It’s been an interesting week.
I have been asked to help with three different kinds of personal stories that all need to be translated into an accessible treatment that is somewhere between three and ten pages. If you go to my website, marilynhorowitz.com, and sign up for my newsletter, you will receive an article I wrote about how to write a treatment, with a sample treatment included as my gift. While this article is efficient for a basic movie treatment, there are further considerations for people using a treatment as an exercise to organize a story that is based on a life story, and has been written as a novel, memoir or is being developed directly into a screenplay. Here are three principles that I use when helping writers organize their stories.
1. Translation is an art not a science. When you convert a story from one medium to another, it is not an exact science. Each format has different qualities that must be respected. The narrative non-fiction, memoir or novel allows a freer structure, more characters who can express their innermost feelings and thoughts, and a readership that is more forgiving and willing to follow the writer’s voice patiently as the story unfolds. Movie goers expect a story that gets started right away, presents one major problem, and has characters who are focused on solving the problem. Both audiences want to know how and if the characters succeed or fail, but a moviegoer needs to find out in about two hours. For example, the movie version of a well-known book, Five Days In The Condor, was renamed, Three Days of the Condor . We can infer that they had to simplify and shorten the action of the book to have it become the gripping movie it became. So when adapting a book, memoir, or life story, keep in mind that you may not be able to fit it all in the to the film version. My friend, Adam Nadler, is fond of saying, “You can’t just regurgitate the ‘truth,’ you have to formulate a truth.” This is perhaps why you often see a true-life story credited as “based on a true story.” Whenever you write something down, it alters the experience simply because you have translated life into words.
2. Life Does Not Imitate Life. Any life story is bigger than any movie because movies most often follow the adventure of a single character as they wrestle with a problem and either overcome the obstacles and succeed, or fail. That’s why true stories such as The Perfect Storm work well as a film – it is a linear story, as opposed to many life stories which tend to have more layers and complications. The principle I suggest is that when converting a personal story, accept that you are going to focus on part of the overall life story, and identify what part of the journey you are going to cover in your script. For example, a man wanted to translate his memoir about surviving a concentration camp, and then cancer into a film. It’s too much story UNLESS you can create a framework that links them together. In this ca se, I suggested he use the dire diagnosis to propel him to write about his concentration camp experience, though it didn’t actually happen this way. It made emotional sense to him, and we are working with a flashback structure so that when he has to undergo some awful treatment for cancer, it reminds him of being tortured by the Nazi’s. Obviously, this is NOT a comedy.
3. “Poetic License” is necessary. The holocaust/cancer story example leads us to the third principle: poetic license will be necessary when adapting life into film. How much can you change a story? This is often referred to as “poetic license.” This is why films are so difficult – the linear shape is unforgiving. In my experience, a feature will hold as much information as a good short story, so fitting an entire book is hard. To make a story work in a film, you may find that events must be compressed, moved out of the order in which they “really” happened, and that characters may have to be condensed. How can you make reasoned decisions? By focusing on the point of the story. In the case of the cancer victim/holocaust survivor the point of the story is that optimism is what can carry you through, and so he was able to select the events that dramatized how his optimism helped him survived terrifying thi ngs.
To recap, when adapting life experiences to films, a treatment is an excellent way to explore the structure. Keep in mind these three principles: You are translating from one medium to another; you must compress your story a bit to fit in the format and that you will have to adjust: what really happened to make the events “dramatic” and lead to a satisfying climax.
There’s been some good stuff happening for my students. One student completed a screenplay and it’s been sent off to a big Hollywood producer who will actually read it himself. Another student has been offered a TV writing gig, and a third is revising a short film that he has already raised money for.
If you’re a newbie, please consider a new service we’re providing that will help you learn or brush up on your Final Draft skills. There’s always a good reason to practice your craft. As an introductory special, we are offering a 10% discount so the cost to you would be $112.50.
Here’s to your successful writing!
Professor Marilyn Horowitz