Story vs. History

Last year, I was hired to write a script by the descendants of Denver’s 20th Century mob boss.   This project, which will be based on the book Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family, by Dick Kreck, spans an epic range of characters, situations, and periods. It has been a challenge to find the right story spine, and after a year of working on this (off and on) I am still far from done. The history is so sweeping and complicated that it has taken me a while to find the heart and soul of the story.

One of the main problems has been that of time. The protagonist ran Denver’s mob from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. There are some attempted murders, a lot of illegal gambling, questionable alliances with politicians, infighting between family members, and great spans of time spent in either courtrooms or jails. Despite all of this drama, the problem of time has reared its ugly head. As so often happens in true to life adaptations, the chronological order of how things happened just does not lend itself to a compelling narrative. All of the events that happened over these large spans of time are dramatic…they just need to be rearranged, strung along a narrative arc. This, of course, means that some of the names, dates, and locations have to change. But these are only the facts of the chronology, and not what will drive and convey the essence of the story.

What do you do if history does not cooperate with the elements of story? The first thing to remember is that the lens has to narrow, so that we focus on one main aspect of the story. As we saw in LINCOLN, you can’t tell the whole story, rather you just have to find the slice of it that most poignantly reveals the essence of the characters and their situations. And, as we saw in ZERO DARK THIRTY, you can cover a decades worth of history, but only if you keep your audience glued to a strong central character. And that is perhaps the key to it all – unearthing the true journey of the hero, and clinging fast to it, in a way that is compelling and that anchors us through the rocky transitions of time.

Once again I am reminded that in order to turn true stories into great writing, I really just have to let go of reality and step into another awareness, a more timeless one.  It is so tempting to try and stick to the facts, but even when we’re writing history, we have to find a new story.

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