I read a lot of scripts that are “true stories” or “based on” true stories; stories that are really appealing curiosity empathy-wise. Personally, I’m a big fan of documentaries and I find that these, and TV/film “based on” true stories, are always fascinating and very engaging.
True stories are a great source of drama – what’s more dramatic than something that someone actually went through, right? Amanda Duke, a great UK writer of biopics, said in my interview with her that films based on true stories “continue to feel both fresh and substantial”.
However, no matter how dramatic a true story is and how traumatic the subject, it’s not always easy to transfer this into a script. It may seem easy to just relay everything that happened in real life, and it will be dramatic in a certain way; particularly emotionally for the characters. But is it enough?
As much as it may feel wrong or annoying to have true events tampered with, “lies”; i.e. slight changes to the story, reordering or even big changes like adding a fictional character, are sometimes necessary for the benefit of the dramatic structure.
Think Titanic, whose success was in no doubt mostly due to the fact that the love story between the protagonists anchored (‘scuse the pun) the story, adding a powerful dramatic structure to what was otherwise a simple retelling of a real-life nautical disaster which, although dramatic in itself, wouldn’t have resonated with the audience as much without these characters and their connection.
Amanda said: “Bottom line though, at a certain point (normally somewhere between first and second draft) I detach from the real individual and start focussing on the character, and how best to serve the story. It’s a difficult wrench but vital in creating a dramatic story”.
The problem with being too true to real-life stories is that you end up with less of a story and more of a factual timeline. This can have the unfortunate effect of making the storytelling too rigid and “flat”; that is to say that there is less of a “driven” development. Scenes begin to feel like tick-boxes in the life of the character.
As Amanda illustrates, the only way to get past this initial obstacle is to detach yourself from the “real” story and to instead focus on the characters and the story as entities in their own right. Really think about what each scene and character really adds to the narration.
If a scene or a character serves no purpose towards dramatic development or the theme, then are they really needed? It’s a tough call to make, but what you must remember is that what you are creating isn’t a reference article or a diary but a story in itself which must entertain a viewer and tap into their emotions in a way that will pack a punch and relay the themes in the best way possible.
Recently, I’ve been watching the 2005 TV series “1 Litre of Tears”, inspired by the published diary of a real-life Japanese girl who suffered and eventually passed away due to an incurable degenerative disease.
Most of the characters and events are real but, as with many successful adaptations from real life, creative license is taken; notably with the addition of an entirely fictional character Haruto Asō, who plays Aya’s love interest.
You might find yourself wondering why the need to add a love interest. Isn’t Aya’s story complicated and dramatic enough? Isn’t the emotional stress experienced by Aya and by family and friends enough? However, it’s not a simple case of the true story not being “enough”.
Haruto’s character brings a new perspective to the story that can’t be achieved through family or friends. Bringing “love” into the equation opens up the story to examine the wider issues of situations such as Aya’s, whilst also moulding the story into a more accessible drama that teens and adults can further relate to.
Haruto’s character has a story of his own: overcoming the death of his brother and overcoming his nonchalance towards life and death. Ultimately, Aya changes his perspective and his love for her drives him to become a doctor like his father; something he was dead set against before.
Some of the most heart-wrenching scenes involve these two protagonists as they struggle to accept happiness in the face of Aya’s condition, how they each keep the other going and how they choose to deal with their situations. The personal stories of, and the drama surrounding, family and school life are also very dramatic and fulfilling, but I honestly think that the choice to introduce Haruto was a very clever one that really enriched the story further.
I highly recommend this series. It’s very sad, but is both heartwarming and heartwrenching. It sensitively portrays Aya’s life; we see the good times and the bad times, but what shines through most strongly is the impact Aya had on those around her and the help and inspiration for others that Aya provided through her fighting, positive spirit and her writings.
THAT is truth.
So remember that when writing a story based on true life, whilst it is fine to pour over the facts for research, the real test will be in detaching yourself from the truth and – in a way – telling lies in order to serve the dramatic development of your script. Don’t feel bad if the truth isn’t enough to relay the themes and the messages you intend…
Bending the truth for impact is often necessary in order for the truth to RESONATE.
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