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The Truth Of Fiction

I’m going to be incommunicado for most of this week: it’s half term and the kids are at home, meaning I have to write coverage in-between calls of “Get me a drink!”, “Stop the baby from climbing up on the window ledge!” and “What do you mean, “we need to talk”?” as well as a variety of other deadlines that have descended all at the same time. Obviously. A woman’s work is never done and all that. But here’s something juicy for you tp get your teeth into while I’m gone, I’ll check in when I can.

I get a “run” on scripts from time to time with similar themes, premises, issues and so on. A while back I found myself writing about dialogue a lot in feedback; just recently it has been characterisation. Whilst structure and what goes into it seems ever-present, sometimes I’m addressing the issue of prologues a lot; other times where flashbacks “should” go – or not. Sometimes I’ll end up going on about audience suspension of disbelief and narrative logic, or particular conventions in particular genres more. Whatever it is I find myself writing about, it is funny how so many scripts with the same focuses come together.

In the last two weeks for example I have read six “true life” stories (I normally only get two or three in the whole year and had already had four before this present six). Why this year should be different in that I get over three times as many as usual I have no idea; what’s more, they have not all been autobiographical (as they are normally), but biographical too (I’ve only ever had about 4 of those ever). All the latter have been obscure figures, usually in British history, though one was incredibly famous which lead to me to wonder why we had never seen a film about him before. The writer could be on to something there.

But anyway. The drafts of these true-life stories by and large shared various things in common. They all had heart; the writers really cared about their subject matter and that was great to see. Equally, they often had very realistic and sometimes funny dialogue. But they had one other trait in common too, as have many other “true” scripts that I have read in the past…

…Nothing very much happens for a long time, with most of the action reserved for the second half or even the last third, of the script.

This is an interesting problem to have: if nothing really happens in the real life event for a while, why should it in the film version? After all, isn’t that an entirely false representation of that real life event, if you stick stuff in towards the beginning just to keep people turning the pages? Where does the writer who writes auto/biography. Where do you draw the line between truth, fiction and actual lying? In effect, how true is a true life story?

Your thoughts please.

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10 thoughts on “The Truth Of Fiction”

  1. Hi mate, that’s cool–

    I’m thinking about ACTUAL true stories, as opposed to those “inspired by a true story” tags that films like Wolf Creek use as an advertising ploy, when in actual fact it’s as true as the Tweenies. I’m thinking films about figures in the public eye who really have existed, from Mozart (Amadeus) through to historical figures like Elizabeth 1st; those more obscure people either ‘cos they made a difference like Erin Brockovich or those news stories that inspire films like that Meryl Streep one about the woman who was accused of killing her baby when a dingo apparently did it. I’m also wondering about writers’ own stories that make it into their work – either overtly or covertly.

  2. It’s a problem, I’d agree, but ultimately I think it comes down to the same situation as book adaptations.

    Visual media have their own set of rules and to be successful you have to follow them. So you take the essence of the truth and dramatise it.

    Don’t bore the audience.

  3. My parents have a friend who’s led a very interesting life but who can also tell very interesting anecdotes. My father was with him once when he was telling one of these stories and realised, half way through, that he’d been present at the time. His recollection of the same event had been that it wasn’t actually that interesting and certainly wasn’t that funny but that his friend had managed to find a very amusing tale to tell about the very same situation.

    So which one was telling the truth about what happened? And how much liberty can you take when dramatising real events? Your example of Amadeus is a good one: although many of the events in Peter Shaffer’s play are based on true people and events, the overall story, of Salieri bringing about Mozart’s death, is pretty much reckoned to be fictitious.

    I agree with Steve: don’t bore the audience. If you’re only interested in telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, make a documentary. If you want to dramatise it, you may need to be flexible with the truth for dramatic convenience.

  4. This makes me think of that scene in ’24 Hour Party People’ where Tony Wilson finds his wife having it off in a toilet cubicle with Howard Devoto which didn’t actually happen but as Tony says in the film, “print the legend.”

  5. My sympathies – it’s half-term here too. (thankfully, boys are bouncing on a trampoline down the road…first peace I’ve had in three days..)

    If there’s nothing interesting happening in the first third to first half – they’ve started too early.

    Stick with the interesting bits…


  6. A mistake some people make is thinking they have to start at the beginning (birth) and go to the end (death) in order to tell someone’s life story. Well, most people lives aren’t interesting from start to finish, no matter how famous.

    People are better off picking a contained period in someone’s life (preferably the most interesting one!) and writing about that.

    Example: If you wanted to write a bio film about John Lennon, you’d have a heck of a lot of material. Better to choose one episode in his life and do right by that. ie,: early forming of the Beatles (been done, tho), the band break up, his relat. w/ Yoko, his brief retirement/breakdown, his death.

    A really famous person has about 10 movies you can pull out of their lives.

  7. Girl, the best way to deal with it… Chuck the scripts aside and go watch The Wire.

    You know it makes sense. (And Mr C. says so too!)

  8. Yes there is the “starting too early” thing here, but I’m going beyond the actual structure thing (gfor once!) and asking about the act of dramatising so-called “real life”: is that in essence lying? This is why I think some writers hesitate to re-structure these events and lives etc… If nothing happens for a while and then it does in reality, you can sympathise they may feel uncomfortable dramatising that event?

    Laura – very good point, too many writers believe they have to shove EVERYTHING in when in fact just part of that person’s life would work far better.

    GD – I will look into it.

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