I’m writing a fictional drama/crime/mystery sceenplay.
In my script, college kids go missing from a REAL University.

I like the realism and academic profile of an actual University, but would this college possibly be offended by being depicted this way?

Would a director want to change it to a fictional school anyway? Should I switch my location to a fictional college in a fictional town?

With all that said, The Shining did have a wave of blood gush from the elevator at the Overlook Hotel...



  • 1
    It's not likely that the University will be offended, and even less likely that they can succeed in any legal action against you, but why do you think you need a real University for your story?
    – Alexander
    Dec 20, 2017 at 22:20
  • I think yes you definitely should make it fictional and wonder if Alexander lives elsewhere. :) It can be an obvious nod to a real Uni, like the Messy Chews It Institute of Technononsense, or something....
    – SFWriter
    Dec 21, 2017 at 0:22
  • For what it's worth I read/ heard that movies involving airline crashes tend to use a fictional company. I guess for reasons you stated about possible negative opinions being formed about the company, etc. I think I'd error on the side of making it fictional unless there's a good reason or based on a true story for there to be a real college.
    – BugFolk
    Dec 22, 2017 at 17:28

4 Answers 4


Maybe it is easier for you to decide, if you make a distinction between your feelings as an author on the one hand, and the impression on the readers, and the feelings you invoke in them, on the other.

What would be the advantage to you, as the author, to use the name of a well-known university?

Do you fantasize that every reader will have the same picture of the Cambrige campus as you have it in your mind? Just by dropping the name „Cambridge“? They will not, as they have different brains, different memories and different fantasies.

Are you trying to avoid working hard on creating intensive impressions and emotions, by describing the environment and the interaction of people? Do you honestly believe that dropping a well-known university‘s name will spare you that work? Less than 0.1% of your readers ever visited Cambridge, and close to zero percent have ever seen a Cambridge dormitory from the inside.

Pro tip: Write the best text you can for a fantasy university that fits the characters, the plot and the mood you want to invoke. This is what counts, not its name. Though, coming up with a creative name that supports the mood and the theme, gives brownie points. After polishing the text, rewriting the manuscript a dozen times for full effect, and testing the story on a dozen beta readers, do a global search & replace, and change the university‘s name to Cambridge, or whatever you dreamed of originally.

You will have likely one of two outcomes:

  1. Either it does not make a difference for the reader. Then why use the well-known name, if you could use the better name you created? Every suspense reader knows Derry, Maine. Is this because Derry is a well-known tourist spot?
  2. Or it does make a difference, and the text‘s impression on the reader is so much better. Then you probably have not done your best work when editing the drafts yet.
  3. I have never seen any third option in any manuscript I read. (Other than in „fictitious novels, after motives of the author‘s life“ — in other words, dressed up autobiographies.)

This is exactly what „Kill your darlings!“ is about. It does not mean „kill the character who is dearest to you“. It means you should find out which elements in your novel are based on an idea you once thought was marvelous, and which turned out to be tripe after writing it — but you still cling to it, because of your past feelings.

  • It’s not about cutting corners. My story makes more sense if it’s set in a good sized city. Also. One of my student characters is well versed in technology. So, I feel like stating a known college could be in order. My problem with a fictional town/college is: In my experience, fictional towns with fictional colleges are usually start with - “In the small town of Miller Grove. You’ve probably never heard of it.” Dec 29, 2017 at 14:44
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    It does not matter at this point. Let the publisher decide if they want to have the MIT involved or not. Global Search and Replace is perfectly able to change "MIT" to "CTI" any time. It is easier for you to write it with a specific institution in mind, so write it with that institution in your mind. Nobody cares, until you have created the perfect story. Write and do not fret about these insignificant details! Dec 30, 2017 at 16:03

You are asking for legal advice, on whether you slander or libel the college in question, which even a lawyer would have to read everything you write about the college in order to provide you with advice.

I am not a lawyer. However, as you can see from the TV series "Suits", it is important to their story line that ALL the lawyers in the law firm Mike works at (Mike is the MC) graduated from Harvard Law, specifically. Mike is a fraud that has used hackers, forgeries and his own skill to pretend to be a graduate, and in their story fictional professors (and I think fictional students) of Harvard Law are blackmailed or corrupted into corroborating his story. (Harvard Law itself, however, is not presented as a routinely corrupt organization.)

So it obviously is possible to use a real (and famous) college, and even imply some fictional professors and administrators are bad apples and their information security leaves room to be hacked so frauds like Mike might exist.

But that is not legal advice; in the end it depends on the college, whether they choose to sue you for defamation or whatever, and whether your publisher's editor is willing to use a real name or not. So unless using an ACTUAL college is very important to the plot of your story (e.g. it MUST be an actual Ivy League college), I personally would set the story in a fictional private college and imply the status with who attends it and how much it costs.

That's the safe route, if the story can still work. If not, spend a day researching what exactly constitutes slander, libel, defamation, etc, use the real name but try to avoid those, and risk being rejected for what an agent or publisher regards as crossing the line. Be aware that a rejection letter may not tell you that is their reason for rejecting you; doing so may constitute legal advice on their part, which they will refrain from giving. They would likely send you form letter A1, something like "Thanks for considering us. Unfortunately this work is not a good fit for us at this time."


It may not matter (to you)

There is one thing you must separate: What the story is about AND What a future movie/TV movie will make it. Don't worry about such details. The difference between the on-screen adaptation and the story depends on a lot of things that have nothing to do with your story.

The biggest question I have is "how important is the location to the story?" By that, I mean how much does the exact location matter to the plot? "A college in New York" may be sufficient over "Columbia-U" for many location. Unlike if you story is like the Da Vinci Code where the locations are crucial, don't worry about the specific of the location.

Directors will move things based on their schedules and availability of locations. Write a good plot and a good story rather than focusing on the specific locations. "A coffee shop" is better than "the Starbucks on 5th". Most screen plays are about characters doing something rather than the exact location. Let the director worry about those details.

Write your story so it is the best it can be. As what pointed out, but consult your attorney and/or the school itself to get their position about it.


If you use a real college, and you say anything that could be construed as bad about them, they might sue you for libel. Whether they would bother would depend on exactly what you said, how you said it, and whether they would win would depend on many more factors. But the possibility is there.

What is the advantage of using a real college? I suppose it could add a bit of realism to the story. But, as Thomas points out, if you're relying on any actual facts about the college, i.e. if you're thinking that you don't need to provide backstory about the college because you can rely on the real backstory of the real college, I'd just say, No. I mean, if you're thinking, "I don't have to tell the audience that this college has or does X because everyone knows that Foobar University does X", I don't think you can rely on that at all. Whatever college you pick, the vast majority of your audience did not attend, have never visited, and in general know little or nothing about. If it's one of the biggest and most prestigious colleges -- e.g. Harvard or Yale in the U.S. -- most of your audience will have heard of it and know that it's big and prestigious. And that's about it. Most of the audience probably won't even know where it is located or what majors they offer, never mind things like where the chemistry lab is located or what time lunch is served in the dining hall.

But if you do use a real college, than for the people who DO know something about the place, you have to get all the little details right. If you say that a character fell out the window of the science building and plummeted to his death, anyone who knows that in real life the science building is only one story tall is going to balk. If you need a scene where a character is walking past a newspaper kiosk and sees a headline, you're going to have to worry about just where on campus there are newspaper kiosks -- if any. Etc.

Just for example: I once watched a documentary about a murder that took place in Nevada. Of course there wasn't a camera crew filming most of the events as they happened, so they had actors re-create them. One scene took place in the parking lot of the high school. In the TV program, the parking lot was surrounded by a thick forest. Except my ex-wife used to teach at that school so I've been there. In real life the town is in the desert and there about ten trees in the entire town. The scene looked totally ridiculous and unbelievable to me. (I wondered why, if they were going to re-enact it, couldn't they have done it in the real town, rather than, apparently, someplace hundreds of miles away with a totally different climate?)

If you make a fictional college, than any details you need to make the story work you can just make up. (Well, as long as they're at least plausible.) If you need the frat house to be on top of a hill, you just say that's where it is. If you need a professor who won a Nobel physics prize twenty years ago, you just invent one. Etc.

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