How to Write a Biopic in Six Steps

September 21, 2013

When you’re writing a screenplay about a real person, it can be a challenge to find the right shape for the story. In most cases, the lives of interesting people span a period of many years, so choosing your angle, and deciding how to frame your main character’s story, can be tricky. It helps to break the process down into these 6 steps:

1. Choose the Type

As you research and develop a storyline from the history (and your imaginative take on that history,) think about what kind of biopic would best tell your character’s story. Should it be a traditional epic biopic, such as Wyatt Earp, Jobs or The Butler? A slice of life biopic, such as Hitchcock, (focused on the making of Psycho), Lincoln (focused on the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment) or Capote (focused on the writing of In Cold Blood)?  A genre biopic such as Lawless (adventure-crime biopic), Walk the Line (love story biopic) or 42 (sports biopic)? Or perhaps your biographical protagonist would best be served by a non-chronological telling, such as Into the Wild, Amelia, or Catch Me If You Can.

2. Find the Arc

Once you’ve decided what form your story should take, you should then get clear on the dramatic arc of your main character. One way to do this is to think about what he or she wants at the start of the film. Then ask yourself what that character really needs. How do they go about getting what they want? What happens as a result, and what obstacles must they overcome? Do they get what they want? How? Do they get what they need? How does that happen? Once you can answer those questions, you should have an idea of the rise and fall of the interior life of your character that will parallel his or her dramatic action.

3. Find the Throughline

The character arc is the journey of the character’s interior, but the throughline is the core of the storyline we will follow. To solidify this, make sure every scene in some way relates to your main characters’ outer story as well as their inner journey. Every scene must somehow move their particular story forward, even if indirectly. For example, in Hitchcock, when his wife Alma, who has been having story meetings at her friend Whit’s beach house, catches Whit in bed with another woman, she becomes disillusioned with the idea of having an affair with him and renews her devotion to Hitch. This, in turn contributes to his overall throughline of forging a lasting marriage that supports his ambitions to continue making films.

4. Develop the Characters

Once the story is down, your next task is to bring those characters to life. Spend time imagining how they sound, their gestures, clothing, likes and dislikes. As you write and revise scenes, try to sense their presence, as live actors. Can you feel their pain? Empathize with their frustration? Share in their joy? Like it or not, they will be living in your house, or at least inside your mind, for as long as you are working on this project.

5. Paint the Details

Keep in mind that people are, in part, shaped by their surroundings. Paint the picture of the world they live in with as many fine strokes as you can and you will bring your character’s story to life with more authenticity. What kind of car did they drive, exactly? How big were the waves that day?  What would they wear? Eat? Drink? Through these kinds of details and setting descriptions, the world of your character can come to life more vividly, making your screenplay much more readable and compelling.  The more magnificent your visuals, the more cinematic the film will be as well.

6. Draft and Draft Again

The only way, finally, to shape and hone the behemoth that is a biopic is to keep rewriting, and that means a lot of cutting, rethinking, expanding, and rearranging. Stick with it, you’ll need to take time and have patience in this arduous but ultimately rewarding work of transforming real life into art. In the end, the goal is to have a script that does justice to an amazing life, something that will reach out and touch others with a theme that resonates and inspires.

Candace is a former ICM story analyst whose screenplays have been in development at Fox, Disney, Lifetime and HBO.  She is the author of Shaping True Story into Screenplay, available through The Writer’s Store and Amazon. You can find her online at and


Story vs. History

April 12, 2013

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.

The Laramie Project: As True as it Gets

October 24, 2012

Events in the news of late make you wonder what has gone wrong with the human race. There is a production at Evergreen Players/Center Stage right now that attempts to answer that question, and it does so with grace and no small measure of hope. The Laramie Project, directed by Angela Astle and playing through November 11 at Center Stage is a hard-hitting, yet ultimately uplifting portrayal of the events that took place in Laramie, Wyoming on a bitter night in 1998. These events made national and global headlines, and in their wake, a theater project was born.

The play, written by Moises Kaufman in conjunction with the Tectonic Theater Project, presents the buildup to and aftermath of a hate crime against the gay man Matthew Shepard through a gleaming mosaic of human experience. It does this by filtering the story of what happened through the series of interviews that the Tectonic Theater Project conducted in November 1998, just four weeks after the murder occurred. The playwright and company traveled to Laramie at that time, and several times afterward, to meet with dozens of the city’s residents and gather material for a play. The interviews themselves have become the play, and we the audience are witness to the process of coping and reflection, remorse and indignation within the large net of society surrounding this one man in a small, windy university town.

In a mesmerizing metanarration, the real life incident was investigated through interviews, and then, that very process of recording and interviewing has been dramatized into story. This process is so smoothly executed that we are able to lose ourselves in the moments surrounding the incident and forget that it was all shaped by the characters these actors are playing. Amazingly, our disbelief is suspended, and ultimately we come away with a holistic insight into this, and many other tragedies.

Overall, this is a play about humanity, and our own capacity to fear, love, understand and forgive. And in spite of the self-reflective approach, we are not spared the emotional upheaval that was surely felt by the residents of Laramie. In fact, we are gut wrenched right along with them as we are faced with the myriad of points of view. We are exposed not just to our own opinions and feelings about a diminutive, intelligent man being tied to a remote ranch fence for 18 hours after being beaten to a pulp, but also to the powerful beliefs and torment of all those who knew him, and many who didn’t.

The result is transcendent, helping us rise above blame, causality, and reason, higher to a place of pure sadness, compassion, and even hope…when it becomes clear that the tragedy of his death will not be forgotten and will be instead used to carry a message to others that hate be erased, and that more importantly, denial of our own capacity to hate be eliminated so that we may be more able to guide ourselves towards acts of kindness.

The production in Evergreen, Colorado shines without flaw. The staging is stark yet effective, with rows of actors shape shifting into the various characters at rhythmic intervals. There is nothing but humanity on stage, and the fact that the 12 ensemble actors play over 60 parts only adds to our perception that we are all in this together, that, as the character Zubaida Ula tells us, movingly, toward the end of the play, “We need to own this crime. I feel. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this. We ARE like this. WE are LIKE this.”

The Laramie Project might just be one of the most important and profound plays of the 21st century. At its core, this is a story of how one small ranching town copes with an act of cruel bigotry within its borders. But as the university staff, police, bartenders and clergy are all dramatized by the actors, a wise compassion is born from the multitude of perspectives who reflect on what happened. This mosaic effect redefines the idea of shaping true story by shining a light on all of the corners of the case. In the end, no one escapes scrutiny, even Matthew himself.

Especially now, in the wake of the horrible crimes such as the one committed against Jessica Ridgeway this month, it’s time to examine the hate that lies in our hearts and in our society. It is time to face the darkness, in the hopes that we can prevent our own powerlessness against it.
The ensemble performances by Laura Adducci, Hunter Cagle, Tony Catanese, Gregg Dudding Ryan Goold, Devra Keyes, Emma Messenger, Andrea Rabold, Eric Ross, Ellie Schwartz, Max Schwartz, and Marc Stith are all captivating, and utterly convincing. No one actor stands out as more accomplished than any other, as it’s their synergy that makes this work.

This powerful play is only here in our town for three more weekends. It’s a show you won’t want to miss.

The Laramie Project

Evergreen Players/Center Stage

Oct 19 – Nov 11, 2012

Friday at 7:30 pm
Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 2:00 pm

Buy Tickets

How to Achieve Universality in our Writing

October 12, 2012

Whether we are writing fiction, nonfiction, a screenplay or even a poem, the only way to reach people, to create art that matters, is through universality.

Many have claimed that there are only so many stories humanity has to tell, and we just keep telling them over and over again. In his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Polti breaks the entire world of storytelling down to just 36 stories, ranging from “Adultery” (Fatal Attraction) to “Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal” (Ghandi).

We write about a real life experience to get a message across. So first we have to get that message, or theme clear in our minds. Once we’ve done that, how do we create a universal plot and archetypal characters that address that theme?

It’s what civilization has been doing for years. The theme naturally personifies and manifests itself, if we just use our imagination. Our brain naturally makes a story out of a lesson. If we write our story into a three act shape, beginning middle and end, then ask what the moral is, then keep honing and visualizing the story’s shape and sketching out the characters, we can tap into this deep, archetypal, mythic and universal meaning-making capacity. It’s there, in our subconscious, and as long as we can get out of the way, and just allow inspiration and logic to take turns, we can come up with a solid, well written story.

At the same time, we need to immerse ourselves in the genre we are writing, reading and seeing as much as we can of stories that are like ours in some way, so that the patterns become ingrained and our synapses make all the right connections when we put it together on the page.

Joseph Campbell gives us Mythic Structure in The Hero’s Journey, and Robert McKee in Story says “the archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.”

The idea is that we have this ancient meaning-making muscle inside us, a natural inclination and ability to turn life lessons into story, personal growth into parables. But when we are writing about real life, we often get distracted by the minutia of what actually happened. We forget that what actually happened is not the story.

Events, characters and details of what actually happened can be in the story, but these are not the story. The story is the changes and growth, the meaning made, the universal journey on the path of human existence.

That’s the truth that we need to discern, like the wheat from the chaff.

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.

Real Life Makes Bad Drama

June 26, 2012

These words were hammered into us relentlessly by our first Dramatic Writing professor at NYU, and it’s as true today as it was then. Because the most important shift in consciousness a screenwriter adapting from real life needs to make is detachment. We have to separate from the facts of what happened in order to shape the events and situations into a good story. To do this, we have use our imagination, and take some liberties. But what about when you’re writing a biographical drama about a real person and there are constraints on how much you can make up and on how much you can leave out?

I’ve been experiencing that very thing these last few months as I’ve struggled to adapt the true story of a mobster’s life into a screen story. The script is to be based on a nonfiction book about his life, and the book is filled with historical and character details which I need to include. But at the same time, somehow, I have to detach from all that and invoke imagination, conjure inspiration and make art. I have to admit, it’s been hard. I am reminded that a writer never really masters their craft; each new project renders us clueless, humbled by our task.

The act of writing a biopic, and of writing on assignment for others, brings in its own challenges and makes following the abstract, idea-centered path difficult. I finally turned in a draft of the treatment last week. How I got there was a slow dance between the literal and the figurative, which is what we always engage in when we’re shaping true story into screenplay. We work with the clay of life for a while, getting a handle on what really happened. And then we have to stand back and ask fruitful questions. What are the themes? How does this character grow and change? What does the shape of the storyline look like on a graph? And so on, back and forth, molding the clay, until the life events take a three-act structure, characters are in conflict, and the drama rises and falls. This takes time, immersion into the character and their life, and most importantly, a willingness to let go and allow history to become story.

Flipping the Switch: A Method for True Story Screenwriters

March 15, 2012

There’s something I call “Flipping the Switch,” and I think it’s a really useful tool when adapting a true story into a screenplay. When you’re writing anything, there are always two different sides of your brain at work. There’s your logical, literal left brain, and your abstract, figurative right brain. When you’re adapting from reality, it’s especially important that you stay conscious of the two sides and learn when to turn them off and on, so that you can make the shift between these two states of mind.

In the very beginning, you have to spend some time with all the facts.  You need your logical side to gather all the facts of the story, make lists and timelines. You’re cataloging what really happened, recording details, matching dates to events and ordering them chronologically. But then, when it’s time to shape a story with a beginning, middle and end and find the best design, you need to turn off the switch that keeps track of facts and dates and details and realities – the place of memory that is literal. You have to turn that off and then turn on another switch, the light of imagination, the realm of story, so that you can immerse in the figurative, as opposed to the literal. This way, you begin to access the subconscious, and you can create art that is universal and accessible to many people.

First, the left brain lays it all down in an organized manner, then the right brain goes ahead and shapes it into story, then the left comes back and refines it all, revising and crafting and editing, and over and over, back and forth we go, between the things that really happened and the scenes that are meant to be in your work of art, your rendition of truth, which is something quite different than the historical fact.

This new story will take on a life of its own as you hone and develop it daily, because you’ve shaped it into art. You’ve done this by stepping back, letting go of what really happened and telling it in a new way, using a frame, an angle, a focal point of one character on a journey, facing obstacles, enduring the rising tension, all structured into scenes with setups, development, and resolution, revolving around turning points, paced with a musical rhythm. Only when this has all been done have you truly shaped that meaningful experience of yours into a compelling filmic story.

Dolphin Tale vs. Soul Surfer

January 31, 2012

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it odd that there were two films last year about amputees in aquatic settings? Both based on true stories, and both aimed at a PG/family film audience. Neither one manages to climb above sentimentality, but both did well at the BO and are still selling to the masses in the home market. There must be something about losing a limb in the water, so maybe it’s worth thinking about for a minute.

DOLPHIN TALE is a nicely structured script that weaves together the story of a boy who heals his father-loss wounds through the act of helping to heal a maimed dolphin with the secondary tale of his cousin, a champion swimmer who comes back from the war without the use of his legs. In this story, a prosthetic is ultimately designed by Morgan Freeman’s character that allows the dolphin to swim again.  I loved the casting and the gentle interplay of storylines in this movie. I laughed and cried and enjoyed the ride even though I was never really surprised.

SOUL SURFER tells the story of a teenage girl on the pro surfing circuit who loses her arm to a shark and decides that she will keep on surfing and competing anyway. She is offered a prosthetic, but decides against it, choosing instead to re-learn how to surf with only one arm. Through sheer determination and many lopsided push-ups, plus a bit of retooling of her board by dad, played by Dennis Quaid, she barrels her way to the top again.

Both of these scripts, especially Soul Surfer, tend to “water down” the subject matter and neither one presents the concept of loss in all of its true complexity. But there is still something they can teach us. And it’s more than just the healing powers of love, although both films do a nice job of getting that message across, too.

Prosthetic or no prosthetic, the situation writers can take away from these stories remains the same: crafting a great script means making our hero lose the very thing they need in order to get what they want. For true story screenwriters, this is a wake-up call. If you concentrate on true loss in your true story, taking away whatever it is they want and sometimes everything they need as well, your audience will be captivated.

For more insights into the adaptions of these true stories, click on the links for each film above.

J. Edgar Doesn’t Quite Mesh

January 19, 2012

Saw Hollywood’s latest biopic the other day: J. Edgar. Hmmm. I guess aside from the obviousness of the makeup and the slightly melodramatic performances (sorry, Clint), it was pretty well done. The structure is classic Hollywood formula, but with a twist. We are shown the rise and fall of Hoover’s career, but these scenes are framed and interspersed with glimpses of the end of his life, using the specific framing device of a manuscript being written about it all. Structurally, it worked, but I’m still not sure what the point was, other than rendering his homosexuality with grace and elegance.

One thing that impressed me was the interweaving of historical fact with personal narrative. What we can take away from this film, both as viewers and as true story screenwriters, is the importance of portraying a historical figure in the context of his society. A screen story always ultimately comes down to just one person, a main character who wants something. But the simultaneous development of historical fact in this script – the Lindberg baby, Al Capone, Nixon, et. al – not only adds texture, but also shows Hoover (Leo DiCaprio) as a product of his environment, and suggests that the societal pressures of communist threats, gangsters, and kidnappers all combined to force the creation of a crusader.

While the shape of the plot helps to infuse Hoover’s story with the history that helped shape him, the theme (the new evils of society making it necessary for a crusader) is nearly invisible. A big film like this one will often carry its message tucked between what the character wants and what they need. What Hoover wants is to stamp out the criminal element and make America safe again. As for what he needs, as the song goes, he needs to be needed. I guess the problem with this story is that what he wants and what he needs really never intersect or mesh in any way. So we are left with two separate stories, rather than one coherent whole. But then again, maybe that disconnect is a good fit for this man, whose public persona and private life were about as far apart as they could be.