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History In Action: Writing the Period Piece Script

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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Writing the historical, or, period script is one of the hardest genres to pull off successfully. It takes an incredible amount of research on the part of the writer to authentically recreate a specific moment in time not to mention characters that inhabit that era. And the hardest part is making a story set in the past resonate with today’s audiences. The trick is getting the reader to connect and care about people and events that have gone before as if they are there, in the past with them. And the key to this all-important trick is approaching any period story with a contemporary storytelling sensibility.

What is a contemporary storytelling sensibility? The best way I can explain it is analyzing your period story for the same ingredients you would bring to a contemporary story. Are the characters unique and compelling? Does the story bring a fresh perspective on a subject that most people are familiar with, even a little bit? And, above all, will the story transcend time and place so that what is occurring on screen feel like it is happening as we watch it.

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Let’s take each story ingredient at a time. Historical characters have always fascinated me because by their nature they are a mixture of fact and embellishment. Legends, famous or infamous are larger than life by definition as are their achievements, adventures or misdeeds mythic. Paradoxically, what roots them in a compelling period story is their humanity. How they were as people, their personal problems, love lives and eccentricities that are not common knowledge, these are the vital signs that bring them back to life for contemporary audiences in a new and unique way than we’ve ever seen them portrayed before. Here are a few examples:

Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens encouraged his younger brother, Henry, to get a job as a steamboat pilot. Henry was killed when the boiler on board his boat exploded. Clemens claimed to have seen his brother's death in a dream before it happened, sparking an interest in parapsychology.

While hunting in Mississippi during his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt and a few of his men treed a small black bear so that he could take the shot. Roosevelt decided that killing the young, trapped bear was not sporting and spared it. A New York toymaker heard the story, and asked Roosevelt's permission before styling a child's stuffed toy bear as the "Teddy Bear." Roosevelt gave his permission, noting that he did not expect many sales.

Cleopatra was the last Queen and the last Pharaoh of Egypt who spoke nine languages and the only Pharaoh who could speak Egyptian. She had four children, one son with Julius Caesar and three children with Mark Antony. But contrary to legend and the movies, Cleopatra was not very beautiful. Coins dating back to her time depict a woman with a hooked nose and masculine features.

These rarely-known, intimate facts might be just the fresh ingredient a screenwriter needs to take a beloved historical character and put them in a new context that audiences will want to see. Which brings me to the next key ingredient: choosing a moment in time that defines the film. Rather than cover a huge span of time, someone’s entire life for instance in two-hours of screen time – pick a critical moment that is historically significant to the character as well as the audience.

Joseph Stalin wrote, “It is not heroes that make history, but history that makes heroes.” This is especially true when writing a period piece. How are famous or infamous people defined by their time in history? Even more specifically, can you isolate what specific moment in their lifetime that defines them? This is the key to the narrative timeline that will lead up to this all-encompassing moment and is known as the point of no return for your character. The moment when your character’s fate is sealed forever (whether they are aware of it in the moment or not) creates a compelling, tension-filled framework for your script that you can work back from and will resonate with today’s audiences.

The most satisfying period scripts are those where the reader feels like the writer has done their homework. When the character’s dialogue is authentic to the period but also sounds spontaneous with tension and drama. When the settings are created to evoke a bygone world filled with enough detail to create an image in the mind’s eye. Ironically, however, what makes a period picture commercially viable in today’s market, whether it’s a TV mini-series or feature movie, is not covering the same old story but finding something new. And that is the key ingredient to any great story whether set in the past, present or future – because a great story told well is, after all, timeless.

Get Jon's webinar, “History In Action: Writing the Period Piece Script