Thursday, May 08, 2008

Truth is stranger than fiction, and less realistic

Been rewriting Families At War, the pilot for a continuing TV drama series I devised and scripted as the final project for my MA screenwriting course last summer. Back then it was 60 pages long in screenplay format, something of a bloated behemoth when you consider most soaps run half an hour [and often less than 23 minutes on commercial channels like ITV].

First of all, I went through the script, looking for places to tighten it up. An assistant script editor at one series who had read the 60 page version felt the storylines were muddled and some of the dialogue was on the nose. [By way of contrast, an assistant script editor at another series who read the same script praised the characterisation and dialogue, saying it had them gripped - go figure.] Anyway, I found ten pages of cuts through simple nicks and tucks.

Next I sent the 50 page version to a professional script reader. Their verdict? Too many characters, too many storylines, not a strong enough focus on the core characters and concept. Couldn't argue with any of those criticisms. Families At War was supposed to focus on two feuding families - one Scottish Protestants, the other Italian Catholic immigrants - in Glasgow during the Second World War. But I overloaded the script with extraneous characters and subplots.

Within two hours I'd identified and removed most of the superfluous material. If I'd any doubts about how inessential those elements were to the script, they were dismissed by the ease with which I could cut them. In no time at all my 60 page version was down to 32 pages. Two more polishes sneaked the page count down to 28, but that included some new material I added to enhance the visual storytelling. Soaps are often dialogue-led, but a few great images speak volumes.

One particular criticism arose from the reader that made me smile. They found a twist at the end of the story strained credibility beyond breaking point. But that twist is based on historical fact. Indeed, it was that fact which first inspired me to write the script. Every story has an internal logic. Just because something happens in real life, doesn't make it credible in a fictional narrative. For example, coincidences are commonplace in life, but less acceptable in drama.

In truth, it wasn't the historical fact that strained credulity, but the context in which I presented it. So I took greater care over the relevant scenes, stripping out a few elements that preceded so twist to make it less unlikely. I also gave myself a little insurance policy, adding four words to the front of the script: Inspired by true events. Families At War is based on carefully researched historical fact, it doesn't hurt to acknowledge that right up front.


Al Rutherford said...

A similar thing happened to me regarding the end of my radio 4 play. It was an historical drama, based on real people, real events. Certainly I'd dramatised the story and moved the time line around of some of the things that happened but the climax was an actual and well documented event. I've even seen footage of it.

But on the R4 message boards a listener accused, not only me but writers all over, of taking an easy route out to end stories with some kind of 'miraculous' event.

Thing is, it happened, and it happened at the perfect time for the people involved in the tale. But that listener didn't buy it. When I first heard about it, my first reaction was to be amazed, not skeptical.

A kind soul responded on the message board and pointed out it wasn't a lazy device but a real event. Didn't make any difference.

Anyhoo, can't please everyone, it's still good to tell stories in the best way we can and hope we connect.

Was very good to meet up yesterday.


Lucy said...

Historical, schmorical. Every story is taken on its own merits, not whether something is "true" - or not. In fact, given that we are writing fiction, it is really quite bizarre to insist anything is "true"!

And as David rightly says, context has so much to answer for when ladling the "truth" into fiction. "Unsecured truths" slap the reader in the face like a veritable wet fish. Nail it down however with its own internal system of narrative logic, it'll go down easy (oo er).

Lucy said...

P.S. Go figure?

Could you BE any more American??

Like, totally! ; )