Monday, April 8, 2013

Reader questions: putting fictional characters into real history and making sure your idea is original

Let's take a few questions.  Doug asks:

I love your blog and wanted to ask a quick question about a specific subject matter: historical fiction. Specifically, incorporating a fictional character into real events over a period of time. Is it too risky to attempt, especially for a first-time screenwriter? Or if risky is not the word, maybe too daunting when maybe something less complex might be a better alternative for a first attempt at screenwriting?

That's a pretty broad question, and as with many concerns - a lot depends on the story you're trying to tell.  For example, Forrest Gump does this sort of thing rather well, but it could be argued that a lot of that has to do with the film's tone.  The movie manages to be dramatic while still having a light enough touch that moments like Forrest meeting President Kennedy don't come across as too silly.  Perhaps mastering that delicate balance is something that's beyond a first-time writer, but then, there are LOT of things beyond the first-time writer.

There's also the Titanic approach, where a fictional character is weaved into established history and even interacting with significant players in the real events.  This is an approach that would demand a lot of research and the writing ability to translate that research into compelling drama.  The degree of difficulty on that is higher than your standard spec, so it's probably fair to say the first-timer may be vexed by it.

I think this comes down to knowing how to walk before you run.  If you've never written a screenplay before, the challenge of knowing when to be true to established events and knowing when to take dramatic license can be a tricky one.  But I think part of pulling off difficult projects is the knowledge that it SHOULDN'T be easy.

If it was me, I'd cut my teeth on something less ambitious first, knowing that other story will always be there for me when I'm ready for it.  But if you're feeling bold and don't have any delusions that it'll be a cakewalk, maybe you want to take the plunge.

Sharup asks:

I have one quick question: Is there a way I can find out that if a logline or concept I've come up with has been already done before or is in current development by someone else? I'm currently working on a couple of screenplays but I'd like to ensure that the storylines behind them are purely original before committing so much time and effort into writing them and then have a reader tell me that it's already been done before. 

Well, you could always try googling your idea. Regularly reading all the entertainment news and trade websites should keep you abreast of a lot of things in the pipeline too.  You also should remember that the story concept is just one part of what makes a script great.  Even if you come up with a concept that's been done before, if your execution is unique, you can overcome that familiarity.  After all, both Armageddon and Deep Impact deal with an asteroid headed for Earth, but the two movies almost couldn't be more differnt.

Perhaps a more relevant example is that of OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN, both of which are built around terrorist attacks on the White House.  I imagine that many a reviewer will enjoy drawing comparisons between the two once the latter opens later this year.

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