Skip to main content

How to Make Historical Fiction Visceral

Recently there has been a slew of  TV shows that make period pieces feel new and fresh. In general, it’s a divisive genre. Either you’re all in for bonnets and writing letters by candlelight, or you run away screaming. But recent TV shows have gotten bigger audiences and are making a convincing case that there’s a period piece for everyone. They’re applying new approaches to old-fashioned settings. Here are three ways they make an impact.

1. They’re Crude

Crude can cover a lot of elements – cursing, sex, gore, violence, dirt. All of these can be effective, a way to engage the audience in the story. Outlander, adapted from a book, tells the story of a WWII nurse who is thrown back in time to the 18th century and falls in love with a Scottish Highlander. The first half of the pilot shows her trying to reconnect with her husband after WWII, and the last half of the pilot shows her trying to orient herself in the past. Throughout the script, the texture is visceral and crude. This conveys immediacy to the story – the sweat and dirt help show the stakes and needs of the characters. And the repetition of gore and sex sharpen each other, help establish the world where both are the norm

A pilot script for Outlander has three sex scenes in the first 30 pages.  At least one of these was cut for the final version, but it helps establish Claire as a passionate woman who uses sex to connect to her husband. They explore castle ruins, and she tells her husband “You can give me a bath,” then hikes up her skirt and cocks an eyebrow. These scenes feel bold and sexy, especially since it’s rare to see TV sex scenes driven by female desire.  

Most of the violence happens in the last half of the pilot, after Claire has been thrown back in time. She’s thrust in the middle of a fight, and the violence and gore help set this place up as a dangerous unknown. But Claire already has the tools to navigate this situation – in one of the first scenes we saw her operating on badly wounded men on the last day of WWII. She’s sprayed with blood, and she “grimaces, fights, finally gets her fingers on the artery and clamps it off.”  So this sets up the life-and-death stakes of the world and shows us a heroine poised to face them.  The crude elements work together, Claire’s medical skills are useful in both settings. Claire also curses up a storm, stunning the Highlanders enough that she can prove her use to them.  

2.  Brash Characters

Howards End is a mini-series adaptation of a turn of the century book, telling the stories of three families in distinct classes, as they fall in love and challenge each other. The production is sumptuous, using up many spaces on the period piece bingo – letters, tea, calling cards, carriages. There are some modern additions to the story, pointing out the racism and slavery around the families.  

But what makes the story so compelling are the main characters, the Schlegel sisters. They are decidedly bohemian and off-kilter compared to the other families.  They make bold decisions one day, and then change their mind the next. Helen gets engaged to a wealthy young man one evening, and then it’s dissolved by breakfast. Sure, the engagement is framed as a mistake, but it establishes Helen as someone who is strong-willed.

In the first episode, Margaret Schlegel delivers stinging judgments on a new acquaintance, tries to set up her sister with a mysterious young gentleman, sends a rude letter to a woman she barely knows, and then barges into that woman’s bedroom to apologize. The setting is established well enough that we know that she’s acting outside of convention. And we’re captivated, watching how a strong woman navigates a world that expects women to be more pliable.  

Why do we care about Margaret’s mistakes? Why does she seem bold instead of wishy-washy? The other families are so reserved that Margaret’s actions are seen as necessary actions inciting the other families to move forward.

Do we know why she makes these decisions? Yes. Most of these decisions are in defense of her sister. Margaret is the oldest sibling, and she fiercely wants to protect and support her sister. Early on, the sisters confide in each other, and we see their connection to each other.  

3. Gilded Cages

Two other shows, Downton Abbey and The Crown, received a lot of acclaim for their gorgeous settings and costumes. But the heart of these shows are the elements that contrast these riches. Downton Abbey’s main family hosts gorgeous parties and uphold their estate’s fancy traditions. This life of luxury sets a norm that heightens the stakes when a daughter has a sex scandal. Or we see the strain it takes for the servants to arrange the gorgeous life of the family. This contrast makes the family look soft, and the servants’ lives rougher, more dangerous.

In The Crown, in her first scene, Queen-to-be Elizabeth comments that everything is rather “antiseptic.” Most scenes are in ornate, dark rooms. This feels stifling, echoing Elizabeth’s state of mind. The tension of the show hinges on how Elizabeth can find vitality within the strict rules of the monarchy.  

The outdoor scenes in The Crown are stunningly beautiful. In one draft of the script, when Elizabeth and Philip are first married, their happy life is shown in a montage of Super 8 footage. In the finished pilot, this footage merges into the dazzling scene of Elizabeth and Philip racing on a boat, the sea glittering around them. It feels like a breath of fresh air, after the dark calm of the previous scenes. Elizabeth is happy here.  

Since the audience is aware of where Elizabeth’s life will lead, these outdoor scenes carry a sense of impermanence with them. The Crown is a tragedy, of a woman who is told to be a statue. Elizabeth is happier when she’s on a picnic, or an African safari, or with horses. But her life is designed to be antiseptic, so these bright active scenes are only temporary. Her life is the opposite of crude, she’s not allowed the freedom of dirt and curse words and wounds. When sex is seen or talked about, it feels shocking. She’s only allowed glamor and stateliness, so she learns how to use those tools instead.

Why tell stories with historical settings?

As a genre, it’s a great way to tell human stories under the guise of escapism. In that tell-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant way, it’s like fantasy and science fiction.  As Kenneth Logerman, the writer of Howards End, says about period pieces – “The parallels between any two cultures, the human parallels, are just going to be there, and the differences between the two cultures are part of what makes it so fun to notice what’s similar. These are intelligent, emotional, struggling human beings living in a very different set of circumstances than the ones that we live in now.”  No matter the approach, whether you’re using crude elements, brash characters, or contrasting vitality with gilded cages, there are new ways to approach old stories. 

Charlotte Stauffer is an Atlanta-born screenwriter.  She’s currently working at the Georgia Film Academy, and running a table read series called The Page On Stage with the Atlanta Film Society. She can be found on Twitter @goodwonky and Instagram at @charlielucile.

For all the latest from WeScreenplay, be sure to follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.