Issue 1: Lesson 1—Selecting Material

Photo courtesy of: Tom Murphy VII

Welcome to the first in RSL’s ongoing series of lessons, which aim to set out the basics of adapting true life for the screen. In this first lesson, we take a look at some initial considerations to bear in mind when selecting material for your screenplay…

Possible inspiration for the true life adaptation can come from one or a number of the following:

  • Magazine/newspaper articles: The Insider (1999); Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  • First-hand accounts/interviews: Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013); Frost/Nixon (2008)
  • Non-fiction books: All the President’s Men (1976); Moneyball (2011)
  • Biographies: Goodfellas (1990); The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
  • Autobiographies: Born on the Fourth of July (1989); Raging Bull (1980)
  • Historical records Selma (2014); Amistad (1997)

Many times, a writer will take lots of different accounts of an event from different sources, fill in the gaps with his own creativity and shape a screen story that has no one ‘source’ (the original screenplay).

Other times, the writer will shape his story from one particular source, undertaking extra research, as required (the adapted screenplay).

Over the coming lessons we’ll delve into this ‘shaping’ process more fully. But for the time being we’ll focus on selecting material and identify some questions the writer should ask before getting too far down the road with your screenplay. 

Is there a story?
A pretty obvious one to start with. After all, no story = no movie! However, this doesn’t mean that the source material has to come pre-packaged in a neat three-act structure format all ready for you to type up and fill in a few lines of dialogue. All it means is that there should be scope to craft a solid central storyline that has a clear protagonist, conflict and a defined end-point. 

What extra information is available?
Whatever the source of the idea, it’s likely you’ll need to carry out extra research at some point – whether that involves interviewing people, spending hours on Google, or heading to the library to check out a few dusty tomes. Ask yourself: what extra information am I likely to need to write the best script, and how easy will that information be to access? 

Is the source material too long?
Remember that the fuller the source material, the more selective and creative you’ll need to be with regard:

  • compressing the time line
  • selecting relevant events
  • combining or omitting characters/events
  • shifting the order of events

You’re aiming for a script of approximately 120 pages, so ensure that your source material offers the scope to craft an effective and dramatically satisfying two-hour film that doesn’t feel too rushed and shallow because you’ve packed in to much information, too many characters, or multiple storylines.

It’s easy to get caught up in your source material and want to dramatise every part of the story, but you’ll need to resist the urge and be willing trim away anything that doesn’t support the main story.

Is the source material too short?
On the other hand, say you come across a great newspaper story or magazine article you believe might be screen-worthy. Unlike the above problem, scant source material will involve lots of extra research in order gather enough information on which to base your script.

Ask yourself: would fictionalising the events be a better option? This way, you can draw on elements of true life to create an original narrative, like the writers of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Fast and the Furious (2001). 

Is the story ‘commercial’?
For those of you planning to try and sell your script at some point, this is a key concern. You might fall in love with your story, but will the people in a position to get the project into development (i.e. the ones with the power and money)?

For example, a period setting and obscure subject matter essentially add $$$ and headaches to the project. So unless you’ve got excellent industry contacts, plenty of chutzpah, or an ultra-low budget script that will cost next-to-nothing to make, stick to what’s proven to sell (at least until you’ve got your name on a few successful films and morph into the all-conquering writer-producer-director hybrid).

What about the rights?
Saving the best until last. Or, more accurately, saving the first until last, as this is a crucial factor in being able to move ahead with your project and one day (hopefully) sell your script. In fact, it’s a deal breaker.

To clarify, by rights, we mean relevant permission from the owner(s) of the material you want to adapt to use their work.

This is such an important area that the next lesson will focus on the murky world of legal rights. We’ll aim to give you some idea of what’s involved in making sure all the paperwork is in place at the start so you can get down to the tricky business of creating screen gold!

Lesson 2 will be available on 8 June.  

By the way, you might read through the above and get disheartened that the project you’re passionate about isn’t adaptable. But bear in mind that many successful real life adaptations began life as tricky source material. As we explain in our FREE GUIDE – Putting Real Life on Screen – the motivated and creative screenwriter can surmount many an obstacle along the road to shaping an awesome and ultimately successful script! Head over to the subscription page to access the guide.

(Image: “Old book bindings” by Tom Murphy VII)