Fact and Fiction: How to Handle THE TRUTH as a Screenwriter

Oftentimes, a film based in reality will include a handful of fabricated details and interactions. Many people dedicate themselves to pointing out instances where true stories deviate from the truth. Such films and television shows are consistently challenged with intertwining fact and fiction.

But if something claims to be a true story, why can it get away with including details that aren’t entirely true?

Narrative films are not documentaries. Even documentaries often distort reality to serve their intended narrative, to a degree. To say that fact should always trump fiction in filmmaking (fiction being any sort of dramatization, modification, or distortion of events or situations) is to ignore the purpose of the craft: to tell a compelling story.

The most important part of any screenplay is the story. The screenwriter‘s ultimate responsibility is to ensure that all other components service the story. Oftentimes, complete factual accuracy is sacrificed for the good of the story.

With that said, factual accuracy shouldn’t necessarily be thrown out the window entirely. Believability, as well as faithfulness to the source, matters greatly. At times, it’s best to hang on to some facts because their truth is in itself compelling and entertaining in a way that no fictional component could match. Finding the right balance between fact and fiction is the key to telling a truthful story.

“Based on a True Story” vs “Inspired by a True Story”

A title card at the beginning of a movie with any historical basis will likely either read “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story.” There are other variations, but these two are the most common.

One should consider the subtle distinction between these two claims prior to diving into the screenwriting process. The language, though vague, makes a difference in deciding how to balance fact and fiction.

“Based On”

Any film that claims to be “based on a true story” will likely stick more closely to the true events. Inevitably, the filmmakers will take some creative liberties, but those will likely be fewer and further between.

“Inspired By”

The true events that inspired these films are used only as a basis for the story you are seeing. The filmmakers may draw from real events and people, but they will fashion the story more to their desired message. Greater dramatic license will be taken, sometimes because the real events are not quite compelling enough on their own.

Among the other variations from these examples include films that depict true events or take place in the midst of them. Such a film usually doesn’t make any sort of claim regarding historical accuracy because the story itself revolves around entirely fictionalized characters.

Take James Cameron’s Titanic, for example.

  • The main characters around whom the story revolves were not real people.
  • Yet their surroundings are deeply researched and very accurate, and many of the people they interact with are drawn from real people too.
  • With a factually based backdrop, the fictionality of the characters ceases to matter to an audience.

Zero Dark Thirty boasts the lengthier disclaimer of “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”.

  • The plurality of this statement indicates that multiple perspectives have informed this narrative.
  • The film, therefore, seems to claim both a high level of authority and an ambiguity of perspective.
Zero Dark Thirty Official Teaser Trailer #1 (2012) - Kathryn Bigelow, Bin Laden Movie HD

For Finding Fact and Faction, Nail Down the Story

Real life is not designed to follow screenplay structure. Nor is it always inherently entertaining. Entertainment value is something a creator must construct. In order to make the most of one’s creation, it is virtually inevitable that fact must coexist with fiction.

That is all to say that a screenwriter should not feel ashamed to take dramatic license, even if it doesn’t quite align with the truth. Particularly if this is done in service of the story they are telling.

When diverging from historical accuracy, make sure to do so in a way that does not change the fundamentals of the events you are depicting. The best way to do this is by identifying two key features: the WHY and the WHO of your story.

WHY Are You Telling This Story?

Identifying why you believe this particular story is important is a key place to start.

  • What about these true events is so captivating?
  • What is the message you want to get across?
  • Why does the world need to see this story?
  • How is this story relevant to today’s audience?

Doing this will help to narrow your scope, which is important in establishing a focused narrative, just like you’d want in any film. This, in turn, should help to reveal what factual technicalities are not as important to cling to.

Answering these questions will give you the core elements that you will always be able to come back to as you navigate the plot of the story. This is where many departures from reality will arise.

WHOSE Story Are You Telling?

Spotlight Fact and Fiction

We’ve all heard that there are two sides to every story. One person’s firsthand understanding of true events can differ from another’s. Especially if they were on opposing sides of the events in question. The line between fact and fiction threatens to lose definition the more perspectives there are.

In approaching any story, whether rooted in fact or pure fiction, the perspective dictates the direction of the narrative. It shapes the themes, the goals, and the obstacles the main character faces.

Deciding which character will drive the narrative can help you to sort out which pieces of true information will be more influential for the journey you are depicting. This will, in turn, help you determine where you can (or must) take some creative liberties in order to uplift the chosen narrative.

Take Spotlight, which takes the stance of the journalists investigating and exposing widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Had this film taken the perspective of one of the victims of this abuse, it would have been a story of its own with a different tone.

Or look at I, Tonya. A story focused on Nancy Kerrigan’s point of view, as a victim, would likely place the fateful attack on Kerrigan earlier in the story, signifying an earlier start to her arc. In I, Tonya it occurs toward the end, so we see how this event destroys everything we’ve watched Tonya Harding build.

Filtering Through Facts

Once you have your WHY and WHO nailed down, it will become easier to select what bits of fact are not as important to cling to. Strategic cherry-picking is acceptable here.

Not all fictionalized details are necessarily untruthful. When the choice is made to insert fiction into a true story, it is done with great care. Altering a scene or omitting a piece of information does not change the fundamental essence of history. Sometimes the screenwriter may even do this to bolster the message at the heart of the story.

A conversation that never happened is not typically unrealistic. In such a scene, the characters can still reflect the personalities and desires of the real people they are based on, as well as the issues they would be dwelling on during that time. This may simply be more strategic for the story.

Skipping through time is not necessarily untruthful either. If that skipped time doesn’t inform the story in a productive way, it does not need to be there. This narrows the scope and cuts past events that are irrelevant to the main message of the story.

Every line on the page is precious. Even facts must compete for their place in the script.

Fact and Fiction in Onscreen Examples

Here are three examples from movies and TV that demonstrate different ways in which the screenwriters and filmmakers approached the task of portraying true events.

The Crown

Top 10 Facts The Crown Season 4 Got Right & Wrong

An impressively thoroughly researched series, The Crown largely depicts events that actually occurred in the lives of the British monarchy in the twentieth century. Some scenes are reconstructed from reality in painstaking detail. However, even this show makes hard decisions between fact and fiction.

One example of artificial creation is Princess Alice’s interview with a journalist from The Guardian in Season 3.

  • By all accounts, Princess Alice never spoke to the press.
  • However, this scene provides a glimpse into her life which would otherwise be difficult and lengthy to cover.

Similarly, in Season 4, there is a break-in to Buckingham Palace.

  • The show depicts Elizabeth having a lengthy conversation with the intruder, Michael Fagan. In reality, she fled the scene immediately.
  • This fabrication is used as a precursor to an important conversation Elizabeth later has with Margaret Thatcher, their incompatible views being a prominent theme of the season.
  • The conversation between Elizabeth and the intruder is a way to sum up circling themes and filter them through an event.

The Crown doesn’t only strategically use fact and fiction to serve the narrative. It attempts to use its deviations from the truth in such a way that tells the audience more about history.

The show’s strength is taking real-life events and making them about more than the sum of their parts. In this, it inevitably bends the truth slightly.

  • For example, in the show’s reality, the intruder breaking into the palace is a symbol of disaffected times and inequality, conveyed through the conversation between the intruder and the Queen.
  • In reality, it was perhaps little more than an intruder taking advantage of lax security, bursting into the Queen’s bedroom only to be swiftly arrested before he could say barely a word to her.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks Official Trailer #1 (2013) - Tom Hanks Movie

The telling of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers’ turbulent collaboration with Walt Disney, Saving Mr Banks, intertwines fact and fiction rather liberally. Many have been openly critical of this.

  • The film omits much of Travers’ present life, thereby giving little insight into her world at the time.
  • Her complicated relationship with her adopted son is among the more prominent omissions.
  • Travers’ arc instead revolves entirely around her struggle to find peace with her father’s death.
  • This theme, the movie points out, is woven into the fabric of Mary Poppins as well.

One could argue that the film’s clear thematic focus does not necessitate any mention of her son. However, given that she spends the film coming to terms with grief pertaining to her own parent, it may have been appropriate to involve her child in the story in some way. Perhaps that detail would have widened the story’s scope too far. This is one of the hard questions that the screenwriters may have had to wrestle with.

The most significant fabrication is also the moment the whole film builds up to: the screening of Mary Poppins, and Travers’ tearful, relieved reaction to it. In reality, Travers was upset and embarrassed with the result. This left her with a lifelong bitterness toward Disney and their adaptation of her work.

This is an example where the story is fundamentally altered because fact was sacrificed for fiction. It is a controversial move, to not adhere to the truth in this way. It changes the message of the historical events themselves, though serves the narrative that the filmmakers aim to tell.

The Social Network

The Social Network (2010) - You're Breaking Up With Me? Scene (1/10) | Movieclips

The opening to The Social Network includes no title card declaring it to be based on true events. Though deeply researched, this story very much walks the line between fact and fiction. This is largely because of the reliability of the storytelling and its sources.

  • The film is adapted from The Accidental Billionaires, a novel which places Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin as the protagonist. Saverin, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, also served as a consultant during the writing process. It tells the story of Facebook from one of many perspectives, which is important to keep in mind when evaluating its accuracy.
  • The film, on the other hand, positions Zuckerberg as the main character, and an unlikeable one at that. By many accounts, this harsh, merciless portrayal of Zuckerberg is a far cry from the man himself. His character altogether is a wild dramatization, if not entirely constructed individual, who stands on his own.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin‘s depiction has more to do with the themes the film explores, rather than the actuality of Facebook’s conception or Zuckerberg’s life.

The first interaction in the film is between Zuckerberg and a (fictional) woman, Erica Albright. Her role is used strategically to contrast Zuckerberg and therefore tell the audience about him. Or, at least, the version of him in the film. She exposes his unapologetic cold-heartedness, setting the tone for his actions throughout the film.

Using the early days and players of Facebook as its muse, The Social Network creates a narrative of its own, contorting those facts in the process. It’s a film about the creation of Facebook in a thematic sense rather than a factual one, trying to get to grips with the wider themes surrounding Facebook as a cultural phenomenon.

In Conclusion

When it comes to assessing where to draw the line in blurring fact and fiction, it can be hard to come up with firm rules. In many ways, a screenwriter must exercise an instinctive feel for what is right and wrong when dealing with true events.

In sticking too closely to reality, one might sacrifice narrative and thematic strength. But veering too far away from the truth can construct a dangerous alternate reality, one where the facts are bent to the benefits of the person in control of the story (whether that’s the screenwriter or a certain character).

In trying to navigate fact and fiction, try to stick to the rules of your story. Find the purpose in the decisions you’re making as they relate to your narrative, character arcs and thematic questions. Remember that the function of drama overall is to tell a lie that somehow reflects a truth. Your story might construct fictions but in doing so it must be seeking to represent a wider truth.

Be wary that all stories are well, stories. Even ones claiming to be solely based on fact will have a certain perspective and goal, whether that is to convey a certain message or just in terms of tone. In recognising this, a screenwriter can better exercise control over the story they are telling and decide how fast and loose they will play with fact and fiction.

This article was written by Ariana Skeeland and edited by IS Staff.

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3 thoughts on “Fact and Fiction: How to Handle THE TRUTH as a Screenwriter”

  1. I just finished a biopic on a little-known singer from the 1990’s. I altered a few factual things to make the story more dramatic and appealing to audiences.

  2. Thank you . I want to learn about writing ..I have a question.. my story is not about writing a true story… is about reality so is fine to continue with it?


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