How do you tell a true story? It’s easy, you don’t tell the literal truth. Instead, you dramatize the facts.
There’s an old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. I’d like to add a corollary to that and state that fiction is more interesting than truth.
The difference between the truth and fiction is that the truth often comes burdened with irrelevant and unnecessary information while fiction can be lean, precise, and focused.
I learned that the first time I got a role as an extra in the 1987 movie, “The Hanoi Hilton,” which was named for the Vietnamese prison where they kept American prisoners of war. Comically, the movie producers claimed that the media tried to suppress the movie and that’s why it did so poorly at the box office. However, the truth is that it did so poorly at the box office because it was simply boring.
Here’s the basic story in a nutshell. The first American gets shot down over Vietnam and gets thrown in the Hanoi Hilton. Now the rest of the movie is all about him waiting for the war to end so he can go home.
Real thrilling, huh? There’s nothing more exciting than watching somebody just sitting around, waiting for time to pass, and that’s the major problem with the truth.
“The Hanoi Hilton” was actually a faithful version of what really happened from a Navy sailor who fell overboard and got washed up on the Vietnamese shore and taken prisoner to the outright lies the prisoners told their captors, who thought they were getting valuable military information when they were just getting fabrications that the pilots made up from World War Two.
Because the movie tried so hard to present what really happened, the entire movie lacks any direction and story. The main character does nothing but wait and observe. He doesn’t try to escape, he doesn’t try to rebel, he doesn’t do much of anything. Instead of telling a compelling story, the movie just parades empty, unrelated facts in front of us and expects the truth to grip our attention when it just bores us with its irrelevancy.
Compare this with any work of fiction such as “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Up,” or “The Dark Knight.” These movies are interesting because they present us with a likable character with a problem, and we’re gripped to find out how this character solves that problem.
We don’t care whether the problem may be true or not. What we do care about is seeing a good story, and a good story rarely follows the vague meanderings of real life.
So if you’re telling a story based on fact, you have to dramatize it. Cut characters, condense story lines, alter facts. In “A Beautiful Mind,” a genius starts suffering from delusions. In real life, this genius was married and divorced, but this information has no relevance to the story of trying to deal with his delusions, so the screenwriter wisely ignored his first marriage.
That’s what you must do when writing your screenplay. Cut away any extraneous material. If it doesn’t support your story, get rid of it. We’ve all seen movies that just seem to throw multiple characters and events at you without resolving any of them, and that makes for a frustrating and boring movie. With so many loose ends, the story feels incomplete and pointless. That’s why such stories wind up unsatisfying and ultimately ignored. Think of most bad sequels to good movies and you’ll see the same problems time and time again.
Rather than focus on telling a story, too many sequels focus on quantity over quality, bombarding us with so many characters and events that none of it works towards a coherent whole.
In great stories, every element works to tell the same story from multiple perspectives. In poor stories, every element is separate from the rest of the movie. You don’t want to write a screenplay that leaves readers dangling. You want to write a great story and that means making sure every element of your screenplay remains focused.
The truth can be a starting point for your story, but don’t let it dictate your story. Facts are building blocks. It’s up to you to provide the mortar that holds it all together, and you do that by telling an interesting and compelling story.