Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Structured Life: Thoughts On Adapting Reality for Entertainment

The past two weeks have been a sleep-deprived blur of script rewrites with my fabulous co-writer (and soon-to-be-famous director) Paul. We've been hard at work tearing apart our script and building a brighter, better story from the rubble.

Are you not entertained?
This entire project has been a learning experience. You see: it's a biopic. Which means it is based on a real someone's Real Life. And in Real Life, this someone experienced some Real Crap. Loads of it. Years of it. What makes the story so compelling is how one man was able to rise above the crap, overcome its stranglehold on him, and go on to lead a full, productive life.

Both Paul and I are fans of "Save the Cat." Our original script followed STC structure. But  in it, too much Real Life grabbed the reader by the throat. It was just too dang depressing.

"The problem," we kept reminding ourselves, "is that people don't live their lives by Save the Cat story beats."

On the surface, our task was simple. Just make the movie more uplifting. Less of a downer. You know: something people can eat popcorn to.

However, our subject was a man who went from a world-famous athlete to seriously injured drug addict. His battle with addiction had originally been the crux of our story. But there's precious little one can do to make Real Life addiction and recovery fun.

False high? False low? Regardless,
the Midpoint is a Point of No Return.
Photo by mxruben
Our original midpoint of the film was the accident that sent our hero down the whirling vortex of injury and addiction. From a structure standpoint, it worked and it worked well. From an entertainment perspective, however, it became the tentpole for gloom, doom, and misery.

What finally helped us was approaching our story armed with only general structure and story beats. According to STC, the midpoint should either be a "false high" or a "false low." We decided that the accident would happen much later in the second act. Then we made a list of every major high or low in our hero's life and tried each one out as a midpoint.

It was amazing how quickly we realized that by moving the Terrible Accident much later in the story, we freed ourselves up to focus more on the ups and downs, the highs and lows of being a professional athlete. Suddenly, what had been a "one man overcomes drug addiction" story became a powerful sports biopic, complete with a "will he win or won't he?" duel in the second half.

We didn't eliminate the Terrible Accident. Far from it. It's a critical part of the story. But it's no longer THE story. Now the story is more about willingly throwing oneself at life, regardless of the odds of winning. It's much more engaging and entertaining. It gives the audience something to root for. And though the script doesn't gloss over the dark stuff, it doesn't wallow in darkness either.

If you're writing fiction, the story beats are largely up to you. You can massage the plot and make it your minion. That's easier said than done, however, if you're in the process of adapting non-fiction. Still, there is no reason to abandon solid structure. Knowing your beats and your reasons for them will only make the story stronger.

Some Suggestions for Adapting Reality for Entertainment
[An overly simplified look at structure]:

1.) Know your hero's everyday reality. (Set-Up).
2.) Know what makes your hero exceptional. Know what your hero wants (Catalyst & Theme).
3.) Show your hero dealing with the naysayers who try to hold him back (Debate).
4.) Know what bumps your hero out of his normal world (Break into Two).
5.) Show your hero learning the ropes of his new life (Fun and Games).
6.) Know the Moment at which everything changes & life is never again the same (Midpoint).
7.) Show your hero struggling to regain his earlier momentum. Increase the odds against him (Bad Guys Close In).
8.) Show your hero's darkest hour: where even the hero thinks he's failed (All is Lost).
9.) Show your hero discovering hidden reserves. Armed with this new strength, he charges back into action (Break into Three).
10.) Explore all the ways your hero draws upon his new-found skills to overcome his problems (Finale).

When working with Real Life, the overall "what happened" is a given. If the story has merit, you shouldn't have to take liberties with it to make it compelling. But sometimes the extras of Real Life -- the C and D and Y and Z story lines -- can obscure the core story. That's when overlaying an overly simplified view of structure atop what really happened can help you chart a course for a story that's as interesting and engaging to your audience as it is true to your subject.

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