Katie Fetting: Five Reasons Writers Choose To Break History

history

Hanna is a 1st gen American of German immigrant parents. When WWII breaks out, she seeks to prove her allegiance to the U.S. After rigorous training at Camp X (Google it!), she becomes a spy. Our graphic novel opens in early 1945. Hanna’s assignment? Take a German officer from Munich to Genoa — avoiding the Nazis, the Russians, the Americans. Why? Well, maybe this assignment isn’t exactly ‘authorized’…

Ever see a movie with a know-it-all?

If you haven’t, you probably are that know-it-all. If so, you relish pointing out every inconsistency possible. “There were no such things as chastity belts.” “Eva Peron was a terrible person who didn’t sing with a suitcase.” “No way Braveheart banged the Princess of Wales. He would have smelled like a farting Shetland pony.”

So… I’m one of those know-it-alls. And it can be delightful to point out discrepancies, misinterpretations and general fuck-ups in historical adaptations.

But what if you’re on the other side of it? Do writers really not know their history? Did they not spend months and years researching? Are they inept morons?

OK, probably some of them are. But as someone who’s written five projects based on real events – each with its own historic inaccuracies – I can tell you, most of us make deliberate decisions to benefit the overall story.

Why do we do this? Well, there’s a lot of boring shit that’s happened in 3,000 years. A helluva lot of waiting in doctor’s offices. Blow-drying hair. Scooping kitty litter. Watching CSPAN…

So here are five criteria I use to determine whether to break with documented history. Use and abuse at your own peril.

1. Pace

From moment-to-moment are you keeping the reader engaged?

A reader must want to know what happens next. If you lose this, pages stop turning. The overwhelming majority of stories already truncate time to some degree, so ask yourself if a minute, inessential historical detail pushes the reader forward or stops him in his tracks.

2. Space

Can your overall narrative survive going off on Dostoyevskian tangents?

You may be keeping readers reasonably engaged from moment-to-moment, but most of them have overarching expectations for a narrative and how it should move. It’s possible, if you’re Steinbeck, you can get away with an entire chapter on a turtle early in your narrative. However my guess is that, you, Sir, are no John Steinbeck.

Mostly, tangents work more like the begets and begots of Genesis. You see how crazy long the Bible is… and how you’re only on Chapter 5 of the first book… and, yeah, I think I’ll watch Orphan Black.

3. Interest

Does adding accuracy add interest?

In my screenplay for about the 1924 teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, I tried to scrupulously follow the recorded history. But at times, in order to do so, I’d be adding scenes unnecessary to the plot – which would have slowed the tempo, added money to the budget and been, well, tedious.

For example, in real life, when the ransom call for their victim came in, only the mother was at home. This seems odd as if my child were kidnapped, certainly my partner and I would BOTH be there waiting for the call. Therefore, to be accurate to history, I would either need to 1.) leave the audience wondering where Dad is or 2.) show where Dad is – which was at his hoity-toity gentleman’s club seeking more information (which he didn’t find).

Did that last graph put you to sleep? Exactly.

So in the script, Dad and Mom are together to get the call – there’s no unnecessary scene and no weird questions in viewers heads. But it’s not accurate.

4. Room for interpretation

Do we even know the established history is accurate?

This question came up when I was working on a project about the Borgias. So anything before recorded times – and I mean film, vinyl, photograph, sex tape – is potentially suspect. Especially when it comes to European history during the Renaissance.

Basically, the people writing shit down were either paid by the subjects themselves or by people who loathed the subjects with the passion of a thousand suns.

So which is accurate? Probably neither.

5. Intent

Have you stayed true to the event / character it/herself?

In my latest project, a graphic novel called RATLINE, an OSS agent is tasked with transporting a Nazi out of the shit-show that was central Europe in the waning days of World War II. She’s instructed to avoid all of the armies, including our own, in order to sneak this dude out.

IRL, the U.S. DID have an official, top secret operation called BLOODSTONE in which we enlisted known Nazi war criminals to help us in our post-war struggle with the Russians.

There were also things called “ratlines” that operated like an Underground Railroad for escaping war criminals.

Now there is no evidence that they were as operational as I made them in April/May of 1945. And there is no evidence a U.S. agent ever escorted a Nazi through them. But possible? Hell yes. And true to historical intent.

* * *

Bottom line: With every choice, ask yourself does the “reality” of this contribute to the overall understanding of the narrative / story / philosophy? Does the absence of it invalidate the history?

Bottom bottom line: Writers usually know the history they’re messing with.

Bottom bottom bottom line: Did you make it this far?

Katie Fetting is a screenwriter and aspiring graphic novelist whose first graphic novel RATLINE with illustrator Mark Rehill is currently in the midst of an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign. Those who donate will get into heaven.*

*No money back guarantee.