There is no denying the appeal of a true story. Just adding the words “based on,” or even “inspired by,” to your cover page can up our interest. Whether you’re writing a story drawn from your own experiences, or telling someone else’s tale, the true story is filled with both great potential and enormous pitfalls.
I love a good true story, so I’m well aware of the both the appeal and the challenges. As a producer, I’ve set up and packaged numerous projects based on articles, books and pitches, and worked with writers to develop them. And as a consultant, I’ve helped many clients navigate the trials and tribulations of writing based on real life.
Don’t “Write What You Know”
"Write what you know" might be the most misleading and misinterpreted advice ever.
Many writers choose a highly personal true story for their first script. While your life experiences might possibly be movie-worthy, that very factor is likely to make the writing, and especially the rewriting, a challenge. It’s fine for your early work to spring from your life experiences, but it’s likely to be painful.
It’s hard to be objective and to maintain perspective. “Killing your darlings” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re hacking away at your own life. It’s all too easy to get stuck in “the way it REALLY happened,” but the way it really happened very often isn’t the best choice dramatically.
The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.
Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting
There is a crucial difference between a script based on your personal life, and a story that is sparked by the knowledge gained from your experiences. In other words, what it felt like. That’s where we get to universal, emotional truths.
Rather than the old adage, I prefer:
Write where you know.
Drawing on emotions derived from your past, rather than specific situations, brings an authenticity to your script. Using your visceral experiences enables you to tap into potent emotions that will engage readers and connect with audiences.
Think about the experiences that have shaped your perspective on the world. They helped define what you believe is important and meaningful about life. What truly moves you has the power to move others.
What about the human condition fascinates you? What you find captivating is likely to intrigue audiences as well.
Step back from what you know. Think about your experience as enabling you to paint the characters and conflicts. Your real experience is the frame, not the work of art inside.
Be inspired by your personal passions. They will fuel your stories and be a key to their success.
In the Screenwriting Elevated Online Seminar, I ask my A-List Guest Speakers just one question before we move on to Q & A: “What themes are you drawn to, again and again, in your writing?”
Of my dozens of speakers so far, not one has hesitated in their reply. Each knew exactly what fascinates them about life and being human, since they tap into it to drive their work.
Write what you believe.
Check out their answers here. They are articulate, insightful, and thought-provoking.
We Hold These Truths
Real life is abundant in our real lives. In movies, we’re looking for a representation of truth – a point of view that gives us a perspective on what really matters in life.
True stories face an added difficulty from the outset: People simply fail to live their lives in a tidy, three-act structure.
- Consider narrowing the timeframe and consolidating characters. Telling the “whole story” can detract from the most compelling focus and dilute the message.
- Take liberties with the timeline to build tension rather than sticking to the order in which events unfolded.
- True stories are inherently episodic. Find the most compelling elements and craft them into a solid through line.
- What does the story build to? Knowing the climax helps define the events that happen along the way.
- Know your theme, and hone in on scenes that support the character arc, which illustrates this message. Identifying the arc helps pinpoint the structure.
Allow Yourself To Let Go
The inherent challenge in telling true stories is being open to departing from fact and fictionalizing.
It is difficult, especially if you’ve done extensive research, but that must come second to the needs of an effective dramatic narrative.
An attempt to cram it all in is more likely overwhelm your reader with detail rather than impress them with your knowledge as to the minutia of the time and place. The significance is more important. By all means, learn all you can about your protagonist’s life before the story begins, but then allow them to become a character, where a few key elements reveal what is essential to know about them at the outset.
Fictionalizing can be accomplished while being faithful to what really happened, but loosening your hold, or completely letting go of some of the facts.
The Truth, But Not The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth
When I was President of Debra Hill Productions, we found ourselves having set up so many projects based on famous historical figures – including Clarence Darrow, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein – that I joked we should start calling ourselves “The Dead Smart Guys Company.”
These stories about dissimilar men from different eras had some things in common:
1) They delved into a lesser-known or unknown aspect of their lives, delivering something new and unexpected.
2) They focused on a defining moment – a transformational point in their lives that illuminated the individual. For two of the men, it changed the course of their career and led them to what they remain famous for.
3) Each revolved around a key relationship in their lives, making for solid, character-driven conflict.
Never did we consider telling their entire life stories. Search for the moment that reveals the most about the individual. The untold tale that shaped them, or that shows them in an entirely new light.
The Grain of Sand
Real life makes for a fantastic jumping off point, but is seldom as engrossing as a cinematic story. The key is to find the utterly fascinating aspect first. It’s like the grain of sand in the oyster that the pearl forms around. You may have to dig for it, but once you find that nugget, you have a place to begin and can build from there.
When I was able to identify the grain of sand in a nonfiction book that became a passion project, the pearl followed quickly.
One incredible, cinematic moment that was visual and visceral, and encapsulated and illustrated the core idea. I could literally see it. The whole movie fell into place.
I knew the tone. I understood the heart of the character conflict. I knew the A-List actor who would be perfect for the part. This enabled me to pitch the project persuasively. That actor did sign on to star and produce. A-List writers came on board. Honestly, in my gut I knew that short scene would be the clip they would play at the Oscars because it was a riveting performance moment that spoke volumes about the story.
ProTip: When researching a famous figure, I head straight to the Children’s Department of the library. Why? Because in writing for a young audience, authors know they must keep it interesting. There you find the fun facts fast. Such as Charles Darwin almost didn’t make it aboard the Beagle because of the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, believed in the now debunked pseudoscience of phrenology, the study of the head and facial features as an indication of character, personality, and abilities. The shape of Darwin’s nose almost ended the Theory of Evolution.
Getting The Rights Right Away
As I wrote about in my column, “In Good We Trust – But Get It In Writing,” securing a written agreement is crucial. Find practical pointers and useful resources here.
I'm not an attorney, although I've been fortunate to work with several brilliant and talented ones, but I am confident in saying that if you do not have a rights agreement STOP. Do not pass GO.
Do not type “Fade In,” until you have a written agreement for a life story, book, article, or whatever the underlying material may be or all your hard work may be for naught.
I don’t care if it’s the story of your best friend since childhood, your twin, or your writing partner, get a written agreement and get all parties to sign. In fact, if it is the story of your best friend since childhood, your twin, or your writing partner, getting it in writing actually takes on an added level of importance. Differing perspectives, interpretations, or expectations, are the quick and painful path toward irrevocably destroying a personal relationship.
Failing to get an agreement in writing can kill your project when you go to set it up. The lack of a clean “chain of title,” meaning being able to represent that you have the rights to the material, will scare off any prospective attachment that could advance your project, such as a producer, director, or actor, and promptly implode negotiations with prospective buyers.
It is well worth hiring a reputable and experienced entertainment attorney, someone who knows and appreciates the seemingly nuanced but impactful difference between “good faith” and “best efforts” when it comes to your obligations to the rights owner. Ask other writers and industry connections for a referral – they will likely be happy to provide one.
If you cannot afford an entertainment attorney, do an online search for “life rights agreement template,” educate yourself, and then modify the template to suit your project. At a minimum, a simple letter agreement laying out the basic terms of an Option Agreement, dated and signed by all parties, can be effective, if it covers the following points:
- Names and defines the roles of the participants, i.e., “Purchaser” and “Owner.”
- Defines the project as a “Property” and what material that includes.
- The Owner attests that the rights are theirs to give and have not been granted to anyone else.
- Expresses what rights are being granted and any excluded.
- Specifies an Option price to be paid by the Purchaser.
- Lists what is being granted to the Purchaser, i.e., the right to shop the Property.
- Credits to be negotiated with a Third Party for the Owner, e.g. “Based on the life of “Owner.”
- Stipulates the commencement and duration of the Option Agreement.
- Potentially, and hopefully, provides for an Extension of the Initial Option Period.
Get the rights before you begin – not midway, and definitely not after you’ve done all that writing. The longer you wait, the more precarious the situation.
After a free logline consultation, a client came to me with her passion project, a biopic based on a fascinating individual with a powerful story who she has a long and close professional relationship with. He had cooperated extensively, providing material and interviews.
Early in the process, I asked: “What about the rights?” Instead of something on paper, she had “a good relationship.” I immediately sent her some samples of Life Rights Agreements and urged her to modify them to meet her needs and get it signed, if she could not afford a lawyer.
A year later, she had a solid logline, a lean and effective query letter, as well as a strengthened script, when she discovered she had a connection to a production company that was potentially a perfect home for the project. As we developed a packet to submit, I discovered that a non-entertainment attorney had drawn up an agreement that was never signed! My reply was fairly direct: “GET SOMETHING IN WRITING AND SIGNED.”
When she went back at this juncture, the person wanted to have approval – essentially veto power – over any interested party before the writer could proceed!
This is the exact situation you want to avoid. He had her over a barrel. She was able to get another non-entertainment attorney to step in as a favor. She sent the agreement to me, triumphant. This lawyer got the essentials down, and avoided the veto power, but made a glaring error. The duration of the Initial Option Period was stated as 18-months with a 12-month Extension, and then reversed later in the single page document. This switch is not in the writer’s favor, and had been signed by all parties. As soon as I read it, I had to let her know. And to resist saying, “Did anyone actually read this simple letter agreement before signing it?”
An experienced entertainment attorney is worth their weight in gold.
ProTip: In every agreement I ever negotiated, I realized that there was something that was meaningful to the person I was negotiating with. In the case of life rights, it may be a “based on” credit or being a consultant on the project, or airfare and hotel to attend the premiere. Figure out what that is and negotiations will go more smoothly. In fact, your respect for what matters to them might be more important than the amount of money you offer for the option.
Tell Me Why
As with all good stories, there must be a compelling reason to tell a true story.
Period pieces should have contemporary relevance.
I had a project set in the mid-1940s and, as the producer, the first thing I established at the beginning of a studio pitch meeting with the A-List writers was how this story related to our lives in the present. Being able to articulate this showed the significance of the project, underscored the message, and helped potential buyers immediately grasp why today's audiences would be engaged.
Show us a something new.
Many historical periods have been heavily portrayed in films. For instance, there have been countless WWII stories. Bring us into a familiar world in a new way. Show us a fresh and different point of view, or illuminate something we did not know. Have a fresh spin and we will be intrigued.
Give us tangible impact.
When telling the life of an individual, look for the moment of great change. Our Clarence Darrow project, with Ron Howard attached to direct, was set at what Darrow believed was the end of his career, but was actually before all the big trials he is known for. Change is the top way to illustrate arc and underscore meaning. With an individual who sparked change, hit us with how the world was different because of their actions.
Connect with us emotionally.
Why did he respond to the story when he didn’t like country music?
Adapted from Lynn’s autobiography by Thomas Rickman and directed by Michael Apted, the movie was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sissy Spacek won the Oscar for Best Actress. It was the 7th highest grossing film of 1980 – a critical and box office success.
Audiences connected to Coal Miner’s Daughter because the story epitomizes the timeless “rags to riches” trope that taps into the primal appeal of overcoming obstacles on the road to success. This universal appeal speaks to everyone who has struggled and invigorates all of us who dare to dream. The feel-good ending never fails to make us leave the theatre uplifted.
The Closing Scrawl
Does your story need a closing scrawl to wrap up loose ends or underscore the ramifications? If so, make this coda lean and focused. The great ones reveal something new or unanticipated and knock you over with their impact. Sometimes even a single fact will underscore that the story we have just read or seen is real. Or choose a statistic that resonates far more deeply now that we know the story.
One of the most exciting closing scrawls I’ve read revealed a few facts that hit you with the astonishing realization that what seemed to be fiction was actually a true story. A historical footnote made into a riveting film. BOOM!
As ever, less is more.
When I was President of Debra Hill Productions, screenwriter Tatiana Blackington shrewdly noticed a seemingly minor New York Times article “Love Letters by Einstein at Auction.” It was about a Sotheby’s auction featuring nine love letters written by Albert Einstein to a beautiful Russian woman spy during The Cold War, revealing their passionate love affair and an unseen side of the famous physicist.
We set up the project, Einstein In Love, at HBO in 48 hours.
Margarita Konenkova was sent to the US under the guise of accompanying her husband, a noted Russian sculptor, who had been commissioned to do a bust of Einstein. This gave her plenty of time to spend with the creator of the world’s most famous equation, who the Russians believed would lead them to secrets about the atomic bomb. Einstein knew little about the Manhattan Project, but the two fell deeply in love, only for her to be recalled to the USSR.
While our project did not get made at HBO, if there were to be a closing scrawl, it might say:
The bust of Einstein can be found at Princeton to this day.
Truth Be Told
I will always have a place in my heart for a great true story, no matter the challenges. They can offer gripping stories that show us something about our past that applies to our present. They can keep us on the edge of our seats, even if we know the outcome. The Titanic will sink. Apollo 13 lands safely. Mark Zuckerberg creates a global social network. Reality can be riveting when woven into a compelling story.
Discover what fascinates you in true stories, and you can captivate an audience.