In 1823, Lord Byron was credited with making the observation that truth is stranger than fiction in his poem “Don Juan”.
While many a writer has trolled the pages of history books, daily newspapers, and personal journals for inspiration, the success of a fictional adaptation depends in large part on the story’s ability to resonate with its target audience. This is especially the case when real-life events seem far removed from our contemporary mindset as a result of time, distance and/or culture. The screenwriting exercises in this month’s issue revolve around the challenges of keeping kernels of truth in the picture while delivering a commercially viable premise. For younger students who haven’t yet mastered the basics of script structure, these lesson ideas lend themselves to extemporaneous storytelling and role-playing skits. Older students are encouraged to draft scenes into correctly formatted screenplays as well as film them for peer review.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. Identify three movies you’ve seen that are based on real-life characters or historic events. For each film you choose, how closely did the writers follow the actual fact patterns? If they took liberties, what were they? Did this enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the movie?
2. Do you think that certain real-life events or bio-pics should be off-limits to film producers? If so, what are they and why do you believe they do more harm than good?
3. Shakespeare often used his plays as a way to criticize the monarchy without risking his life. Modern writers for film and television employ this same strategy in fictional works as a way to make commentary on current events and/or influence public opinion. Identify a movie or TV series with a strong element of subtext. What are the writers really saying?
4. Filmmakers frequently invent fictional characters to interact with real-life individuals as a way to engage our emotions. In James Cameron’s Titanic, for instance, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson are respectively representative of first-class and steerage travelers on the ill-fated voyage but were not on the actual passenger manifest. Identify three other movies with “fake” players that seemed real. Explain what purpose they filled in the storyline.
5. What real-life event or biography would you most like to see depicted on the silver screen? Why? Who would you cast in the primary roles? What would be the biggest obstacle(s) in producing this story?
In May of 1889, over 2,000 people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania lost their lives in one of the country’s most devastating floods. Disaster relief was led by a volunteer organization established only eight years before: the American Red Cross. Arriving on the scene within the first week and remaining for the following five months to assist the victims was the organization’s first president, Clara Barton.
Your assignment: You have been hired to produce a documentary on the Johnstown flood. Prepare a two-page outline in which you identify how you will tell this tragic story. Elements to consider include photographs, reenactments, voiceovers, music, and commentary by modern experts.
ISLE OF HOPE, ISLE OF TEARS*
On New Year’s Day in 1892, an Irish teenager named Annie Moore became the first immigrant to pass through the doors of the new receiving station at Ellis Island. Though the press made much ado about her arrival and reunion with the family members who had preceded Annie and her brothers in coming to America, little is known of what happened to her in the years that followed.
Your assignment: Based on research and your own speculations about Annie’s life, write a one-page movie synopsis that seeks to explain how and why she went from 15 minutes of fame to overnight obscurity. Your film can be any genre, be approached from any POV, and utilize a linear, parallel or bookend structure to convey time. (A linear format is a chronological series of events; a parallel format is one that intercuts between two simultaneously occurring storylines (sometimes involving past and present); a bookend format is one in which the beginning and ending transpire at a different time than the middle (which is often an extended flashback).
* The title of this exercise is also the title of a song written about Annie Moore’s arrival in her new home. Give it a listen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yluUCjH6ONs.
From 1949 until 2009, an unknown visitor was seen in the early hours at the tomb of Edgar Allan Poe every January 19th, the anniversary of the author’s birth. Nicknamed “The Poe Toaster”, he or she faithfully delivered three red roses and an unfinished bottle of cognac, sometimes accompanied by a note declaring the visitor’s devotion. Though many attempted to unmask this mysterious fan, the gift-bearer’s anonymity was successfully preserved for six decades.
Your assignment: Write a three-page scene in which The Poe Toaster’s exit from the cemetery is interrupted by someone. Is it a fan? A blackmailer? A wife who followed her husband in the mistaken belief he was meeting a secret girlfriend? Is it the ghost of the dearly departed Edgar? Or is the new arrival the real Poe Toaster hoping to catch an imposter?
How dependent are you on technology? In 2007, a group of friends decided to draw attention to the fact that people were spending more time on their computers than they were interacting with each other. What they proposed was a Shutdown Day (http://shutdownday.org/) in which participants pledged to stay off their computers for 24 hours and engage in non-Internet activities.
Your assignment: Using Shutdown Day as the genesis of your movie plot, write a two-page film treatment in which the United States decides to set an example for the rest of the world by unanimously unplugging every computer, phone, television and electrical appliance for one day. All goes well – albeit grumpily – until it comes time to plug back in. The enormous power surge this creates on national grids results in a blackout that impacts all communications, transportation and anything that requires electricity in order to work. Develop the story from there.
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND (or maybe not)
Conspiracy theorists have long contended that the lunar landing in the summer of 1969 was a hoax and that the astronauts were actually just actors bouncing around in spacesuits on a Hollywood set. Hmmm…is it possible that movie magic has had a hand in other events being touted as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?
Your assignment: Choose any event in history as the basis of your plot. The lead character in your story is an accomplished screenwriter/filmmaker – so accomplished, in fact, that he/she can make movies even if you choose a century where this technology hasn’t been invented yet. Write a three-page scene (any genre) in which your character is approached by the powers-that-be to create a convincing illusion. Elements to consider in this dialogue should address the reason for the hoax, the protagonist’s acceptance or reluctance to engage in visual trickery, and what is at risk if the job is turned down.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 136 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.