Recently, I had a chance to see Christopher Nolan’s latest epic “Dunkirk”. As I was watching the film, it occurred to me that there was much to be learned concerning writing about historical events. Now before I go any further, I think I must point out that I will be mentioning key aspects of the film, so if you haven’t had a chance to see “Dunkirk” yet, I would recommend reading this article at another time.
When it comes to writing about historical events, there are a host of new challenges the writer must contend with, the largest being the massive amount of research required. There are also certain political aspects concerning period epics that require the writer to tread carefully. The third challenge to a writing project like “Dunkirk” is the massive geographic and emotional scale of such a story. With all that being said, I felt the end result of “Dunkirk” could safely be regarded as a success. Here are five writing tips that one can glean from this film:
Quickly Establish the Time and Setting
Now while it could be said that most viewers going into “Dunkirk” are already aware of both the time and setting, I felt the opening shot of this film bordered on brilliant. In the first scene of “Dunkirk” the viewer is met instantly with a shot of English soldiers in military garb standing in an abandoned street as German propaganda rains down from the sky. A scripted overlay informs the audience that the Allied forces are trapped against the sea with the German forces closing in quickly. From a writing perspective, one can appreciate the accurate transmission of not only time and setting but mood to the audience. One of the important aspects in writing about historical events is the necessity to let the audience know what people who lived through that time must have been feeling. This brings not only the characters, but history itself to life.
Underline the Importance of the Impact on History
One challenge the writer faces when crafting a story which takes place during an historical event is the fact that the audience “already knows what is going to happen.” If your story takes place on the Titanic, it’s almost a guarantee that everyone who reads your story is aware that the ship goes down. In the case of “Dunkirk”, anyone who has taken a history class at any point in their life is aware that the Allies win the war. Going a step further, there are many who are aware that the Dunkirk evacuation was both successful and a major moral boost for the Allied forces. Since the audience is already aware of the eventual outcome then, the focus of the tension should not be on what will eventually happen, but rather what could have happened. “Dunkirk” successfully conveys this message in a variety of ways, many times through conversations between men in authority on the ramifications of a German victory, and their end goal of world supremacy.
Make use of “Everyman”
Often in historical epics, particularly those of the size and scale of “Dunkirk”, it is helpful to make use of “everyman”: characters that exhibit exclusively common and everyday attributes as opposed to heroic, superhuman qualities. Not only are the traits of an everyman fitting and realistic for an historical setting, but it can give the audience a “that could be me” sensation that heightens the experience tenfold. In “Dunkirk” Nolan made the bold move of commissioning many inexperienced actors to heighten the realism of the events depicted. Many of the central characters bear names that are mentioned either rarely or not at all, intensifying the “everyman” persona.
Let Your Characters be Flawed
Coming on the heels of “everyman”, flawed characters are very important to historical epics. At the end of the day, if you want your characters to be realistic, they must be flawed. This would add realism under normal circumstances, but when the intensity of the historic situation is added, the importance of less-than-perfect characters increases tenfold. In “Dunkirk”, along with scenes featuring courage and loyalty, there are also sequences depicting characters’ selfishness, fear, and anger. Rather than alienate the audience however, these flaws actually draw the viewers closer as we empathize with the life or death intensity of the circumstances. Again, similar to the goal of “everyman”, you want your audience to be left with the sensation “that could be me.” If presented with characters who exhibit only good and honorable qualities, this sensation will be lost.
Resist the Urge to Provide a “Happy Ending”
History rarely provides us with anything that can be universally regarded as a “happy ending”. As a writer therefore, consider carefully how you wrap up a story which takes place during a specific historical event. In “Dunkirk”, Nolan provides a delicate balance of emotions, contrasting the jubilation of civilians over the successful evacuation with the sober melancholy of the soldiers who feel they have failed in their efforts. In addition to setting a realistic mood, historical stories require the additional step of hinting at “what comes next.” Being that your reader knows the story takes place within an actual timeline, it is important to leave them with some marker, or reference point to indicate exactly where in history you are “leaving off.”
In the end, authors who write stories based on actual historic events carry a great weight of responsibility. Although most look to history books to learn the actual facts surrounding events, books and movies help shape our perception of those events. When an audience reads a book, or watches a film that narrates a story which takes place during an event from history, there is an unconscious measure of trust placed in the writer that they are accurately depicting the mood and the attitude of the time. In the case of “Dunkirk”, Christopher Nolan took pains to convey the fear and uncertainty which no doubt existed throughout the whole of the actual evacuation. If there is one point a writer should take away from “Dunkirk” it is this: always do your best to tell a story to the best of your ability, especially if that story is true.