Tips for Adapting True Stories into Screenplays


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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting

Last weekend at the Connecting Writers With Hollywood conference in Seattle I gave a presentation focused on adapting novels to screenplays (and using many Save the Cat principles to do so). After the session, one writer asked if the same rules and tools apply to adapting true stories into screenplays. Good question!

And I know she’s not the only one asking it (I have several clients writing and/or producing projects that are based on true events). So today I thought I’d share with you some tips and challenges specific to adapting true stories.

How are adapting true stories and novels similar?

There is some overlap, of course, between adapting novels and adapting true events – or anything else — into movies. If you’re adapting to the same final form, then the overall goal is the same: to shape the existing material into the kind of story we want in a movie.

So, much of the process will be the same, at least in the broad strokes. You’ll need to start from the ground up: identify the foundation, the throughline, the major plot points. Find the spine and then build the story by picking and choosing from what you have to work with in the source material.

Unique challenges of adapting true stories to movies

But there are some specific challenges writers run into when writing screenplays about true events or people.

If you’ve ever attempted it, you know one of the biggies is that real life doesn’t play out like a movie. In the true events you’re dealing with there may be a lot of extraneous details, characters, and events that aren’t vital to telling the one clear, focused story your movie will showcase. Even more than with a novel, working with true events can be a process of excavation.

Plot the story you want to tell

With true stories, it also may not be at all apparent how to structure the story. For example, if the inspiration for your project is one particular true event then you’ll have to make some choices. Is the movie about what leads up to that event? Or is the movie about the aftermath? Or does that event fall somewhere else in the timeline of the movie?

Every true event can give rise to many different stories. Part of the challenge (and fun) of working with true stories is figuring out which story you want to tell, and whether that makes for the most compelling, viable movie. (And sometimes you have to figure out which of those considerations is most important to you.)

Find the character whose story you want to tell

And if it is an event that sparked your interest, then who is the protagonist of the story? Sometimes deciding on the main character you’ll tell the story through is the biggest challenge.

Explore your options by asking who has the most agency in the situation, who takes action and affects the outcome. Who is the most invested in the outcome, who has the most to lose.

And what’s so great about that guy?

On the other hand, if it’s a historical figure who sparked the idea for the project, then one of the challenges might be deciding which part of their life to craft the movie around. Is it a cradle-to-grave biopic? That’s a tough one to pull off, since most people’s lives don’t have one clear throughline from beginning to end. Movies that attempt to tell the story of one person’s entire life often feel episodic because they’re made up of a series of unrelated conflicts.

A better strategy can be to find the one conflict that causes the meaningful transformation you want to showcase. When did they become the person who inspires or interests you, or the icon we all recognize? What period of time or series of events caused that growth or change? What defining experience is the story about?

Tips for adapting real events into screenplays

As with any adaptation, the trick is to find balance. You want to honor the spirit of the source material and what drew you to it in the first place. But you also need to tell the story in a way that will engage and entertain the audience. That’s where those “rules” of screenwriting come in, as the craft considerations we talk about are all aimed at telling a story that’s compelling to an audience. If that’s not your goal, then you can write whatever you like.

As you find the balance between the truth and the story you’re telling:

  • Be prepared to be unfaithful. (Remember, you are adapting.)
  • Figure out the story you want to tell; be faithful to that.
  • Be willing to create new actions, events, characters, and traits for those characters.

And though he wasn’t specifically addressing adaptations, there’s a line from Robert McKee’s book Story that applies well:

Structure is a selection of events from the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.

If you’re adapting true stories, that sums up the job: select the events and strategically arrange them to tell the story you want to tell.


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