Written by Ali Laventhol
Hollywood has always loved a true story, and the desire to make scripted features and tv/streaming series based on real people and events only continues to grow.
Whether you’re writing a thriller like THE GOOD NURSE, an inspiring drama like HIDDEN FIGURES or a biopic limited series like THE DROPOUT, the fact that your story really happened adds a level of authenticity and intrigue that studio executives, agents, managers, producers and audiences will be drawn to.
However, just because you’re working with a timeline of events from real life, you can’t assume your story will be delivered to you on a silver platter. As the writer there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure your narrative will be a compelling one. Here are some tips for adapting true stories
your main character is whomever is most active
Let’s say you’re writing about a scandal as opposed to a person, like the sexual harassment lawsuits against Roger Ailes at FOX (BOMBSHELL) or the Harvey Weinstein investigation and take down (SHE SAID).
Your first task is to identify a main character that an audience will naturally invest in and want to follow through the story. It can be tempting to choose the character whom we feel the most for – in the above cases, that might be the victims – but it’s very important to ask yourself who is most active. Who drives the story forward?
When Tawnya and I were hired to write TORN FROM HER ARMS, the true story of an El Salvadoran mother and her 6-year-old daughter separated at the US Border there were three strong women at the center of the harrowing situation: the mother desperate to find her daughter, the immigration lawyer working in a broken system to reunite them, and the journalist who broke the story wide open. While we included scenes from the POV of all three women, we had to ask ourselves who had the strongest goal and who was able to take the most direct action. The mother was stuck in a jail cell so she couldn’t be our main character even though she was the one we empathized with most. And while the journalist was helpful in spreading the word, it was really the immigration lawyer whose goal was the heart of the movie – to reunite mother and child. Therefore, she became our main character.
find the emotional core
The beginning of season six of Netflix’s THE CROWN chronicles Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in their last days. This is a tragic story that most of the world is already familiar with, and yet all these years later it still makes for a gripping scripted drama. But it’s not necessarily the beloved princess’ persona or the lavish royal lifestyle that makes it so intoxicating.
As the story unfolds, we’re taken into the emotionally gutting core of the relationship between Dodi and his father. The manipulation and pressure leaves Dodi painfully desperate for paternal love and approval and that is what the series suggests pushed Dodi into a far-too-soon marriage proposal. This of course led him to make the fateful stop in Paris with Diana instead of returning to London as planned. Remember, without emotional intensity you’re left with facts, timelines and events and you may as well be making a documentary.
don’t be afraid to fictionalize
There will be legal requirements in terms of whether your script is tagged as “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” and that may determine how much you can fictionalize. But for now, let’s set the legal considerations aside.
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” is a good mantra while adapting. Your job is to create an engaging, well-structured, well-plotted, thematic tale with characters who are undeniably interesting and evolve and transform. As we all know, that isn’t necessarily how life happens. Therefore, you will need to take some creative liberties. To end up with a story that works often means inventing or amplifying plot points or compressing lots of information or characters to fit the format you’re working with. In BOMBSHELL for example, the story is based on the accounts of real women Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, but Margot Robbie’s character Kayla is not a real person. Instead, she’s an amalgamation of several women the filmmakers spoke to who had all been victimized at Fox. This often can help make a character more interesting because character traits from several people combined into one will give that character layers.
dynamic relationships are your friend
Imagine telling Johnny Cash’s story in WALK THE LINE without focusing on his relationship with June Carter, or Elizabeth Holmes’ story in THE DROPOUT without her relationship with Sunny Balwani or HUSTLERS without the relationship between Destiny and Ramona.
Just like any other story, the dynamic relationship between your main character and a catalyst character when adapting a true story should be the central spine that holds your Main Character’s arc in place. If you’re writing a biopic, identify the primary relationship and let the most emotional turns in your story coincide with the turns that relationship takes.
There may be several important relationships in your main character’s life but choosing to bring one to the forefront will help you find your story. In fact, the dynamic relationship is so important, it’s why it makes so much sense that some biopics are about the relationship itself, like BEING THE RICARDOS or Ryan Murphy’s docudrama FEUD, about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
avoid cradle to grave storytelling
It’s tempting to want to do someone’s life justice by covering their entire existence, from birth to death. But when you’re forced to be efficient in a two-hour movie or a six or eight hour limited series, it’s impossible to cover everything unless you really gloss over the good stuff.
Notice how the recent film OPPENHEIMER didn’t spend the first act in the scientist’s childhood telling us about his upbringing, nor did KING RICHARD show us the young man’s life before Venus and Serena were born. Try to identify the most critical years in your Protagonist’s life and build the narrative framework around that time.
A film like WALK THE LINE does briefly touch back into Johnny Cash’s childhood to depict his core wound, because it’s so integral to present day Johnny’s journey. However, the time spent with Young Johnny is very brief.
Our last tip is a reminder to dive deeply into research. The more you know, the more authenticity you’ll be able to bring to the page.
If your story is based on someone’s life, obviously you’ll want to read about them, talk to them if possible, watch footage, listen to podcasts. If they’re no longer alive, see if you can talk to people who knew them or read about people who interacted with them. Get all the different perspectives. Read everything you can get your hands on. You never know how a little detail you find in an obscure article somewhere might become a treasure for your story.
In the recent feature AIR about the origin of Air Jordans, the basketball shoe that put Nike on the map, director Ben Affleck admits that some of the real-life characters depicted in the movie had differing accounts of the how the signing of Michael Jordan actually went down. By researching the various recollections, Affleck was provided a bit more creative freedom and talked about how that allowed him to pursue what was “essentially true” instead of being rigidly factual.
So, even though researching is about accumulating information, sometimes it can actually facilitate the creative license you need to create a great story.
If you’re writing a true story for a studio, keep track of your sources because it’s very likely you’ll have to turn in an annotated draft to the legal department in which you’ll be required to footnote every scene with your sources and highlight what exactly is fact or fiction in said scene.
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.