Sacrificing facts for drama is a difficult balance. After all, all of us want our reader (and thus our audience) to suspend their disbelief; the last thing we want them to do is splutter, “As if!”


Here’s a list of why we might sacrifice facts for drama:

1) Drama

Really obvious, but writers consistently duck away from really engaging with the dramatic, myself included. They’ll write a good scene, but refuse to take it as far as they possibly can in order to squeeze the most drama out of it. Often this will be because they won’t want to put their characters through a particular trauma – or they feel fraudulent, making something up in order to do that (this is very often the case in biopics or stories that draw on autobiographical elements). It’s okay to make stuff up; it’s what we do.

2) Accurate doesn’t mean interesting!

Even if you’re a policeman, doctor or scientist, I bet you three million squid, plus tentacles, you’d sooner have quality drama than accurate drama. Yes this doctor *might* not be treating that patient exactly “right” and okay, that crime scene’s not been secured properly – but what is the actual storyline like?

Similarly, all the jargon should add to the arena, not get in the way of understanding what the hell the characters are on about – hence characters often translating for the audience not-so-subtly: “I found an embryo embedded in the uterine wall”/”She’s pregnant?” (CSI this week).

When it comes to science, we want the L’oreal version: “Here comes the science part!”, NOT an in-depth, blow-by-blow, highly accurate version. Think Jurassic Park here – dinosaurs come from DNA in mosquitoes encased in amber! Really??? Yeah, whatever. BRING ON THE DINOSAURS.

3) Character distraction

Sometimes we let the TV shows and movies we love take gigantic liberties because it’s the character we love, rather than the plot. House is a good example of this: diagnostic medicine?? I think not — his methods are nuts and so is he. But we love him for it, we are captivated by him, the character; we want to know what he will do next. Of course, it’s a dangerous one because if you DON’T love House himself, you probably hate the show because it’s nuts in the realism stakes. Swings and roundabouts.

4) Jeopardy 1: desperate measures

We’ve all heard the stories about the woman who somehow lifted a car off their child who was being crushed by it. Basically, we can believe a character will do most things to preserve their own life or that of their child’s.

This is why I believed Children of Men – She had just gone to all this trouble to have this baby – she would go to any measure to protect it. There must be women in war zones today who have had to do something similar.

The reason then I couldn’t believe in the script I read was I didn’t feel as if the girl was desperate enough to run up four flights of stairs to escape being found: I just wondered why she didn’t just give herself up. By contrast, Children of Men made me believe there was enough jeopardy, there was no way in hell they were going to give themselves up.

5) Jeopardy 2: rage

Sometimes characters are very logical in their approaches in the scripts I read, particularly in revenge or fighting back – sometimes they don’t get angry at all, even in survival situations where they will say stuff like, “We have to remain calm”.

Characters CAN do illogical, ridiculous, even out-and-out stupid things – if we can follow their motivations for doing them: they needn’t only be sensible. Sometimes the bigger, more stupid risk a character takes – particularly when it comes to the big Hollywood-style stunts, though not always – the bigger the drama. So, the likes of John McClane are angry – you want a piece of me? HAVE IT RIGHT BACK.

And finally, perhaps the weirdest of all:

6) Sometimes “reality” seems unreal

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read a script and thought “yeah right”, only to check Wikipedia or ask the writer and discover, actually, that thing/event/whatever *does or did happen*.

Weirdly, though some things are in fact true and wonderfully researched, if your average audience member is unaware of such a thing or event happening, is it worth including it if they may not believe it? Only you as the writer can decide – based on the feedback of others.

Personally, I’d venture if your readers consistently don’t believe it, then you need to do some fabricating to make them.

MORE ON B2W: 5 Times It’s OK To Sacrifice Facts For Drama

What are the best/worst examples you’ve seen of writers sacrificing facts for drama?

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6 Responses to 6 Reasons Writers May Need To Sacrifice Facts For Drama

  1. Good Dog says:

    Think Jurassic Park here – dinosaurs come from DNA in mosquitoes encased in amber! Really??? Yeah, whatever. BRING ON THE DINOSAURS.

    Well, it was the blood inside the mosquitoes. And they used frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genetic sequences, so… nah, it still sounds like a load of hooey. But then it’s made for mass market appeal, meaning it’s aimed at a high percentage of complete imbeciles.

    As for serious drama… You obviously missed the edition of The Culture Show where Ed Burns stated:

    “You make a film for the person or persons who you are depicting. So in The Wire we were making the film for the addicts, the cops – that’s our audience. In Generation Kill it was for the marines.”

    Which is why both The Wire and Generation Kill feel real. The guys have done their research and know what they are writing about. It doesn’t mean that everything they have dug up has to be shoehorned into the episodes to show how clever they are or how much background material they have researched.

    As for House, the character is supposed to be a medical version of Sherlock Holmes. Using real diseases, to reach the right diagnosis it runs on Holmes’ maxim, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” which is why it’s very different proposition than, say ER. (It still makes more bloody sense than the cocking nonsensical drivel in something like Casualty).

    In terms of sacrificing facts, in Deadwood David Milch went for explicit, contemporary language rather than the vernacular of the period because it would have sounded ridiculous to today’s audience. Also, the profanity illustrated the lawlessness of the time. If antagonists were hurling abuse at each other, they weren’t pulling guns on each other. Still makes it an excellent drama.

    Phil Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff plays fast and loose with some facts. The final sequence featuring the astronauts introduction to Houston and Yeager taking the new NF-104 on a potentially disastrous test flight took place at different times. But by inter-cutting them it highlights Kaufman’s thesis that the unknown test pilots at Edwards were the real exponents of “the right stuff”, while the Mercury astronauts, until they earned their stripes, were simply part of a big PR exercise. The tone of the material also presents the true fliers as real heroes, the “permanent press corps” as parasites, while the government – and in particularly LBJ – are just objects of derision.

    As for the worst examples of writers sacrificing facts for drama… Isn’t that obvious?
    Doctor-fucking-Who! Or rather the Who episodes written by Russell T Davies. Sure, it’s primarily “for kids”, but the lack of science or just the laws of physics shows sheer laziness and the lack of any intelligence is utterly astounding. Anything that is interesting is usually “lifted” from other, previous published, broadcast or theatrically released work.

    Here’s one example…. Whatever goddamned episode it was, the TARDIS dragging the Earth back through space to its correct place in the solar system. I mean, what the fuck?! There are other examples but if I had to think about them it would probably make me violently sick.

    By all means sacrifice facts for great drama if you have to, but sacrificing facts for lousy drama only shows an utter, utter contempt for the audience.

  2. Lucy says:

    I’m not Dr. Who’s biggest fan by a long shot GD – though I did enjoy elements of the last series, Silence In The Library obviously – but I think you’re being harsh there. I think it “translates” concepts and issues really well for a child audience – slavery for example with that Ood episode or moral parsimony “Which is best – killing 10 or killing 10,000?” as in James Moran’s episode.

  3. Tim Clague says:

    And there is such a thing as solar flares too! ha ha. Or did I alter the wikipedia entry to match my script. Now there’s an idea!

  4. Good Dog says:

    Pay attention girl, I mentioned the episodes written by a specific writer.

    I thought the two Moffat episodes were remarkable. Mr Moran’s episode, with the moral dilemma, goes back to the classic cliffhanger in the Genesis of the Daleks episode. (Even though it was written by Terry Nation, who everyone loathed).

    And yes, it’s a kids show! Which is why I don’t get all these bloody adults getting all hippity hoppity and having nocturnal emmissions about it.

  5. Lucy says:

    Tim – wouldn’t put it past you!

    GD – I don’t understand why adults like Dr Who so much either, though I suppose it is because they first liked it as kids. I never liked Dr Who as a kid, the whole thing passed me by, so perhaps that is why I am ambivalent. However when the writing’s good, it’s very good. And actually I thought the Adipose episode was great – really interesting comment on our weight-obsessed society.

  6. Jill R says:

    See the laws od science thing on Doctor Who never bothers me because I know nothing about science and I never relate anything on Doctor Who as being real.

    Saying that if I see a 999 call on TV it will bug me if it’s inaccurate because I know how it should be done as I used to answer 999 calls.

    Also football references that don’t make sense annoy me – Goodnight Sweetheart had a character from Liverpool who supported Manchester United, I know it was fantasy but that was stretching it.

    It doesn’t matter what you do if it’s inaccurate someone will pick up on it, as long as it doesn’t take the reader or viewer out of the story it’s okay.

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