ignorant dolts—we treat people so much [insert positive adjective] now.” That, of course, is debatable.
For the storyteller, there’s no place for this kind of skewed lens. Just tell the story. If you honor the people by filling the gaps with appropriate action and present the facts, dilemmas, mistakes, arcs—all the things in this article—the audience will make their own judgments and, even better, you may evoke empathy, which leads to understanding and becomes a path to our not repeating history while gaining insight into the very human whys of the people involved.
To see how these seven points work in practice, watch A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and The Greatest Showman and then research John Forbes Nash, Alan Turing, and P.T. Barnum, respectively, and then read (or skim) the source material biographies.
Tracking the various iterations is a fascinating process and a way to learn more about writing “based on a true story.”
After 25 years in the theatre as playwright, actor, director, and teacher I have spent the past 5 years putting my focus on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series, writing storylines and designing puzzles for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the lives of Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg. I am the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. I am also the author of three novels, 5 nonfiction books, and 17 produced plays.
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