Story, Technique

Historical Drama Screenwriting: The Difference Between Real And Reel

In this article, we address the differences between fact and fiction in historical drama screenwriting. Using the miniseries Chernobyl as a case study, we look at the storytelling devices of fictionalized narratives in historical drama.

A screenwriter working on a historical drama references people and events from real life. Historical accuracy and getting the facts straight are therefore issues to tackle. However, a historical drama screenplay is a work of fiction in which the story worth telling ranks above exact representation and objective ‘truth’.

Many questions persist among screenwriters surrounding the genre of historical drama. We’ll dive into the most common issues you might encounter when working on a historical drama screenplay.

What Is the Difference Between a Documentary and Storytelling?

By definition, a documentary is non-fiction. Such a film can document a production process in a making-of, cover a span of time that is of interest to the public such as an election cycle, educate with in-depth knowledge on a topic, offer investigative research or give eyewitness accounts in interviews. Commentary and opinions can complement a documentary, but outright deception or misrepresentation will result in discredit. In a documentary, the truth is the story.

A historical drama may take a nuanced approach to the truth. It might use a historical period as a backdrop for a story in which historical characters appear and act out fictionalized events. Terms such as docudrama or docufiction try to express a degree of accuracy in the portrayal of real events and people. But the fact remains: historical drama takes liberties with the truth in order to tell a story that is more dramatic, sensational, simple or comprehensible.

What Is Artistic License?

William Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies, and histories, which include biographies of English kings. Being a cunning playwright and dramatist, the Bard knew to alter fact into fiction in order to create heightened characters from real people. Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, for example, but in reality, the monarch wasn’t as evil as the play portrayed him to be.

While William Shakespeare took many liberties as a playwright, the historic drama Shakespeare In Love also romanticizes the writer (IMDb).

Despite the misleading name, artistic license is not a legal term but merely a literary name. It’s the alteration that makes the difference between a screenplay that is a true story or based on a true story. Anytime you as a screenwriter heed the producer’s advice that “real life is boring!”, you skip over the tedious and unimportant details, or glamorize things, you take artistic license. You put entertaining the audience above educating them.

Are There Legal Implications?

The short answer is: yes. A production straying far from the original source material without a proper legal framework is a lawsuit waiting to happen. A person, their family, or their estate, can sue for defamation of character by their misrepresentation on screen. A contract for the adaptation of a true story should, therefore, include sufficient clauses to protect the filmmakers and their artistic vision.

As a screenwriter, you’re less likely to have to address legal issues unless you’re not only writing but also producing your own historic drama. Securing the rights to a story is only part of the deal, the other is balancing out your storytelling ambitions with the protection of reputational rights.

Chernobyl Case Study: Historical Drama Storytelling Devices

The following storytelling devices of historical drama seek to elevate the real-life events to an epic story worth telling. We’ll use the 2019 miniseries Chernobyl as a case study to briefly explain each point.

Alter A Character

The Chernobyl miniseries vilifies three of the central characters: plant director Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’neill), chief engineer Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins), and deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter). Their characters are distorted and misrepresented for the sake of dramatization. Especially Anatoly Dyatlov is stylized as an anti-hero to clash with scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris). Chernobyl survivors draw a different picture of these characters. Similarly, Legasov wasn’t the martyr into which the show makes him: he wasn’t present at the Chernobyl trial and didn’t confront the Soviets in the way the series shows.

Chernobyl makes Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) into a villain (IMDb).

Conflating Characters

Any story with a large cast of characters makes it difficult for the audience to follow and keep track of who is who. Conflating many characters into one enables greater focus and provides more freedom for telling the story. Chernobyl does this with scientist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who represents the many people who assisted Legasov in reality, rolled into one person. Viewers can identify with her more easily, and having just two scientists heightens their heroism and creates a lot of fictional tension between them.

Emily Watson as the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk in Chernobyl (IMDb).

Adding A Character

Chernobyl has the shortcoming of not portraying Soviet power relationships with accuracy. In all fairness, to bring out these dynamics would require a greater focus on the people in power. To overcome this, the show added a fictional character, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), an elder statesman. His speech represents the Soviet approach and point of view: “We seal off the city. No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

Zharkov (Donald Sumpter) is a fictional character in Chernobyl (IMDb).

Creating A Visual Representation

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) describes the effects of exposure to high amounts of radiation over a short period of time. Among the short-term visible symptoms are nausea and vomiting, but not bleeding or spot bleeding – although the Chernobyl series shows exactly that. Alexander Yuvchenko bleeds excessively after work in the reactor, which could only be the result of burns, but not radiation. The threat of radiation poisoning is silent and invisible, and the show took the liberty to give the audience a visual effect.

Similarly, the pillar of black smoke rising from the reactor is a great visual effect, but eyewitness actually reported fumes coming from the damaged plant, not smoke and fire. However, the beam of blue light shooting into the night sky is accurate and was caused by the intense radiation ionizing the air.

Not every disaster produces dramatic visuals (IMDb).

Altering Science Into Fiction

Scientific explanations can be long-winded and don’t serve as short, dramatic, and impressive speeches. In Chernobyl, Valery Legasov compares radiation to a bullet and the disaster to “three trillion bullets in the air, water, and food that won’t stop firing for 50,000 years.” While this is of course not accurate, it carries great shock value. The miniseries discard science in favor of dramatization at other times as well. Radiation is not contagious, though various scenes show the treatment of victims like infectious zombies.

Heightening The Drama

Embellishment is a standard storytelling repertoire to create a more captivating narrative. Heightened drama keeps the audience at the edge of their seats and to that end, Chernobyl perpetuates certain non-truths because they elevate the tension. The bridge between the town of Pripyat and the power plant is known as “The Bridge Of Death” because reportedly, everyone watching the burning reactor from there died from exposure. This is a great story, but also an urban legend.

Another overly dramatic representation is the heroism of the three divers who drained the water from under the reactor. In reality, they didn’t volunteer and received neither a reward nor applause for their work. The epilog of the show also clarifies that they didn’t die of acute radiation syndrome, as has been falsely reported.

A typical stereotype in the depiction of the Soviet state is the threat of instant execution by shooting for failing to obey an order. Chernobyl is not above employing this dramatic means of enforcing ‘motivation’ and compliance of workers. The truth is, these death threats didn’t happen at the real disaster site.

People at the Chernobyl power plant did not act out of fear of being shot (IMDb).

Changing The Timeline

The helicopter crash at Chernobyl happened in reality, though it took place five months later on October 2, 1986. The accident was due to the helicopter’s blades colliding with a chain from a construction crane. The show’s creators moved the event forward in time to suit the flow of the story and have several dramatic incidents happen in short succession. The show also altered the timeline of the trial. Apart from leaving out many people involved, the Chernobyl miniseries compressed several weeks into a short span of time for simplification and dramatic effect. 

The helicopter crash happened in reality, but it wasn’t caused by radiation (IMDb).

Employ A Narrator

A narrator is another storytelling device for historic drama. Chernobyl actually doesn’t use it, but it’s on display in Narcos. The voice-over narration by agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) in the first two seasons charting the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar frames the story for the audience. Like in a documentary, the narrator of Narcos provides the bigger picture, but also constantly reminds viewers that what is presented is the biased perspective of a minor character. This tinted version of events helps suspend the audience’s disbelief.

Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is the narrator of season one and two of Narcos (IMDb).

Contrary to that, historical fiction can use on-screen text or an impartial narrator who isn’t a character convey factual information or establish a timeline. This serves to lend authority to the narration and give the impression that what is presented is objective truth rather than a fictionalized narrative.

Bring Out The Emotional Truth In Historical Drama

Chernobyl, Narcos, Bohemian Rhapsody, BlacKkKlansman, The Crown, or American Crime Story – historical drama as a genre will always face praise or criticism based on historical accuracy. But screenwriters know that producers, viewers, and critics alike not only fact-check their screenplay but also judge their storytelling abilities. You’re not after the literal truth, but emotional authenticity. Or, as the old Hollywood adage goes, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the story.”

The emotional truth of a story is something that still feels right with the audience, although they know you’ve changed things around here in there. You haven’t introduced them to the naked facts of their hero, but the essence of their character and their deeds. With a fictionalized version of real-life events, filmmakers can raise awareness and interest for a subject the audience would otherwise have overlooked or ignored.

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Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories.