Breaking History: How to Achieve Truth in Historical Storytelling

Aug 11, 2016 | Writing

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth…” – Picasso

The temptation to write historically based scripts is a strong one for many writers, and with good reason. The setting, the plot, the characters… even some of the dialogue may appear to have been already decided. Because of this, a writer can get the impression that they practically write themselves. This is one of the greatest benefits of the genre.

It’s also the genre’s greatest problem. The fact so many details appear to have been worked out in advance by reality often makes writers hesitant to make valuable – even vital – changes. As a professional script reader, I see writers make this mistake every year. Instead of being inspired, they write only what transpired – as if the past was untouchable, protected under glass like a museum display. The history buff in me understands this assumption, that the real history of an event couldn’t possibly be improved on, but the reader in me knows the sacrilegious truth: To fully dramatize a story, sometimes you have to make changes. You have to break the museum glass.

Consider your last trip to the grocery store. Maybe you heard a good song on the drive in. Maybe you forgot an item from your list or ignored the list entirely. Maybe you waited in a long line to check out and maybe you enjoyed a chat with the clerk as you were rung up. If you’re a good writer, I’ve no doubt that you could script these events in a way that would put me right in the scene. I’d smell the fresh greens in the produce section and feel the resistance from a wobbly-wheeled cart. The sense of place could be perfect but that still wouldn’t change the fact these plot details – however accurate – don’t add up to a strong sense of story. It might be tempting to say “that’s how it really happened,” but when a writer commits to turning an historical event into a film, making the changes necessary to provide a strong sense of story is part of that commitment. The reason for this is because the promise of a cinematic sense of story – the way a film transports us to another world and makes us feel the character’s physical and emotional stakes as if they were our own – is a key part of the covenant between a film and its audience. It’s what makes people willing to spend time and money on historical films when they could easily look up the relevant facts for themselves.

Sometimes, the glass breaks can be small. In the film Argo, for example, the plane tickets to bring the stranded Americans home are cancelled and then repurchased by the American government at the last possible minute, and the Americans later find their plane being chased down the runway by a convoy of Iranians waving guns. In all likelihood, neither of these events happened. Yet the Oscar-nominated script benefits from these ‘lies’ because, as Picasso might say, they make us realize a truth: The Americans really did risk their lives every time they interacted with someone in the airport (even when just picking up their tickets) and they really were in danger until the moment they left Iranian airspace. Without these ‘lies’ the myriad potential dangers and heart-stopping suspense faced by the Americans when these events actually happened might not have been so successfully conveyed.

In other scripts, the glass breaks are larger and go straight to the heart of the film. It would’ve been easy for someone to write a version of Titanic that resembled the grocery store example given above: Here is a real life situation (the sinking of the Titanic) and the plot points it contained (hubris, class division, too few life boats, etc…). However, despite the fact all those points and more were covered in the 1997 film, the words that often come up when people describe it are ‘love story.’ By making the film about two almost entirely fictional characters, James Cameron took a sledgehammer to the glass surrounding the history of the Titanic. He also created a compelling story which dramatized the reality – the distance between the classes, the hubris in prioritizing opulence over safety, the couples ripped apart by icy waters – to a degree that a simple reenactment, however accurate, couldn’t hope to match.

In our next post on this topic, we’ll go over the other type of creative destruction most often lacking in historical scripts: Creating compelling flaws in historical figures (aka, breaking the statuary).


Kathleen Cromie

Script Analyst

Kathleen Cromie is a professional script analyst and playwright. Her plays have been produced in America, the UK, and France (in translation).