There’s something I call “Flipping the Switch,” and I think it’s a really useful tool when adapting a true story into a screenplay. When you’re writing anything, there are always two different sides of your brain at work. There’s your logical, literal left brain, and your abstract, figurative right brain. When you’re adapting from reality, it’s especially important that you stay conscious of the two sides and learn when to turn them off and on, so that you can make the shift between these two states of mind.
In the very beginning, you have to spend some time with all the facts. You need your logical side to gather all the facts of the story, make lists and timelines. You’re cataloging what really happened, recording details, matching dates to events and ordering them chronologically. But then, when it’s time to shape a story with a beginning, middle and end and find the best design, you need to turn off the switch that keeps track of facts and dates and details and realities – the place of memory that is literal. You have to turn that off and then turn on another switch, the light of imagination, the realm of story, so that you can immerse in the figurative, as opposed to the literal. This way, you begin to access the subconscious, and you can create art that is universal and accessible to many people.
First, the left brain lays it all down in an organized manner, then the right brain goes ahead and shapes it into story, then the left comes back and refines it all, revising and crafting and editing, and over and over, back and forth we go, between the things that really happened and the scenes that are meant to be in your work of art, your rendition of truth, which is something quite different than the historical fact.
This new story will take on a life of its own as you hone and develop it daily, because you’ve shaped it into art. You’ve done this by stepping back, letting go of what really happened and telling it in a new way, using a frame, an angle, a focal point of one character on a journey, facing obstacles, enduring the rising tension, all structured into scenes with setups, development, and resolution, revolving around turning points, paced with a musical rhythm. Only when this has all been done have you truly shaped that meaningful experience of yours into a compelling filmic story.