She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose

January 11, 2022 § 11 Comments

by M. Tamara Cutler

I’m printing draft six of a “based on a true story” screenplay and wrapping my head around notes from my producers for an act three rewrite. It sounds daunting, but third act problems are usually the result of hidden flaws in act one. Now that everyone is happy with the first eighty-five pages of the script, the final thirty should be easily resolved.

My story with this script began in 2016. I read a ‘where are they now’ article in the New York Times written by Susan Antilla, the journalist who first covered the landmark sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by women against a major brokerage house on Wall Street in the 1990s. When we discussed adapting Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room, into a screenplay, I knew she should be the protagonist. But her story wasn’t written. Thus began a year-long interview process to track her story with the one she reported so I could braid the two narratives into a film.

Transposing fact into fictional landscapes like film or television is similar to writing creative nonfiction. We start with the truth, as far as we can research or remember it, and shape it into a structure that keeps the audience emotionally and intellectually invested until the theatre lights go up. This requires a cultural deep dive into the era, editorial decisions like combining characters, compressing time, and cutting anything that impedes the trajectory of the main character’s journey. We don’t, however, divert so far from the truth that the story loses its credibility and becomes fiction (or libelous!).

Because the screenwriter’s job is to leave herself off the page, absolutely nowhere do we write about our feelings, impressions, memories, beliefs or intangible states. It’s maddening, but it’s a useful tool for mastering the omniscient point of view, allowing the viewer to make her own conclusions from what is presented on screen. This emotional remove was a huge hurdle for me to overcome when writing first person prose. I didn’t feel right expressing myself in my own voice and was often urged by readers to put myself more into the story.  

During my year-long creative writing course at Cambridge, a tutor remarked that my dialogue read as bodiless, appearing on the page without a gesture or a voice. In a screenplay, there is no “she said” following a set of quotation marks. It’s introduced simply with the name of the character. The actor’s spoken dialogue reveals the character’s internal wants and fears without a narrative saying what they want or fear.

A screen story also has no past. The industry standard for verb tense, and my go-to, is present active (“she flees to safety”), which permits little to no reflection, what Sue William Silverman defined as The Voice of Experience in her 2005 Brevity craft essay. I allow myself to free write in active present tense but follow up with a pass for the past tense. These are tricks I’ve had to learn so that I can write the way I do in cinematic and dramatic mediums, then transpose it into a literary form.  

Structure, the screenplay’s greatest strength, is my refuge. I wrote the storyline for my book on index cards, as I do with a film story, and posted them on a cork wall. I built tension through act breaks knowing I would flesh out the scenes once I wrote them in prose. When I hit what would be act three, I realized the story was running out of gas. I knew act three’s problems are often rooted in act one, and I played with various opening scenes instead of having to discover the issue after months of composing on my laptop.

Writing myself, my aunt, and my mother’s characters into dramatic scenes freed me from overthinking on the sentence level. I could see the scope of my story with me in it and still be true to the facts. The result is a memoir-driven narrative infused with investigative research and tangential, sometimes surrealistic, thematic interstitials. I believe this classifies as an experimental hybrid form, which is true to my way of processing experiences and telling stories, but with a narrative arc that tracks for the reader.

There are many how-to screenwriting books and blogs about structure and the hero’s journey. I learned by first analyzing movies that had a profound impact on me.

If you want to try:

  • Pick a film you love in its original language, ideally the one you write in.
  • Read the production or shooting draft (not the transcript).
  • Press pause every five minutes during a second viewing to write down the action.

You will begin to notice a formula, but the best films feel organic and surprising even once the structure is understood. They unhinge from plot points and come to life—which is where I want to be when writing creative non-fiction.

Give it a try with your favorite film and let me know how it goes in the comments below!


M. Tamara Cutler is a narrative screenwriter and executive producer writing from a rural village in southern Spain. She works on feature length film projects in Los Angeles, New York and London and is currently writing her first book of creative non-fiction, Brilliant Miami Sunset. She has an MFA in film from New York University/Tisch School for the Arts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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§ 11 Responses to She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose

  • […] She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose […]

  • Nancy Brown says:

    Wow. Great read, challenge. Great way to start the day, stimulated, excited.

  • This is a generous and fascinating sharing of process, but there is a danger of misunderstanding. The author is sharing a strategy for exploring frame and suspense, the development of a powerful story, but… I am troubled by the comparison “Transposing fact into fictional landscapes like film or television is similar to writing creative nonfiction.” Maybe it is, but there is an essential difference, it seems to me.

    Films “based on a true story” generally contain obvious deviations from reality by “combining characters, compressing time, and cutting anything that impedes the trajectory of the main character’s journey” and inventing dialogue. They generally alter the story to suit the screen. That is not just creative, it is fictionalized. There is a dividing line between the “based on true events” feature film [fiction] and the documentary [nonfiction].

    Closer to [my] home, creative nonfiction is still “nonfiction.” Just because it’s “creative” doesn’t mean I am allowed to make stuff up. Creative nonfiction aspires to lyric, to metaphorical truth, to meaning drawn from life, and like any story told may emphasize revelatory instants or ignore details that fail to contribute. A work of creative nonfiction or memoir may even be inaccurate because of misremembering, misunderstanding, or honest error. It is not allowed to lie by deliberately writing a convincing falsehood and labeling it “creative” nonfiction. Writers of memoir and creative nonfiction have been pilloried for invention. Creative or not, nonfiction requires the writer to reveal truth through actual fact.

    • Thank you for making this point. When I lead creative nonfiction workshops, I teach a formula: nonfiction + fiction = fiction. The introduction of any intentionally invented elements makes the entire work fiction.

    • Hi Jan, thank you for your thoughtful response. I totally agree with you when it comes to writing CNF. The most important pact a writer – or even a filmmaker – has with the audience when writing non-fiction is transparency. Many non-fiction writers will preface the book with a statement of process – research, imagined scenes, recreations, documentation, memory, interviews, etc. We do this often in film with a title card at the front claiming what has been fictionalized and what is fact.

      In the script I’m working on, which is based on a true story and investigative reporting, I deliver an Annotated Guide with the final draft. Similar to an annotated bibliography, i chart every deviation from fact, and I cite the sources for dialogue (interviews, articles). So it’s not as simple as just making stuff up or inventing dialogue to make something more exciting. There are boundaries. I can’t vouch for all filmmakers though!

      But I think it’s really about being forthcoming with the audience so they are in on it, too. A great example is Get Back, the Beatles documentary made by Peter Jackson. That is pure observational filmmaking, and there is a title card at the front that states these 8 hours were edited from 100 hours of footage and 60 hours of audio. They let us know where there was no footage, still images are being used. And they let us know they made every attempt to faithfully recreate the event (I’m paraphrasing). With that established, the viewer can sit back and witness the unscripted brilliance unfold.

      Again, thank you for the conversation. I love talking about this 😉

      • Thank you. As I wrote, my concern is that readers would misconstrue your intention. I’ve seen comments on past posts that indicate some people assume “creative” means they can create.

  • youngv2015 says:

    I found this very interesting! I’m not a screen writer but I can see its usefulness in fiction writing and nonfiction writing.

  • J. Speer says:

    Best of luck with the screenwriting. That’s wonderful.

  • Eswen Allison Hart says:

    I’d love to try this—but how does one get hold of “the production or shooting draft” to read (step 2, above)?

    • Hi Eswen, you can do a search for the name of the film plus PDF or screenplay or script. When you look at the search results, start looking at the ones that say shooting script. There are some websites like which have many scripts from over the years. Sometimes there is a rogue copy of something available on Reddit. It’s a bit of a search mission these days, but you can find them. You can tell if a script is a transcript when the first page is plain description and dialogue is like an automated transcript. Don’t pay for any. And if you want, I can help look. I have a lot of scripts on file, too. I’m glad you’re up for it. If you love movies, it’s fun. The first time I tried this was for Saturday Night Fever!

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