I love walking out of the cinema with a story and storyworld still sticking to me, like napalm in the morning. A lot of my screenwriting — paid gigs and spec work both — has focused on slips up or down the timeline. So here are a few guideposts that have been helpful to me in writing about Roman Britain, 12th century Europe, Apartheid South Africa, the birth of the Spanish Inquisition and a dystopian future where a hideous disease is turning the underclasses into crazed killing machines.
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Writing the historical, or, period script is one of the hardest genres to pull off successfully. It takes an incredible amount of research on the part of the writer to authentically recreate a specific moment in time not to mention characters that inhabit that era.
The trick is getting the reader to connect and care about people and events that have gone before as if they are there, in the past with them.
And the key to this all-important trick is approaching any period story with a contemporary storytelling sensibility. What is a contemporary storytelling sensibility?
The best way I can explain it is analyzing your period story for the same ingredients you would bring to a contemporary story.
Are the characters unique and compelling? Does the story bring a fresh perspective on a subject that most people are familiar with, even a little bit? And, above all, will the story transcend time and place so that what is occurring on screen feel like it is happening as we watch it.
Historical characters have always fascinated me because by their nature they are a mixture of fact and embellishment. Legends, famous or infamous are larger than life by definition as are their achievements, adventures or misdeeds mythic.
One of the privileges in writing a period piece is being able to dramatise and comment on events outside my own experience. It’s a chance to play with the world outside that solipsistic little screenwriter brain of mine. Period pieces are the bread and butter of the movie and television industry. Whether the time period is Prehistoric, Victorian or World War II era, stories of historic people and events continue to captivate audience’s imagination. But to write the successful period script, a screenwriter has to. The novelists working during this period, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, were crafting densely symbolic and original pieces of literature that nonetheless relied heavily upon the example of English Romanticism.
Paradoxically, what roots them in a compelling period story is their humanity. Here are a few examples: Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens encouraged his younger brother, Henry, to get a job as a steamboat pilot.
Henry was killed when the boiler on board his boat exploded. While hunting in Mississippi during his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt and a few of his men treed a small black bear so that he could take the shot. Roosevelt decided that killing the young, trapped bear was not sporting and spared it.
Cleopatra was the last Queen and the last Pharaoh of Egypt who spoke nine languages and the only Pharaoh who could speak Egyptian. She had four children, one son with Julius Caesar and three children with Mark Antony.
But contrary to legend and the movies, Cleopatra was not very beautiful. Coins dating back to her time depict a woman with a hooked nose and masculine features. These rarely-known, intimate facts might be just the fresh ingredient a screenwriter needs to take a beloved historical character and put them in a new context that audiences will want to see.
Which brings me to the next key ingredient: How are famous or infamous people defined by their time in history? Even more specifically, can you isolate what specific moment in their lifetime that defines them?
This is the key to the narrative timeline that will lead up to this all-encompassing moment and is known as the point of no return for your character. The most satisfying period scripts are those where the reader feels like the writer has done their homework.
And that is the key ingredient to any great story whether set in the past, present or future — because a great story told well is, after all, timeless.Period pieces are the bread and butter of the movie and television industry. Whether the time period is Prehistoric, Victorian or World War II era, stories of historic people and events continue to captivate audience’s imagination.
But to write the successful period script, a screenwriter has to. How to market a period piece screenplay you own the rights to or that resides in the public domain. WHO SHOULD ATTEND? Screenwriters who are interested in writing a compelling period piece.
Writers who want to adapt a historical novel or story into a script. Screenwriters who want to research a specific time period effectively. The Duchess was such a disappointment. Though the wigs were beyond fabulous and the sets stunningly gorgeous and aristocratically dignified, the characters were flat, their dialogue practically non-existent, and their emotions understandably absent given the dearth of any context for the story.
If you're going to do a period piece, do it up right.
History In Action: Writing the Period Piece Script By: Jon James Miller | November 4, Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter.
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