Why should screenwriters write true story screenplays — and what are the best ways to find compelling true stories to adapt?
When you’re trying to break through as a newcomer, you need to find ways to give yourself that necessary edge. There are tens of thousands of screenwriters around the world — likely hundreds of thousands — trying to do exactly what you’re doing.
If there’s a secret to success as a screenwriter — as far as getting noticed — it’s looking to find ways to appear like the diamond in the rough that Hollywood is looking for.
You accomplish that in three ways:
- Original and Unique Takes on Popular Genres and Tropes
- Intellectual Property
- True Stories
Since making your original script easy to find is difficult and most screenwriters can’t afford and acquire rights to IP, the sole workaround in the Public Domain.
True stories have power over the audience. As a species, we are genuinely curious. As a society, we’re enthralled with stories that actually happened in real life — either because of our embedded curiosity within our DNA or because we love to live vicariously through the eyes of people that led an interesting life or lived through interesting events.
When a film or TV series is based on or inspired by a true story, there’s an elevated level of interest.
Audience members that stumble upon these types of cinematic stories are intrigued.
- “This actually happened?”
- “Someone actually did that?”
- “I always wondered what the real story was like.”
5 Simple Reasons to Have True Story Screenplays in Your Spec Portfolio
Hollywood loves true stories. Why? Because audiences love them, and if audiences like stories like that, Hollywood wants to make stories like that. Plain and simple. The less they have to market something, the better. And that’s exactly why true stories are so popular. You can use the true story tag as an easy marketing tool.
So let’s focus on the power of having true stories in your spec script portfolio.
Half of the Best-Picture Nominees for the 2021 Oscars are “Based on a True Story”
We have Minari, Mank, Judas and The Black Messiah, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. We know Hollywood loves true stories because that’s what they make more often than not.
- Studios thrive on them (when they’re not focusing on tentpole flicks and franchises).
- Major production companies seek them out because of the power they hold in the industry.
- Agents and Managers seek them out because of the above reasons.
- Directors seek them out because of potential acclaim.
- Major talent is always on the lookout for their career-changing roles in true stories.
60% of the Best Original Screenplays are “Based on a True Story”
Here we have Minari, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Judas and the Black Messiah. More than half of the original screenplay nominees were based on a true story.
That means the notion that true story scripts need to be based on a best-selling book is false. Sure, that always helps. But when you’re a screenwriter that is first starting out, you can’t get the rights to a best-selling novel. However, you can seek out true stories.
There Are Four Different Types of True Stories Screenwriters Can Write
Variety is nice. True story screenplays come in different shapes and sizes.
- “Based on” a True Story: The expectations are that the characters, storylines, and most of the scenes you present within the script are primarily based on actual occurrences. There are creative liberties taken for sure, but most of the depictions within the script are based on what actually happened and how it happened. Films like Schindler’s List, The Right Stuff, Lincoln, 127 Hours, and Apollo 13 are excellent examples of screenplays that did their best to depict the actual true stories. Overall, the story presented in the movie or series is as close to what really happened in real life as possible while allowing the screenwriter to structure a cinematic, dramatic, and compelling narrative. That is what sets this type of film or series apart from a documentary series.
- “Inspired by” a True Story: There is more leeway with the facts, allowing you to take the real story and mold it into whatever feels like the best cinematic experience. The story is inspired by a specific story of a real-life person (or type of person), but more creative liberties are taken. And sometimes, the screenwriter, studio, or production company can focus on certain elements of the story and use those focused elements to dictate where the story goes and what the characters say and do.
- “Based on” True Events: With these stories, you’re taking a historical event and creating a story within it using primarily fictional central characters. Names, people, locations, and happenings may be made up within the historical event’s confines as a setting. And, yes, to enhance the desirable true story aspect that Hollywood and audiences love so much, you can populate your story with historical figures and events as well — usually using them as figureheads to further legitimize your telling of the true event(s).
- “Inspired by” True Events: These scripts take a true event and tell a cinematic story with nearly all fictional characters and fictional macro events. Another offshoot of this is the Inspired by a True Case tag, where an actual criminal case loosely inspires events within the screenplay. So, if a man killed a person in a certain stand-out way — per a public criminal case — a screenwriter could use that case as a basis for their story. If they tag the script as Inspired by a True Case, it may entice a buyer to take more interest. In turn, marketing a film or series may create more intrigue for the audience.
For more in-depth breakdowns of these four types of true stories, read ScreenCraft’s Is Your Script “Based On” or “Inspired By” a True Story? What’s the Difference?
True Stories are Easier to Find Than You’d Think
True stories are everywhere. You can find them:
- Within your family
- Within your friend circles
- Within your peer groups
- In newspapers, history books, etc.
Hollywood loves military scripts. They have action, suspense, and intrigue for the average audience member. And those types of stories can be found everywhere — from your family, friends, peers, and relatives that came before you.
Hollywood loves true crime. The great thing about true crime, as mentioned above, is that you can take a case or crime and weave it into an original story.
Hollywood loves sports dramas. Big and small communities have plenty of compelling sports stories.
- The coach that came back from war to coach a team to victory.
- The player that beat cancer, only to return to the court.
- The smaller-stature player who became the heart of the team.
If it’s a true story and you can manage to get permission to use it (or create an “inspired by” true story script), go for it.
History Books are Full of Them
The advantage of dealing with historical figures and events as your true story center is that you have more freedom to adapt their stories without worrying about the rights — something that The Hollywood Reporter examines quite well in this article.
If you’re writing about someone who has long-passed and is part of historical events, you have more leeway regarding the rights to feature them in your story.
The easy compass is to feature them favorably and factually. Historical facts are in the public domain, which means no one can claim authorship of them.
Remember Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) emotional climactic closing remarks in Oliver Stone’s JFK?
Remember the pulse-pounding sequence at the end of Argo where the Iranians chased the plane down the runway?
Remember the crowd chanting Rudy’s name at the end of Rudy?
None of these things ever happened in real life.
They were all artistic licenses developed by the writers and directors.
Creative liberties are taken in every Hollywood adaptation of a true story. It just depends to what degree.
Most true stories take place over the course of multiple years, events, and locations. When you’re dealing with a feature screenplay, you only have two hours (give or take) of run time to tell a story.
Because of this limited time frame, screenwriters are forced to take creative liberties in their storytelling.
You may need to exclude otherwise important events and characters. You may need to combine many characters into one to represent their contributions to the story while avoiding the oversaturation of the screenplay. You may need to create characters that never existed in real life to link up and support the events you portray within the screenplay.
And you will obviously have to inject dialogue and exchanges between the characters you decide to focus on.
All of these liberties that are taken are to craft the best possible cinematic experience for the audience. Documentaries exist to (arguably) give us the facts, whereas biopics or true story adaptations tell the core of the character’s story or events in an entertaining fashion.
It’s up to you, the writer, to decide whether you want to develop a Based On or Inspired By version of whatever real-life characters or events you choose to depict cinematically.
Read ScreenCraft’s full piece on How to Master Creative Liberties in True Story Screenplays!
The secret to success as a screenwriter is standing out from the rest. One way you can accomplish that as a screenwriter is to have true story screenplays in your spec script portfolio. It gives you an added edge above the competition.
Take your time to see if you can find true stories that no one has tackled. Do your research. Keep your eyes and ears open. Intriguing, shocking, and inspiring true stories are out there — everywhere. And you, as a screenwriter, will benefit from having them in your portfolio of screenplays.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies