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Each Of Your Main Characters Should Have A Secret

By Marilyn Horowitz

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An effective way to improve or create a scene is to add secrets that each character hides from the other. Secrets are both things that our characters don't want other people to know, and things that they hide from themselves. You may already know what those secrets are but aren't using them, or perhaps you will have to create them at some point. Remember, everyone has something they think they need to hide.

Let's use When Harry Met Sally as an example. In the beginning of the film, Harry and Sally are driving from Chicago to New York, and they stop at a diner. In the diner, Sally's secret is that she has slept with Sheldon and broke up with him over the days-of-the-week underwear. Harry's secret is that he's attracted to Sally. When Harry claims that Sally has never had great sex, it gets her to reveal her own secret and creates the conflict in the scene. It is, of course, Harry's secret attraction to Sally that drove him to raise the subject of sex in the first place.

Sometimes characters even keep secrets from themselves. When Sally breaks up with Joe, she pretends that she's fine about it. The secret that she keeps from herself is that she's actually very upset about it. She pretends everything is okay until Joe gets engaged to someone else. Then she breaks down and innocently calls Harry to come and comfort her. Her sudden vulnerability is what gets her into trouble with Harry. Meanwhile, Harry's secret from himself is that he's in love with her. When she rejects him, he has to face the fact that he wants to marry her.

You can see how tapping into the secrets your characters keep from themselves and others can improve both your scene work and plot. Secrets raise the stakes and instantly add subtext.

Remember: Don't Get It Right, Get It Written!

Good luck and happy writing!

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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