Reality is boring. That’s why reality TV shows often fake the drama by showing you only the most dramatic moments or having people pretend to be outraged when they really aren’t. The more intense the emotional outbursts, the more compelling the reality TV. TV shows have to fake reality because reality is boring. If you’re writing a story based on real life, you’ll probably have to modify the facts to make the story more compelling. That’s why you often see movies claim they were inspired by a true story because if they reported the actual true story, it would be boring. Some of the biggest problems with true stories are:
- No emotional change in the hero
- No strong villain fighting against the hero
- No strong theme
That doesn’t mean that a true story can’t be interesting. It’s just that if you stay too close to the facts, your story will appear more like a documentary than an actual story. “Everest” is based on a true story where the villain is the mountain itself. Yet because it’s based on a true story, it tries to cover all the major characters involved, which means it doesn’t cover any of them very well. As a result, what happens to any of the characters doesn’t feel important because there are too many heroes.
In most stories, there’s only one hero with lots of supporting characters with stories of their own. In “Die Hard,” John McClane is the hero but his supporting cast include his wife, the black police officer, and his limousine driver. All of them have stories of their own that mirrors the hero’s story.
Now look at “Everest” where the two main characters are a doctor who managed to survive the cold and stagger back to camp after being left for dead, and the guide who gets stranded on the mountain when the storm hits. Unlike a good fiction story, neither one of these characters has similar goals that follow a similar theme. This essentially tells two different stories, which makes for a confusing and less satisfying ending.
“The 33” also suffers from too many characters. “The 33” is about the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped in a cave-in. With so many characters, it’s hard to identify with any of them. Then they all have different stories so the movie is like watching multiple stories at once. The end result is a lack of focus and a lack of emotional impact. The movie itself is well done and true to the facts, but that’s the problem. It’s hard to cheer any particular person when you have 33 different people to root for.
Movies based on real events succeed when they focus on a single character. In “Wild,” the hero is a woman hiking alone so the focus of the story is always on her. In “127 Hours” the hero is a man trapped in a cavern, so the focus of the story is always on him. In “The Walk,” the hero is a man determined to walk across a tightrope between the World Trade towers, so everything revolves around his goal.
True stories are most successful when they focus on a single character. When they need to cover multiple characters like “The 33” or “Everest,” the focus gets diluted between too many characters, so the story becomes hazier and less focused, which means it becomes less emotionally engaging. When stories focus on a single character trying to achieve a clearly defined goal, then the story becomes much sharper and far more emotionally interesting.
If you’re going to write a screenplay based on a true story, find a true story where you can focus on a single character. If you have to focus on multiple characters, be careful because now you risk trying to tell multiple stories that aren’t similar or related in anyway.
True stories may be amazing, but they won’t work unless you tell a compelling story based on actual events as well.