Category Archives: On Writing

The Problem with Sequels

My current writing project is a screenplay about Betsie and Corrie ten Boom. Their notoriety stems from their efforts to help Jews in Holland avoid persecution during World War II. The German Gestapo arrested the sisters on the last day of February 1944. Thus began a succession of imprisonments until Corrie regained her freedom at the end of the year. Betsie’s release was through the crematorium at Ravensbruck, the notorious Nazi prison camp for women.

My goal in putting their plight into a feature length script is to visually portray the strength of human conviction, when faced with even the vilest opposition. To do their story justice, my approach – as documented in a previous message – involves combining Corrie’s written accounts with the fact-based history of Ravensbruck written by Sara Helm in her 2016 book, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.

Multiple Sources, Single Event

Last week I wrote about the conflicts that can arise when a historian relies on oral histories. This is what I discovered with Sara Helm’s book. Her many sources, each a survivor of the prison camp ordeal, gave varying accounts of the same events. This was shown most dramatically with the conflicting stories about a children’s Christmas party held in 1944. This conflict was sufficient enough motivation for me to delete from my script an otherwise visually compelling moment of big screen worthiness.

Working with one source, in my case Corrie ten Boom, would seem to offer the hope of avoiding the difficulty of deciding who to believe, when you consult multiple sources. A similar problem arises, though, when your single source is the author of more than one book about the same experience. This is the case with Corrie’s books, proving there can be problems with sequels just as there can be problems with gathering oral histories.

One Source, Multiple Presentations

Corrie wrote a handful of books about her prison experience. The first appeared in 1947, a mere two years after her release from Ravensbruck. Entitled  A Prisoner and Yet…  Corrie as the sole author, penned a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by location; her home in Haarlem, the three prisons in which she and Betsie struggled to survive, and finally home again following her release. The timeliness of the publication lends credence to the viability of her memories, but the work was not widely known. This changed in 1971 with the publication of a sequel of sorts, a retelling of Corrie’s affirming home life, underground activities and incarceration in the prison camp nightmare.

The Hiding Place covered much of the same ground as Corrie’s first book. This time, however, she made good use of co-authors, Elizabeth and John Sherrill’s talents. The narrative is more fluid and engaging, providing greater insight into Corrie’s family life and how it shaped her commitment to helping Jews avoid capture by the Gestapo. This second publication proved to be the more successful and was made into a feature film in 1975.

Three more books, pertinent to Corrie’s prison camp experiences, followed: Tramp for the Lord in 1974, Prison Letters in 1975, and In My Father’s House in 1976. This quick succession of books speaks to Corrie’s celebrity following the success of The Hiding Place. I, like many others, wanted to know more about this amazing woman and the faith she proclaimed to a worldwide audience.

The problem is the varying accounts don’t always matchup. This is a problem when trying to decide what is in and what is out of a script purporting to be an authentic portrayal of two women caught up in a Nazi firestorm. For example….

The Mystery of Lieutenant Rahm

Lieutenant Rahm handled the interrogation for both Corrie and Betsie during their first imprisonment. His exposure to these two faithful women brought him face to face with his own complicity in the Nazi reign of terror. Corrie and Betsie shared their faith in God with him. Corrie even acknowledges that Betsie’s sessions with Rahm always closed in prayer. However, Corrie left Rahm’s spiritual fate unknown when she wrote A Prisoner and Yet… and The Hiding Place. Here’s the problem: in her 1975 book, Prison Letters, she closes with a brief chapter entitled Afterword. This chapter focuses solely on a German caseworker she identifies as Hans Rahms. Note the slight name change and the loss of rank.

She writes that during their final interrogative session, Rahm(s) presented Corrie with a list of names of people in her underground network, who conspired with her to conceal Jews from Holland’s Nazi occupiers. Corrie admits she was terrified at seeing the list and could not explain away its significance. Rahm(s) shocked her by tossing the papers into the stove, which heated his interrogation hut. It is a very dramatic moment and is currently included in my screenplay, even though this scene was omitted in her previous writings.

The Sudden Appearance of Tiny

Another departure from Corrie’s representations of life in prison involved her release from Ravensbruck. Her accounts in her first two books indicate that she knew she was being released, when the chief guard of her block told her to step aside during morning roll call. The version she wrote about in Tramp for the Lord, however, varied from these two accounts by the introduction of a young woman named Tiny.

Corrie writes that the head guard instructed her to stand at position number one in the roll call line up. Tiny stood next to her. This was a cold December day. The wind sent chills through Corrie to the extent she shivered noticeably. Tiny massaged Corrie’s back in an attempt to stimulate Corrie’s circulation. It was then that Corrie muttered a dire question in a barely audible voice, asking why she was singled out to stand in position number one. Tiny, a two-year veteran of Ravensbruck, answered “death sentence”.

More drama, more inclusion in my screenplay, even though this account is another omission from Corrie’s previous writings. The problem with sequels is that they can be just as contradictory as oral histories. My resolve as screenplay historian is to be as dramatic as possible without altering the facts of Corrie and Betsie’s witness to God’s love in the presence of their enemies.

The Problem with Oral History

Our memories are not infallible. People who experience the same event often give varying accounts about what happened based on factors, which affect our perception. These can be external such as the location we occupy or the activity in which we are engaged at the time. They can also be internal, meaning our mental and emotional states. The result can be a challenging array of observations for any group, unified by a single occurrence.

One consequence of our vulnerable ability to remember things is the absence of the absolute certainty we would like to possess, when we are writing about historical events. History is fundamental to my current writing project, a screenplay about the experiences of Betsie and Corrie ten Boom. Sisters, they were imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II for helping Jews in Holland escape persecution.  

In telling their story I encountered a different kind of conflict; one of omission. Corrie’s almost polite representation of what they endured while imprisoned was not what I found in other accounts. To provide context, I looked for and found a comprehensive narrative about life in Ravensbruck, the Nazi prison for women. This was the last of three prisons in which Betsie and Corrie labored. It was by far the worst, the forced labor designed to get the last available ounce of service out of women destined for execution.

My source on Ravensbruck is the 2016 book by Sara Helm, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. At the core of Helm’s work is an extensive accumulation of oral histories by the women who survived the ordeal. Some of those survivors were children at the time of their imprisonment, but most were young adults, a few of whom possessed documentation to support their stories.

It is not unusual for historians gathering oral histories to encounter conflicts between the respective narratives. Most often the variances are minor. Sometimes, however, the differences are incredibly contradictory, leaving the poor historian with a difficult choice to make: Which version do you go with? Or do you report both without drawing a definitive conclusion?

Helm disclosed just such a problem regarding an event so spectacular that one can only wonder how people could disagree about the outcome. The conflicting reports concern a children’s Christmas party held a few months before the Russian army liberated the camp. All her sources agree that there was a Christmas party held in December 1944. The nature of the program and the food served is also uniformly supported. The debate arises in the telling of how the party ended.

Those sources, who were children and attended or were aware of the Christmas party, told her that the building in which the party was held was completely destroyed by an explosion. The obvious implication is that all the children at the party were killed in a heinous crime indicative of the situation the prisoners experienced every day. The camp commandant was under instructions to exterminate the camp population at the rate of 2,000 people a month regardless of age.

What these same sources could not clearly recall is how they managed to escape. Those sources, who were adults at the time and helped organize the party, say such an explosion never happened. The curious thing is that each version has multiple proponents, but they flatly contradict one another.  

The magnitude of the supposed crime is so incredible it makes you wonder how anyone could make it up if it did not occur. On the other hand, how could anyone who survived the camp not remember such an insidious event, even though the daily carnage was more lethal but committed on a far less spectacular basis; shooting, gassing, exposure to the elements and starvation? Someone is mistaken, but who?

My opinion is that age is another influential factor in shaping our memories. Those who were children at the time conflated different events into a single catastrophe. The adult witnesses, in my opinion, are the more reliable. The contradictions remain, however.

This event is not in my screenplay. The lack of unanimity is the primary reason for excluding something that would otherwise provide a spectacle on a colossal scale tailor made for a large screen presentation. Life at Ravensbruck was horrific enough to provide the desired context for retelling Corrie ten Boom’s account without trying to sensationalize it any further than what is easily verifiable. 

The problem with oral history is that our memories are not infallible.


Last week’s message ended with a teaser of sorts. I chronicled my initial investigation into a literary mystery involving two different accounts of life in the notorious women’s prison camp established by the Nazis during World War II called Ravensbruck. The narrative conflict, or more precisely an omission, occurred between Corrie ten Boom’s personal experience as a prisoner and a novel featuring the true life plight of Polish women, who were operated on at that same prison and became known as the Rabbits.

Corrie made no mention of this particular group, subjected to the agony of a scientifically bogus experiment. Her omission prompted me to speculate on a tendency I believe exists when Christians like Corrie “testify” about horrendous experiences, sanitizing the truth so as not to offend their audience. The differences in the two books also prompted the thought that it might be worthwhile retelling Corrie’s story by incorporating other narratives in order to provide a larger context against which Corrie and her sister Betsie’s time in prison could be appreciated.

To do this, I needed to know more about Ravensbruck, which I found in the book I hinted at but did not reveal at the end of my previous blog – just to add some drama and make my message a real page turner, with the turn coming a week later. An online search produced this beneficial result, which served to amplify my awareness about the malevolence that existed in this infamous camp. The book I discovered was Sara Helm’s 2016 work, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.

The Helm’s book is primarily based on face-to-face interviews she had with women who survived the ordeal. It is an exhaustive, compelling, nightmare inducing work, which was just what I needed to solidify my desire to rewrite Corrie’s palatable account and let others know what it is truly like to maintain one’s spiritual principles, while residing in the demoralizing confines of a man-made Hell.

One example of what you learn from reading outside the ten Boom box concerns the induction process at Ravensbruck. Corrie’s version in The Hiding Place is brief and non-offensive – although I did hear her expound on this in slightly more detail when I heard her speak at a conference. Helm is far more explicit. The wretchedly demeaning process included standing naked in the presence of male soldiers making crude and abusive comments, while the women were examined for lice in both their head and public hair. The infected were subjected to being body shaved in the presence of their enemies.

Corrie’s crime of omission can easily be forgiven. Helm says the history of Ravensbruck was nearly lost because the survivors stayed silent for two reasons. The first was deeply personal. They did not want to relive the experience by answering questions from those salaciously intrigued by their plight. Second was the belief that the conditions were so incredibly macabre that no one would believe them even if they did speak out. Corrie did speak and write, but her stories were modified by a sense of decorum; hers and ours. Corrie’s account has an innate protective quality about it, protecting us from the sadistic ways of all that is evil. But this approach, I believe, is a mistake because it is misleading.

It’s time Christians learn to tell a complete and honest story despite the perceived delicacy of their primary audience, other Christians. We do ourselves and others a disservice by minimizing the difficulties and even the potential terrors at hand when we recite Jesus’ words to “pick up your cross and follow me” without acknowledging the full scope of the threats this entails. Following can be painfully lethal and we need to do our best to be equally painfully honest about such a possibility. Sugar coating should be taught as the eighth deadly sin.

My screenplay, In My Father’s House, is a work in progress. The setup is the merging of Corrie’s personal account with Helm’s history. The goal is to present a more comprehensive context in which to understand what Betsie and Corrie endured in the face of a bestiality few of us can imagine. Such an approach could legitimately earn my script an X rating for its graphic portrayal of conditions in Ravensbruck. I would not be surprised or ashamed if it did.

In My Father’s House

Writing about my writing has given me the pleasure of celebrating, in a sense, my own imaginative achievements, marketable or not. It has also provided me with a topic that allows me to draft web log messages and post them weekly in accordance with my own self-imposed deadline. There is a joy in keeping one’s promise to one’s self, which has the unique value of maintaining one’s faith in the pragmatic use of optimism.

I closed last week’s message with the logline of my current work in progress a feature length screenplay entitled In My Father’s House. And as with my series on Angel Unaware, my goal now is to reveal the backstory and the process of another personally compelling project.

This is another true story as is Angel Unaware, which concerned the decision made by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers to keep and raise their daughter Robin at a time when the common practice was to have a child born with Down syndrome committed to an institution. The focus of In My Father’s House is on two sisters, Betsie and Corrie ten Boom, whose Christian ethics prompted them to aid in the protection of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War Two.

My introduction to their story occurred the first time I heard Corrie ten Boom speak at a Christian conference some fifty-plus years ago. My recall, given the expanse of time between then and now, is not the best but I believe it was at this event that I first learned about her book, The Hiding Place. Written in cooperation with Elizabeth and John Sherrill, the book provides wonderful insights into the ten Boom family, how they came to be involved in the Dutch underground, their arrest and imprisonment, and the ultimate costs for living with respect for their convictions.

Corrie wrote other books providing further details about her experiences. These include In My Father’s House, A Prisoner and Yet, Tramp for the Lord and Prison Letters. The popularity of her work resulted in the film production of her book, The Hiding Place, in 1975. It starred Jeanette Clift George as Corrie, Julie Harris as her older sister Betsie and Arthur O’Connell as their father Casper.

After that Corrie’s books remained on the shelf, for me at least, where they gathered dust until I read a book review in the Wall Street Journal. I believe the year was 2016 and the book was The Lilac Girls, written by Martha Hall Kelly. The centerpiece of her novel was the ordeal suffered by a select group of Polish women in Ravensbruck, the Nazi prison camp for female political prisoners. These women were operated on in a tortuous experiment, which left them physically maimed and visibly impaired. The damage to their legs earned them the sobriquet of the Rabbits for the way they limped or hopped about the camp.

Reading The Lilac Girls brought to mind my earlier absorption of Corrie ten Boom’s writings. I was stumped in trying to remember if she and Betsie were also imprisoned in Ravensbruck. And if so, why did I fail to remember any mention of the Rabbits in The Hiding Place? It only took a quick glance at Corrie’s table of contents to see that, yes, chapter thirteen was entitled Ravensbruck. Betsie and Corrie were there. It took a reread of that chapter and the next to realize the omission of something that qualifies as being truly horrific and worth mentioning, if for no other reason than providing the greater context of human suffering within which the light of God’s love was revealed by these two devout and faithful women.

Kelly’s account of the camp was far worse than what Corrie ten Boom described. It solidified my personal belief that we, as Christians, often sanitize our testimonies in order not to offend the sensibilities of our Christian audience. At the same time it prompted in me a greater appreciation for what Corrie and her sister Betsie endured as they strove to live their lives in keeping with the spiritual principles learned at home in the nurturing shelter of their family.

This did not lead to a firm resolve on my part, but the seeds were sown for writing a retelling of Corrie and Betsie’s experiences, this time with an infusion of historic depth to provide an honest counterpoint to a story of faith and sacrificial love. The problem was how to uncover that history without making a career out of the pursuit. The answer came in the form of another book, another female author, and a host of malevolent revelations about the Nazi prison system and the specific horrors of Ravensbruck.

This new read made my commitment sure of writing a screenplay merging Corrie’s discrete account with a more detailed and objective history of this notorious but little remembered prison camp for women. And the project must be a screenplay for a feature film, because what I discovered deserves to be conveyed in a visceral, visual display. You won’t want to miss it.


I am giving myself an easy task to fulfill in writing this week’s message. It addresses another challenge I encountered in submitting my screenplay, Angel Unaware, to a script writing contest; drafting the requisite logline. The problem is that I was totally ignorant of what a logline is.

My remedy, as in all things pertaining to script writing, was to consult The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Piecing together his various statements I found a logline to be a concise summary of the script (concise meaning one sentence), containing four components; character, action, opposition, resolution. It is a simple formula but as with all formulas pertinent to the creative environs, it must be stated in a provocative manner. It is, after all, meant to be the hook, which prompts the reader to delve further into your masterpiece.

My management brain is always lurking beneath these creative endeavors. It tells me from my experience drafting mission statements about the nature of concision. I learned long ago to eschew the normal attempt to write lengthy, noble sounding mission statements in order to keep it brief, eight words or less being the proposed best solution. And once again there is a formula to follow. This one entails action verb, direct object and outcome. For example, my mission in following the requirements of the screenwriting contest was to: write a logline that pops.

Another point of intrusion by my management mentality relates to writing grant applications. An effective appeal uses the jargon of the donor. Applied to the script writing contest this meant knowing the character of the competition’s sponsor and being aware of the words they use in stating the guidelines for participation. Forearmed with all this knowledge, I drafted my logline for the contest sponsored by MovieGuide.

MovieGuide is a Christian organization. Their contest is called the Kairos Prize. In classical Greek the word kairos was used to indicate a moment in time when a decision had to be made to insure an idea’s success. It was in fact considered to be the supreme moment for a person to act and it was taught by the philosophers that a truly informed person “rarely misses the expedient course of action.” Similarly in the orthodox tradition there is a moment before the Divine Liturgy begins when a deacon whispers to the priest, Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio, “It is the supreme moment for the Lord to act.”

Submitting my screenplay for consideration by the judges of the Kairos Prize was certainly my supreme moment to act as a script writing novitiate. Here is my logline for Angel Unaware as submitted to this specific contest.

Faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior transformed Dale Evans’ celebrity status from Queen of the West to pioneering advocate for those with developmental challenges. This is her story.

As you know, if you’ve been following this series of messages, my script did not make the first cut of being a semifinalist. Since I did not pay the extra fee to receive a critique of my work, I am clueless about the nature of my failure. But that is inconsequential to this message about drafting a longline that produces favorable results. And in a contest where there is a guarantee that every script will be read at least once, the effectiveness of any given logline is subject to doubt as the hook is not needed, when compared to a cold sale to a producer or agent. Still….

My second contest submission for Angel Unaware was to ScreenCraft. Their competition is promoted as family oriented, with an invitation to submit scripts that are faith based, but not necessarily Christian. This more secular arena prompted a rewrite of the logline as compared to the version submitted to MovieGuide. I considered my protagonist, Dale Evans, from the view point of what might appeal to a more jaded audience – the audience being that elusive producer or agent with a strong profit motive. Here is the version submitted with my script to the ScreenCraft competition.

Teen mom, abused wife and unemployed actress describe the life of Dale Evans before she gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome and discovered the presence of an angel unaware.

I won’t know if my work has fared any better with ScreenCraft than it did with MovieGuide until they announce their choices for quarterfinalists. This occurs February 1. In the meantime, I am working on another script. Here is the logline to my next screenplay with the working title In My Father’s House.

Arrested for hiding Jews, Dutch sisters Betsie and Corrie ten Boom lived the virtues learned in their father’s house to bring the light of God’s love into the darkness of a Nazi contrived Hell.

You can decide if this attempt at a concise summary of the story fulfills my logline writing mission and bodes well for my future as a writer of feature films.

The Process

We are near the end of my self-indulgent reminiscing about my recent exploits as a writer of screenplays. Acknowledging my failure to even make the cut as a semifinalist in a script writing contest has put new life into my prior commitment to draft and post a weekly blog. Life does have small rewards to divert us from our disappointments.

The final steps in the process of writing my screenplay was to take all of the research gained from the sources listed in last week’s message and construct a meaningful story formatted in a professional screenplay style. The laborious way in which I began this process was to transcribe the pertinent passages from each source into a single extensive compilation. It was essentially a document of quotes.

One difficulty I had to contend with at the outset was the lack of significant information that would help me establish a credible chronology for all of the events mentioned in my compilation. It was informative to see how a strict sense of timing was non-essential to the other writers. But when your professional career is one of accountability, as mine was, a need for exactitude will easily collide with another’s casual and entertaining storytelling technique. I found it frustrating.

Since I was using multiple sources, each one describing the same events, my compilation contained a significant amount of redundancy. I stopped adding material when this document reached eighty-nine pages and 45,000 words. I knew I had too much information for a two-hour script. The value to accumulating an excessive amount of material, though, was in the depth it provided to my awareness of each character due to the wealth of information generating much needed background and context.

The next step was to eliminate the duplications (even triplications) in the compilation in order to create a concise narrative I could read through as if it were a manuscript written by one person. Merging accounts minimized my act of plagiarism. The reduction also helped to refine my placement of events in a credible sequence even though I lacked sufficient details to say with full assurance that I got it right. My resolution was to focus more on creating a rational story arc as opposed to a legitimate history. Still this level of editing resulted in a fifty-nine page Word document of more than 29,000 words.

From here I created a loosely designed script in Word, which still had too much information. My goal was to get down to 21,000 words before importing the document into the newly acquired Final Draft script writing software. This meant the further deletion of scenes, which were not germane to the primary storyline. Another method for reducing the word count was the consolidation of characters and events as explained in a previous message. At this point the page count didn’t matter but I was way over my goal with a document of nearly 25,000 words.

There was a time constraint affecting my work as I was trying to meet a drop dead deadline for submitting my script to a contest sponsored by MovieGuide. So I acquiesced to the length of my script and imported it into Final Draft. The software did misinterpret some of the formatting in my Word document. This I corrected on my first read through and was pleased with the appearance of a professional looking script.

I landed at 130 pages, which was the max allowable by MovieGuide without paying an extra fee due to length. I’ve subsequently thought of further cuts I could make in anticipation that anyone interested in the script would prefer a 120 page limit. Unless you are Damien Chazelle, whose credits allow him the luxury of writing/directing a three hour movie like Babylon, two-hours is the industry standard for the rest of us. Angel Unaware would clock in at a more modest two hours and ten minutes as currently written.

The experience documented in these past several messages has been enjoyable if only for the discovery of a little bit of movie star history and the discipline of writing a feature length script. The disappointment of not qualifying as a semifinalist in the MovieGuide contest has been mitigated by yet another discovery; I found another contest, this one sponsored by ScreenCraft. February 1 is the date given for announcing their choices for quarterfinalists. I have another chance at screen writing success. Until then I will have to find another topic to write about in order to stay with my commitment of posting weekly messages, while avoiding an unwanted encounter with anxiety as I await the decision from ScreenCraft.

The plot thickens.