This week, Jarie pitched Rudy as a great example of how to tell a true life story. This 1993 film starring Sean Astin and Ned Beatty was directed by David Anspaugh from a screenplay by Angelo Pizzo (creator of Hoosiers) based on the life of Daniel Eugene “Rudy” Ruettiger, a walk on to the 1975 Notre Dame Football team. Go Irish!
Rudy is an account of the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who harbored dreams of playing football at the University of Notre Dame despite significant obstacles. It was the first film that the Notre Dame administration allowed to be shot on campus since Knute Rockne, All American in 1940. [cite source: wikipedia]
Genre: External: Performance > Sports & Internal: Status > Sentimental although that’s not as dominate as the external.
- Beginning Hook – Daniel Eugene “Rudy” Ruettiger and his family are big Notre Dame Football fans and Rudy has the dream to play for them despite being too small, academically challenged, and from a working class background.
- Middle Build – Rudy goes off to South Bend only to be rejected for admission but Father Cavanaugh helps Rudy to enroll in Holy Cross Community college while he also gets a job as a groundskeeper for Notre Dame from Fortune, the head groundskeeper. Through hard work and three rejections, Rudy gains admission to Notre Dame. Now eligible to tryout as a walk-on player, Rudy gives his all and makes the practice squad.
- Ending Payoff – Rudy plays on the practice squad and the coaches compliment him on his heart and hard work. Rudy, frustrated by not being able to dress for the final game of his senior year, quits the team and runs into Fortune who tells Rudy he did the same thing years before. The team protests the coach to let Rudy play and in the final seconds of the final home game, Rudy gets to play, sacks the quarterback, and gets carried off the field.
Jarie – People choose Performance stories to experience the rewards of great effort and the triumph of expressing extraordinary gifts, without having to make the effort themselves. The best performance stories are those that are based on real people since it makes our experience reading/watching them even more special. The reason is simple — we see more of ourselves in characters based on real people and situations.
The challenge with real life performance stories is that they don’t always neatly fit the Obligatory Scenes or Conventions that the Genre requires. That is why, like in Adaptation, the writer needs to embellish or spice up the work to give the reader/viewer what they want — an emotional roller coaster ride that ends with, hopefully, a victory.
Not only does the writer have to provide some tension, she needs to setup the world in which it’s clear that the protagonist has to rise above not only athletic performance but a subtext of being an underdog. It’s not enough for a privileged athlete to be successful — there also has to be some other thing they have overcome, preferably something to do with class (e.g. poor guy makes it big). This is where Rudy shines even though it’s not 100% accurate. More on that later.
- An Inciting performance opportunity: Rudy gets rejected to Notre Dame and has to go to Holy Cross Community College to get his grades up.
- Protagonist sidesteps responsibility to perform: Doesn’t pursue college path after high school, takes four year detour. Rudy quits before the last game because he is frustrated that he’s not suiting up.
- Protagonist lashes out: Rudy leaves his job / family / fiancé for Southbend.
- Meets Father Cavannaugh who offers him a chance to attend Holy Cross for one semester, and if he makes grades, will earn another semester, and maybe if he works really hard he can get into Notre Dame as a transfer student.
- Antagonist’s object of desire: Frank, his brother, wants him to prove that he’s really a player. Does not believe him at all.
- Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the Antagonist fails: Rudy gets on the team but he’s on the practice squad and not on the roster.
- All Is Lost moment: Rudy quits because he’s not playing and must decide whether to go back. Fortune gives him the speech.
- The Big Event Scene: The last game of the season. It’s unclear if Rudy will play but he does and makes a sack.
- Protagonist is rewarded: Rudy gets carried off the field.
- Strong Mentor figure: Fortune, the groundskeeper
- Training: Rudy trains harder than anyone. Has more heart than most players.
- All is Lost Moment: The last game of the season. Rudy has no validation that he was even on the team.
- The Mentor recovers moral compass: Fortune tells Rudy about his own story and tells Rudy he will regret it if he quits.
- The power divide between Antagonist and Protagonist is wide and deep: Frank is the good son for following along in the family business. He’s a realist.
- Ironic, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending: Rudy gets to play one game even though he practiced for 2 years.
The problem with true life stories is that, although some are stranger than fiction, some need help like Rudy. The iconic scene where, on game day, all the players throw down their jerseys in protest, did not happen.
In fact, it was tradition that all graduating seniors would suit up to play so that at least they would get a couple of seconds or even minutes of playing time. The reason it was changed seems obvious — it’s to create tension and drama. This tension and drama is critical to capture and keep the audience engaged. If it was a forgone conclusion that Rudy would play, where is the drama in that!
The other thing in a true life story adapted to a book or movie is that the world in which the protagonist comes from or is in, needs to be set up properly. This setup usually starts with the immense odds that the protagonist had to overcome to get to the big performance.
The best way to do this is early on so that the reader/viewer has sympathy for the protagonist (underdog). This is done beautifully in Rudy with the opening football playing scene where Rudy is the runt and not given a chance to play. This setup is perfect for what is to come later, especially when his brother Frank tells him:
FRANK: Rudy, you’re too small to play anything else than full time center.
This sets the theme for the entire movie in one line.
The ironic thing about Frank is that he does not exist. Rudy did have 12 siblings but none named Frank. Pizzo invented Rudy’s big brother Frank as a human symbol of all the people who discouraged Rudy. As a writer, Pizzo needed the embodiment of the antagonist against Rudy so he invented a crappy big brother. For everyone that has a big brother or big sister, I’m sure you can relate. Since I’m a big brother, I can tell you I used to do the same thing. Sorry Paul and Mike!
The amount of discouragement that Rudy goes through every step of the way makes him as a character, an underdog. Even the people that should be encouraging, like Father Ted, his civics teacher, just won’t give Rudy a break.
FATHER TED: Whoa. Where do you think you’re going?
RUDY: I’m going to see Notre Dame
FATHER TED: Do you have some friends in South Bend?
FATHER TED: There must be some other reason?
RUDY: In the announcement you said anyone could go
FATHER TED: I’m sorry, Rudy, this is for students who want to attend the University of Notre Dame. Not a sightseeing tour.
RUDY: Maybe someday I could go.
FATHER TED Takes Rudy out of line
FATHER TED: Rudy, you don’t have grades to go even to Joliet Community College. The secret to a happy life is to be thankful for the gifts the good lord has bestowed upon us. Rudy, not everyone is meant to go to college.
That’s another powerful setup for what is to come. The great thing is that it’s short and sweet. Not a lot of drawn out dialogue or filler. It makes the point and then the movie moves on to 4 years later when Rudy is working at the mill just like the rest of his family. This further sets the scene for how much of a hole Rudy has to dig himself out of to play football for Notre Dame.
All good stories about true life need that one person that believes the dream of the protagonist. In Rudy, that’s Pete, who Rudy played high school football with. The scene where Rudy and Pete are eating lunch again sets the tone of hope that Rudy might just make it:
RUDY: Pete, you’re the only one that took me seriously
PETE: You know what my father always said. Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.
This also happens to take place on Rudy’s birthday where Pete gives Rudy a Notre Dame letterman jacket as a gift. This foreshadow of what is to come is even more powerful since it’s contrasted by the dirty lunchroom at the mill.
Pete’s death is another shot at Rudy, who now has to mourn the loss of the only person that believed he could do it. The scene follows rapidly after the lunch scene, then the bar scene (Pete fights Frank), and then back to the mill where a “breakaway” is responded to by Pete and Rudy.
Rudy’s failure to turn the water on builds to Pete dying — thus another way Rudy has failed to perform.
At Pete’s funeral is when all this comes to a head and Rudy decides he must go or he “won’t be good for you or anybody.”
At the bus stop, Rudy gets ready to go and his father walks up to convince him to “take a few weeks off” and then tells him the story of his grandfather, a failed dairy farmer that abandoned them. Yet another person that does not believe in him.
FATHER: Chasing a stupid dream causes you and everyone around you nothing but heartache. Notre Dame is for rich kids. Smart kids. Great athletes. It’s not for us. You’re a Ruettiger. There is nothing in the world wrong with being a Ruettiger. You can have a damn nice life. Frank’s going to take over plant 2 in a couple of years.
RUDY: I don’t want to be Frank.
Rudy’s trials and tribulations while in South Bend seem to be made up but they are still believable. His friendship with Dennis “D-Bob” McGowan, getting drunk and blowing it as a booster, and sleeping in Fortune’s office. All of these may or may not have happened but all are important to show how much Rudy has to overcome to realize his dream.
The mentor figure in Fortune is a great foreshadow (which we don’t know yet) of what Rudy would become if he gives up his dream. The fact that Fortune leaves him blankets and a key is the first indication that he wants to believe in Rudy’s dream.
Coming home for Christmas is a pivotal scene in that Rudy realizes that the sacrifice he has made will not be appreciated by his family. His brother Johnny is dating his ex-girlfriend, his brother Frank is still an a-hole, and while his dad is proud of his grades, he is still not supportive. Again, this might not be as true as it was but it’s the perfect way to show that Rudy is really on his own and needs to believe in himself — just like Pete believed in him.
When all rejections pile up and he stops believing in himself is when his mentors step in to remind him of the epic journey he has been on. When he finally goes get in, we feel the joy and relief that finally, Rudy will get his shot. It’s important that the writer make the drama of all the hard work pay off in a way that feels like Rudy earned it. That’s what gives us the desire to want to continue to root for him.
The point of no return for Rudy when he goes to the coach to plead with him to let him suit up. His speech about how “everyone told me that being a Notre Dame football player was impossible” gives the drama required to pull the story to the start of the ending payoff. Coach agrees. This also never happened.
The twist or progressive complication then turns out that the coach quits and now it’s unclear that Rudy will get to play. It’s true that there was a coaching change between 1974 and 1975.
Rudy’s test is when he’s not able to suit up for the last game. He storms out and quits. All the hard work over the last two years, down the drain. His teammate Jim tells him as much and he goes off to wallow in self pity with Fortune.
Fortune’s speech to Rudy is the perfect cumulation of the mentors role and one of the most inspirational in sports films.
FORTUNE: Prove what.
RUDY: That I was somebody.
FORTUNE: That you were somebody. You’re so full of crap. You’re 5 foot nothing. A hundred and nothing. You have hardly a spec of athletic ability. And you hung in with the best college football team in the land for two years and you’re also going to walk out of here with a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothing to nobody except yourself. And for what you gone through, if you have not done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen. Now, go on back.
RUDY: I’m sorry I never got you to see your first game in here.
FORTUNE: I have seen too many games.
FORTUNE: Not from the stands but from the field.
RUDY: You were a player.
FORTUNE: I rode the bench for two years. I was full of anger that I was not being played because of the color of my skin so I quit. Still not a week goes by that I don’t regret it. I guarantee that a week won’t go by in your life that you won’t regret walking out and letting them get the best of you. You hear me clear enough?
In real life, there was no Fortune the groundskeeper. He was an amalgam of three different people. He made up character to drive home the message about not quitting and having no regrets. It’s perfect advice from the mentor and underscores that, as a writer, your true life story might need a nudge to bring it home.
These true life stories are similar to memoir and as such, the exact dialogue said does not matter as much as the intent of the scene. I’m sure the three different people that make are “Fortune” said something like that to Rudy but the exact words were probably a lot different.
The most touching scene, the uniform scene, actually never happened but it’s the best way to prove how much heart and guts Rudy had. In this case, the writer had to show how much the team really wanted Rudy to play. That scene was the best way to show that we saw how hard Rudy was working but we never know if his teammates appreciate it until this scene. There sacrifice is what sets up the big event and makes it clear to the audience that Rudy deserves to suit up at least once.
The big game scene is mostly accurate but the chanting never happened but how cool is it when again, the team and the fans, want Rudy to play. It creates a great sense of tension since there is only 45 seconds and then 20 seconds left in the game. Rudy did get to play and assisted in a sack. He did get carried off the field, which is the perfect end, to the “perfect” true life story.
Kim – Clearly the filmmakers took some liberties with Rudy’s story to solidify the arc make it more visually dramatic for an audience, but for all that they changed, so much of the story is true.
Rudy did work for four years between high school and attempting to gain admission to Notre Dame: worked 2 years on a navy boat and 2 years at a power plant where he met Pete (not a childhood friend).
Rudy’s friend Pete did die in a workplace accident which is what prompted to try for his dream
Rudy really did discover he was dyslexic while at Holy Cross, something I wished they would have made a more prominent part of the story rather than a tossed in reference.
Rudy really did get a sack and was carried off the field.
When Jarie proposed this story as a great example of an adapted true story, it made me think of another adapted true story we did in season 2, Hidden Figures, which interestingly was also a role as a Performance story. This is a story that works and is hugely satisfying, a great success in terms of box office, critical acclaim and, most importantly, championing the truth of the underrepresented who made such important contributions not only the space program but to progress for women and People of Color.
I wanted to take a closer look at it and see what aspects the filmmakers changed or kept intact, how that affects the storytelling and structure and, by comparison, what we can learn about Rudy and adapting true life stories. Here’s what I found regarding Hidden Figures.
Composite and Created Characters
Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, is based on three different directors at NASA Langley during Katherine Johnson’s time at the research facility. The movie’s director, Theodore Melfi, was unable to secure the rights to the guy he wanted, so he decided to make Costner’s Al Harrison a composite character
White collar statistician Paul Stafford, portrayed by Jim Parsons, is a fictional character. He was created to represent certain racist and sexist attitudes that existed during the 1950s.
Hard-nosed supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) is a fictional character created to represent some of the unconscious bias and prejudice of the era. She is at best a composite of some of the supervisors who worked at NASA Langley.
Manipulation of Timeline and Events
Dorothy Vaughan became NACA’s first black supervisor in 1948, five years before Katherine Johnson started working there.
Did Katherine have to run across the NASA Langley campus to use the bathroom?
Not exactly. In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, this is something that is experienced more by Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monáe) than Katherine Johnson. Mary went to work on a project on NASA Langley’s East Side alongside several white computers. She was not familiar with those buildings and when she asked a group of white women where the bathroom was, they giggled at her and offered no help. The closest bathroom was for whites. Humiliated and angry, Mary set off on a time-consuming search for a colored bathroom. Unlike in the movie, there were colored bathrooms on the East Side but not in every building. The sprint across the campus in the movie might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but finding a bathroom was indeed a point of frustration.
Truths Kept Intact
(These certainly aren’t the only ones)
Was Mary Jackson really NASA’s first African-American female engineer?
Yes. Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the movie, was hired to work at Langley in 1951. Like in the movie, she accepted an assignment assisting senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki (renamed Karl Zielinski in the movie), who encouraged her to pursue a degree in engineering, which required her to take after-work graduate courses. She petitioned the city of Hampton to be able to attend graduate classes alongside her white peers. She won, got her degree, and was promoted to engineer in 1958. -PopularMechanics.com
Did John Glenn really ask that Katherine double-check the electronic computer’s calculations for his first Earth orbit?
Yes. Fact-checking the Hidden Figures movie confirmed that John Glenn personally requested that Katherine recheck the electronic computer’s calculations for his February 1962 flight aboard the Mercury-Atlas 6 capsule Friendship 7—the NASA mission that concluded with him becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The scene in the movie unfolded in almost exactly the same way it does in real life, with Glenn’s request for Katherine taken nearly verbatim from the transcripts. He even refers to her as “the girl.” “Get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.” -NASA (This is one I didn’t know, and was so delighted to learn!)
The takeaway in all this is that, yes, things can and should be changed in order to adapt a true life events into a “story”, including omissions, composite characters (including created characters that represent a larger aspect of society or theme), timeline conflations / restructuring events to create the story form (Hero’s Journey, Virgin’s promise, Kubler-Ross Change Cycle, Five Commandments of Storytelling).
Now certainly the degree to which this occurs will be based on the story’s medium (film vs book) and expectation of reality by the audience (memoir vs biography/documentary vs novel) but if you have a story that you want to resonate with an audience, how you portray and structure the characters and events is essential, even if it means making some sacrifices with regard to complete accuracy.
“For better or for worse, there is history, there is the book and then there’s the movie. Timelines had to be conflated and [there were] composite characters.”
-Author of Hidden Figures book, Margot Lee Shetterly, December 2016, Space.com
Testing the Proposition
Valerie – Jarie is proposing that Rudy is a great example of how to tell a true life story. He’s clearly outlined that the film is an excellent example of the Performance Genre. It doesn’t innovate anything, is filled with cliche characters and scenes, and is entirely predictable, but it’s clearly a performance story which has found its audience. Overall, I think his idea that performance is an ideal way to frame a memoir is interesting and would be kinda neat to study further. (Let us know what you find out, Jarie! :P)
That said, I don’t entirely agree that it’s a great example of how to tell a true life story.
Since I’d never heard of Rudy Ruettiger, or this movie, I had to do a bit of research. I think it’s safe to say that this is indeed a memoir because Ruettiger himself sought it out. Filmmakers weren’t interested at first, but Rudy is a very good salesman and he convinced the studio executives to make it. He wanted to make money from his story and so made it happen.
When it comes to memoir, biographies or stories that are inspired by true events, audiences understand that what they’re getting is an interpretation. People don’t remember exactly what was said, or even who said it. We know the story represents one aspect of a character’s life and won’t include every minute from birth to death. Rudy, for example, focuses on how Ruettiger made it onto the team at Notre Dame.
But interpretation and fabrication are two entirely different things, and this is where I have some problems with this film.
There are well-documented errors, omissions and half-truths in the film, and Jarie has mentioned a couple of them already. The opening credits say that Rudy is “based on a true story.” I’d argue it’s loosely based on the truth, and that’s a far cry from being an excellent example of how to tell a true life story.
It doesn’t matter that the storytellers neglected to tell us that Ruettiger was also on the boxing team because that has nothing to do with his goal of being on the football team. I can even forgive the fact that Rudy doesn’t have an older brother, so Frank doesn’t exist. But when fake obstacles have been created for Rudy to overcome, and the core event (and events leading up to it) in a performance story is fabricated, I’ve got a problem.
Are we really proposing that the best way to tell a true life story is to make shit up?
Let’s start with the false obstacles.
In the movie, Rudy is broke. He has to work to get by, he has no money for a proper room and so on. The reality is that his tuition for both Holy Cross and Notre Dame was covered under the GI Bill. If this story is really worth being told, the writers wouldn’t have had to create obstacles. They’d have existed in reality! Ruettiger’s dyslexia is a real obstacle; one that he overcame. That was passed off in a line or two of dialogue. The character just happens to befriend a tutor who not only helps him with classes, but who accurately diagnoses him.
Dyslexia is a real obstacle. If he can’t make the grades, he doesn’t get to attend the college therefore he can’t possibly be on the team. If they’d focused on that (which is a much more interesting problem) they wouldn’t have needed the financial issue. Of course, working at the field introduces the character to Fortune, who is also fabricated. Fortune is an on-the-nose character who fulfills the mentor role in Rudy’s hero’s journey. He’s a major character and the fact that both he and Frank were creations makes me question whether Pete existed (and whether he died in a work accident that Rudy was involved in), and whether Father Ted existed.
Creating a single character is one thing, but fabricating two (and giving them such pivotal roles) calls the story into question.
The real problem with the characters though, in my opinion anyway, is that two people were unduly vilified. Daniel Ruettiger (Rudy’s father) is portrayed as someone who is unsupportive, spitey and even jealous of his son. Magically, when Rudy is accepted to Notre Dame he does a 180, brags about his son’s accomplishment and proclaims that the football field is “the most beautiful sight [his] eyes have ever seen”. (Really? It’s more beautiful than his children (of which he had 13)?) In reality, Mr. Ruettiger was a hugely supportive and encouraging father.
Likewise, Coach Devine was equally supportive. It turns out that he had stated that everyone in the in the Georgia Tech game would play. So, Rudy would have been out there without the theatrics of having the crowd chant his name.
I’m working from the premise that Rudy’s accomplishment of making the team was extraordinary. If that’s the case, then I think the writers missed a couple of key opportunities. They could have played up the actual obstacles he faced and identified the real forces of antagonism rather than making them up.
Why they did that, I don’t know. Clearly this is the version that Rudy himself wanted told.
Now we come to the part of the story that gives me the most pause; that is the events leading up to how Rudy got on the field. The whole core event of the story is questionable. All of the 12 content genres have a core event and this is the scene that the audience is waiting for. It must be in the story and while Rudy does have it, so many of the details and circumstances have been completely made up, that it calls the whole thing into question.
Yes, it works from a genre perspective. The core event, or Rudy’s two plays, is there and it’s satisfying. But what we’re trying to figure out today is whether this film represents a good approach to memoir. In my opinion, the core event must be real. Every detail must be as real as possible. This is not the place to exaggerate or take poetic licence. This is what the audience paid their money for, so it’s got to deliver. If they’ve paid for a true life story, this scene has got to be true to life.
Everyone involved acknowledges that the jersey scene is a lie. It didn’t happen. Coach Devine was not opposed to Rudy playing. He was as supportive of him as he was of other players and would have played him anyway. A small group of people did chant Rudy’s name after he took the field, but it was nothing like the film suggests. Rudy was carried out of the stadium, but not because the team considered him a hero. It was because they were fooling around.
I have to ask, if the core event has to be made up, is Rudy’s story really all that special? If it is, why did they have to invent things? Why didn’t they dramatise the real challenges that Rudy faced? That, to me, would have been the way to tell a true life story.
Anne – Lately we’ve been talking more about the Reality leaf of Shawn’s five-leaf genre clover. There are four broad degrees of reality you can cast your story in, and in descending order of “truth,” those are Factualism, Realism, Fantasy, and Absurdism. The two we’re concerned with here are Factualism and Realism. You might say we’re concerned with Factualism versus Realism.
Factualism is the basis for stories based in history or biography. They take some part of the historical record and imply that “This Story Did Happen.” The category might include documentaries, provided the documentary has some kind of story plot, but mostly I think refers to dramatizations. Shawn gives Twelve Years a Slave and Serpico as examples, and I’d also add Selma, which we reviewed on the show at the end of Season Two, and The Big Short, about the housing bubble of 2007.
These are stories of real events of note in the world, and have as their characters the actual people involved in the events.
Other large biographical dramas like Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, and The Imitation Game might also be good examples, and I’ll get to why in a minute.
After Factualism there’s Realism. Realism is the basis for stories that could happen in real everyday life, but are imagined. This category includes all the fictional crime, action, love and society stories set in this real world.
It only takes a moment’s thought to see that these categories lack hard boundaries and absolute definitions. For instance, the British detective series Lewis is “realistic” in that there’s no magic or spaceships, but how realistic is it, really, to posit a world in which four murders a week happen in Oxford, statistically one of the safest places on earth?
Rudy’s problem is that it’s mostly just Realism, but masquerading as Factualism. To my mind, if Rudy had been presented as a purely fictional tale, it would never have passed muster. Not in 1993. Too syrupy by far. So you could say that the slight hold it has on Factualism gives it license to exist as a sentimental performance story, while its protagonist’s insignificance on the world stage gives it license to just make shit up.
We buy it to the extent that we believe it’s true. The problem is, it’s not true. And what’s more, it’s not based on a guy’s life, it’s based on a single accomplishment–and not a very earth-shattering one at that.
It’s the problem Charlie Kaufman faced in the movie Adaptation, which we analyzed this season in episode 3: there wasn’t enough story in the nonfiction book Kaufman was hired to adapt to the screen, so he had to make a lot of stuff up. What made Adaptation so great was the clever device of just admitting that up front, making the whole movie about how story isn’t real life and characters aren’t real people.
So what can you learn from Rudy as a writer? I have a working hypothesis. If you’re interested in writing fiction about real people, there are three questions you should ask:
- How historically important a figure is your subject? That is, what did they accomplish and what impact did they have on the world?
- How far back in history?
- How major a character is the real person in your story compared to your truly fictional characters?
If you’re inserting a major historical figure as a walk-on part in a story primarily about fictional characters (say, an appearance by Lord Nelson in a story about a sailor in the Napoleonic era), you’re only obligated to your readers to be accurate about the time period and major well-known traits.
But almost every other work we’ve mentioned in the Factualism category involves either towering figures still within living memory at the time the movie was made, like MLK, George Patton, and TE Lawrence, or less-known people whose accomplishments and struggles deserved to be lifted up, like Kathryn Johnson in Hidden Figures, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and Solomon Northrup in Twelve Years a Slave.
If you take on a story like that, you’re obligated to hew pretty closely to facts–say, the sequence of real events and the genuine traits, struggles, antagonists, and accomplishments of the major players.
This dude Rudy…well, he never did anything on the stage of history. His everyman story of persistence didn’t really change the world, and is no more inspiring than any purely fictional account of a dogged working-class person who makes the grade. In order to make it work as a satisfying story, the writers had to be very loose with the facts.
Which is not to put Rudy down, or to knock people for being fond of this sentimental sports performance movie, but only to suggest that the license you can take with the facts is going to be a lot broader for an unknown person with minor accomplishments.
BUT, if you tell the story of an ordinary modern person with a fairly minor accomplishment and, like Charlie Kaufman, you have to invent most of the story, you’d better do what Valerie says and make sure that story is structurally sound, innovative, and tight.
Basically, make it work as a purely fictional story and present it as Realism but NOT as Factualism.
Leslie – This issue has come up in the context of Selma and The Hurt Locker also.
Ava DuVernay was criticized for the way LBJ is portrayed in Selma. Is it accurate? I don’t know. Is Selma a well-crafted story that shares the deeper Truth and meaning of what happened during the times portrayed? Definitely. The events portrayed in Selma are historic events, but no one called it a documentary.
I mentioned when we discussed The Hurt Locker that there had been some criticism on the basis that the film is not realistic and portrays EOD professionals in a bad light. (Compare with Tom Clancy’s novels, which are generally praised for accuracy and precision.) At the time, I repeated Anne’s statement that stories aren’t real life. Some of what is historically true or precisely accurate must give way to telling the story, which is true even in a biopic. It’s important to understand where you want your story to fall on the reality continuum, be intentional and consistent with the micro choices that support the macro choice, avoid doing harm, and be upfront about your choices. Contrast Rudy with A Million Little Pieces, said to be a memoir, but contained facts that weren’t true that cast people and institutions in a negative light.
Stories are a human pattern imposed on life circumstances to convey information and meaning and help us make sense of and deal with a changing world we can’t control. I would be mindful about changing facts about real people or events—especially where it portrays them in a negative light. But I encourage you to tell the greater Truth about life in your stories. People who disagree with your portrayal are free to write their own story. I think the best approach for the writer is to consider goals and the Truth they intend to communicate through the story. Here, the bigger human truth seems to be that a second-generation working-class kid can fulfill his dreams if he works hard and is persistent.
Kim – Yes, wonderfully said. It makes me think of the way I felt this weekend when I watched The Post. I haven’t yet looked into the accuracy of it yet, but there was a specific scene that struck me—when Katharine Graeme comes out of the courthouse and walks through the crowd which visually transitions to being almost solely women, which is representative of theme and the impact of the story they told, looking on with admiration. And I think that is the power of a “based on a true story” story. It adds an element of “I could do that, too” for the audience that is so powerful because it’s not fiction.
Jarie – It was Mark Twain that said “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I think that as writers we need to embellish a bit to keep things moving. The truths of life must be represented in the characters in ways we recognize or the story won’t resonate with us. Even though Rudy does take some liberties with the truth, the core of the story, the underdog winning, speaks to all of us and gives us hope that if you work hard, you can get ahead.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Loren about memoir.
Jarie – Thanks Loren for the question. I’m actually writing a memoir right now and have thought about this myself.
The best post I have read on memoir is from certified Storygrid Editor Rachelle Ramirez. I’m going to start with her explanation of what a memoir is.
In a memoir, you’re actually telling two stories, the primary and the secondary, and that requires a choice of two genres. Each will feature you as the protagonist going through a change process that is aggravated and required by external events. Your primary story will almost always have an internal genre and the secondary story will be an external genre.
Why? Because your memoir goes deep into your head and personal, internal, experiences. Readers expect a memoir to be primarily focused on your internal journey. But the internal journey takes place in the context of external events. So you’re telling both an external story (what happens) and an internal story (its impact on you).
For a memoir, you will need to pick an external + an internal genre. In your case, it looks like you want to choose two external generes (Love + Performance/Society/Status) and two internal generes (Worldview + Morality).
As you have previously heard on the Podcast, we don’t recommend having multiple genres since a mashup is hard to pull off. That does not mean you might not have a scene or some elements of those as we have also talked about (like in Song of the Sea or Rocky). My advice would be to pick one from both first and then see where it comes out.
If you have a question about true life in story, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Leslie can make the case that the 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is an example of the use of metaphors and symbolism within a great story. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?