Posts Tagged ‘Adapting a screenplay from true story’

Guest Post: Thoughts on Long Day’s Journey into Night

March 7, 2015

A student in one of the courses I teach for Antioch University’s Individualized Master of Arts wrote a terrific, concise critique of O’Neill’s classic play, which is shaped from true story. This is her first foray into the world of writing online. She does such a great job of summing up this play and analyzing it, it just has to go “live.”

Yours truly,

Candace LongDaysJourney

Thoughts on Long Day’s Journey into Night by Julia Marks

Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, is a semi- autobiographical treatment written sixteen years before his death, but as per his wishes, produced posthumously. One can assume there are two reasons for this request; the first being that he felt the need to explain who he was and where he came from. Second, he did not want to answer the subsequent questions after revealing such painfully personal information. The title hints at the play taking place in a single day, but also intimates that each of those single days repeats over again and again for a life time, until night is death. One by one, those left behind may escape the repetitive, destructive behavior of the long day spent with the addicted, sick, and unhappy family that make up so many of our journeys.

The theme is repetitive; there is a meal, an argument, alcohol and drug abuse, illness. Another meal, the same argument, more alcohol, more morphine, illness; eat and repeat. The day is representative of the formative years of O’Neill; he is found in Edmund. The theme may be repetitious, but the unity of plot is familial love. On the face of it, the family appears dysfunctional, and it may very well be, but there is true concern among all members for one another regarding their individual shortcomings and illnesses. The play is an outstanding character study in love above all.

Julia Marks is currently pursuing an IMA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Midwest with hopes of not only publishing her writing, but teaching creative writing after graduation.

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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.