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Deadlines Make Scripts Better, Every Time!

By Marilyn Horowitz

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As spring approaches and we're all trying to diet to make our Memorial Day bathing-suit deadlines, it seems like a good time to consider how we can use this season to make the plots of our screenplays richer. One way is to provide a deadline or "ticking clock" to add pressure and suspense to our scripts. For example, I have to do many things in the next hour, which include writing this script tip. Suddenly, my day - which is always interesting - is fraught with danger. What if I don't get this done in time? What will happen? Whose life will I impact? Obviously I'm being dramatic here, but that is my point - use the element of time to give your screenplay more punch.

There are many examples we can look at to see how a deadline juices up a story. What kinds of story ideas immediately jump to mind when we think of deadlines? The movie Speed is a classic example. The Bank Job is another, as is Run Lola Run. The key to using deadlines is to think in terms of what happens if the deadline is missed. In Speed, the bus will be blown up, in Lola, her boyfriend will commit a robbery, and in The Bank Job, they will lose their window of opportunity to complete the theft.

To give your story an extra jolt, do the following exercise:

Make a list of the major events in your screenplay. This process requires a basic knowledge of the 3-act structure often used in movies in which the action is separated into three basic movements, each with its own dramatic purpose. Act 1 is the beginning or Setup, Act 2 is the middle or the Conflict, and Act 3 is the end or the Resolution.

The key is to understand that you can use different kinds of deadlines for Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3, and the more deadlines the better.

For example, in Act 1 of Some like It Hot, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must make the train to Florida or be shot by the Mob. The rest of the film depends on this first act deadline.

Now, look at your list of the events that occur in Act 1 of your screenplay. Is there something you can expand upon and create a "ticking clock?"

Now let's look at how to punch up Act 2. In my writing system, this act is reorganized as having two sections of equal length, which I describe as being Act 2, part 1 and Act 2, part 2. Using this two-part structure for Act 2, you can create two deadlines, one in the first half, and one in the second half to really give your story a huge burst of energy and keep your audience on the edge of their seats!

For an example of Act 2 deadlines, think of The Godfather. In the first part of Act 2, Michael (Al Pacino) goes to visit his father in the hospital and must save him before the bad guys come to kill him. In the second part of Act 2, he must shoot the drug dealer and the cop before they get a chance to murder his father.

Now look at the list of events for your Act 2 and see if there are at least one, maybe two deadlines that you can introduce or expand. Use these deadlines to tighten the suspense in your screenplay.

Finally, let's look at Act 3. This will be the easiest act for which to create deadlines because the final crisis occurs here. In this act, you would use a deadline to create a further complication that would in some way delay the final act from occurring. It can be something as small as not being able to call a cab, as in When Harry Met Sally.

Using the technique of creating deadlines for each act of your screenplay will increase the excellence of your work and provide more audience enjoyment.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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