Archive for September, 2012

Writing Real Life: Changing the Characters’ Names

September 19, 2012

The other day I found a hundred pages I’d forgotten I even wrote. It’s from a while ago, of course, but I’m looking at it now and thinking I might be able to do something with it. It still speaks to me as something that wants to be written. Since it’s a true story, the first question is, of course, whether to fictionalize it, and if so, how much. Especially since it covers personal and emotional territory, I will change the characters’ names first in order to flesh out the story. I’ve found this method works best for me when writing prose based on real life. This stirs up my imagination, and as I write, I tend to fill in scenes more vividly with detail, allow more conflict to surface in the scenes, feel the pull of an artful structure, and create more interesting dialogue.

Sometimes, when writing a true story, we change the names of our characters to protect the innocent. But sometimes, we need to change the names to protect ourselves from writing badly. Overwriting, sentimentality, digressions, redundancies, lack of conflict, self-indulgence and superficiality in our writing can all stem from the same cause: a lack of objectivity about our own lives. We can’t see the forest for the trees, and get lost in the details of what actually happened. We are unable to make necessary cuts, changes and additions that will shape this into something artful, because we’re too close to it.

When we write a story with all the real names, we have a certain authenticity, and usually it can help us find deeper truths and express more honestly what happened and what the inner life of a character is. The magic of the subconscious goes to work and memory is stimulated, giving us all kinds of material we never realized were even in our brains. But when we change those characters names, it gives us something else, equally important: objectivity. And that’s exactly what we need when we’re trying to fit our vast experience into a shape – be it a novel, memoir, screenplay, song, or even a poem.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out, when you’re writing about your own life, or the life of another real person. Changing the names of your characters (and self) is a shortcut on the road to distance and objectivity. Even if you’re going to change it back to the real names later, try coming up with new names for all of your story’s characters, and writing your story that way. This will allow you to see that a story is not life, and help you give yourself permission to take a few steps away from the facts, towards a more imaginative place. This is the place you need to be when creating art.

Let The Frame Find You

September 12, 2012

Finding the frame for your true story is essential, but not always easy. If you think of a frame as the story device that allows questions to be raised and gives your story shape, you can see how nebulous a thing it is. Screenwriting is full of rules and guidelines, formats and formulas. But the frame is a phenomenon that is unique to every story.

In Catch Me if You Can, it’s the plane ride Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Carl Hanratty take, revealing their friendship and making us wonder how they got there. In Amelia, it’s her flight around the world, showing us what she died for. Often the frame is a sequence from the end of the story’s actual timeline, and makes us wonder how the story will arrive at that conclusion. But not always.

Sometimes the frame is an earlier scene that needs explanation, or a sequence occurring simultaneously with the main storyline but in another place, or from another character’s point of view. There are many ways to frame a story, but finding the exact unique frame that works for your story can be frustrating and seemingly impossible. It’s sort of like finding the perfect title.

I spent the summer working on a screenplay based on a true story, and once again I was humbled by the challenge of finding the frame. In fact, I couldn’t find one, and for most of the summer, this story was just a straightforward telling, and lacked the layers and complexity a frame brings.

In the end, the frame found me. After several drafts, it was a reader, the son of the real life protagonist, who suggested that I start the story with a scene that would add a murder mystery to this portrait of a mobster with scruples. I can see now that it not only adds intrigue, it also echoes and underscores the theme of the script, by raising the question of whether the hero is good or evil. When the frame is in sync with the theme, the story is more cohesive and powerful.

So, as it turns out, we can’t always find the frame. But if we stay open to insight, epiphany, and the suggestions of our trusted readers, usually, it will find us. Now, if I could only come up with the perfect title.

If you found this interesting or helpful, you can purchase a copy of the book SHAPING TRUE STORY INTO SCREENPLAY, available now at The Writers’ Store.