When you’re writing a screenplay about a real person, it can be a challenge to find the right shape for the story. In most cases, the lives of interesting people span a period of many years, so choosing your angle, and deciding how to frame your main character’s story, can be tricky. It helps to break the process down into these 6 steps:
1. Choose the Type
As you research and develop a storyline from the history (and your imaginative take on that history,) think about what kind of biopic would best tell your character’s story. Should it be a traditional epic biopic, such as Wyatt Earp, Jobs or The Butler? A slice of life biopic, such as Hitchcock, (focused on the making of Psycho), Lincoln (focused on the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment) or Capote (focused on the writing of In Cold Blood)? A genre biopic such as Lawless (adventure-crime biopic), Walk the Line (love story biopic) or 42 (sports biopic)? Or perhaps your biographical protagonist would best be served by a non-chronological telling, such as Into the Wild, Amelia, or Catch Me If You Can.
2. Find the Arc
Once you’ve decided what form your story should take, you should then get clear on the dramatic arc of your main character. One way to do this is to think about what he or she wants at the start of the film. Then ask yourself what that character really needs. How do they go about getting what they want? What happens as a result, and what obstacles must they overcome? Do they get what they want? How? Do they get what they need? How does that happen? Once you can answer those questions, you should have an idea of the rise and fall of the interior life of your character that will parallel his or her dramatic action.
3. Find the Throughline
The character arc is the journey of the character’s interior, but the throughline is the core of the storyline we will follow. To solidify this, make sure every scene in some way relates to your main characters’ outer story as well as their inner journey. Every scene must somehow move their particular story forward, even if indirectly. For example, in Hitchcock, when his wife Alma, who has been having story meetings at her friend Whit’s beach house, catches Whit in bed with another woman, she becomes disillusioned with the idea of having an affair with him and renews her devotion to Hitch. This, in turn contributes to his overall throughline of forging a lasting marriage that supports his ambitions to continue making films.
4. Develop the Characters
Once the story is down, your next task is to bring those characters to life. Spend time imagining how they sound, their gestures, clothing, likes and dislikes. As you write and revise scenes, try to sense their presence, as live actors. Can you feel their pain? Empathize with their frustration? Share in their joy? Like it or not, they will be living in your house, or at least inside your mind, for as long as you are working on this project.
5. Paint the Details
Keep in mind that people are, in part, shaped by their surroundings. Paint the picture of the world they live in with as many fine strokes as you can and you will bring your character’s story to life with more authenticity. What kind of car did they drive, exactly? How big were the waves that day? What would they wear? Eat? Drink? Through these kinds of details and setting descriptions, the world of your character can come to life more vividly, making your screenplay much more readable and compelling. The more magnificent your visuals, the more cinematic the film will be as well.
6. Draft and Draft Again
The only way, finally, to shape and hone the behemoth that is a biopic is to keep rewriting, and that means a lot of cutting, rethinking, expanding, and rearranging. Stick with it, you’ll need to take time and have patience in this arduous but ultimately rewarding work of transforming real life into art. In the end, the goal is to have a script that does justice to an amazing life, something that will reach out and touch others with a theme that resonates and inspires.
Candace is a former ICM story analyst whose screenplays have been in development at Fox, Disney, Lifetime and HBO. She is the author of Shaping True Story into Screenplay, available through The Writer’s Store and Amazon. You can find her online at shapingtruestory.com and Facebook.com/shapingtruestory.