How do you Slice it? Using Theme as a Guide for Screenplays Based on True Stories

Had a great time in Boulder this weekend at the Moondance International Film Festival. It’s always gratifying to meet talented screenwriters who are working on making their stories as compelling as they can be.  During our workshop on Shaping True Story, I once again asked writers to think about the moral or message of their story. It was interesting to see what people came up with. One writer discovered that his story’s theme was that sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not. I’d have to agree with that! The process got me thinking, though, why is it that I’m so stuck on this idea that when you’re writing something based on a true story you need to get clear on the theme first? I mean, why not develop the character first, or hammer out a plotline?

Here’s why: When you are writing from real life, you already have a character and a plot. In fact, you probably have too much of both– you have a whole person and their whole life. What we need is the slice, the angle, the poetic moment found within a frame. The tough part is choosing that frame, that small portion of the truth that you will convey in a dramatic and cinematic screen or teleplay. So, my suggestion is to get clear on why you are telling this story, really spell out the message for yourself, and then use that as a guide to develop a unique main character and storyline which emulates that controlling idea.

Often when we’re writing, the toughest part is knowing which direction to take. With real life, it can be overwhelming.  But if you know your theme, you’ll have a focus and it will give you direction. You’ll know where you want the story to go, and your writing process just might have a lot more flow.

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