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How To Eat Dessert First

By Marilyn Horowitz

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No matter where you are in the writing process, the plot of your screenplay can always be improved. In life, it often happens that we have a goal, with no clear idea of how to reach it. We are likely to hamstring ourselves by not letting ourselves emotionally experience our future success in our own imagination. This reluctance to "make up a story" about how we will attain a goal extends to our work as screenwriters. We force ourselves to structure our screenplays from "beginning to end" without being emotionally involved in the process. Correcting this way of thinking can make both our lives and our screenplays "pop".

It's not a question of adding more explosions to your climax; but rather it's a question of finding more interesting events that lead up to these climactic moments. How many scenes do you have where the characters are in a restaurant, at home, walking around as they discuss whatever exposition must happen in order to make the story move forward? How can we take this material and crank it up a notch and find more interesting ways and places for these scenes?

We do this by borrowing a strategy from all of those positive thinking do-gooders who insist that life is uncertain, so you should eat dessert first. Use this 3-part exercise to learn how:

Part 1

Take a few minutes and write out the end of your screenplay. For example, if your screenplay was for North By Northwest, writing the ending might look like this: Roger (Cary Grant) rescues Eve (Eva Marie Saint) and they have to climb down Mount Rushmore while fighting off Leonard (Martin Landau) in order to survive. They succeed and live happily ever after.

Now write your own climax and ending here:

Part 2

List all of the events or scenes in your screenplay you would like to include that lead up to the climax, without worrying how to connect them in a logical fashion. Imagine what you would like to happen, not how it will happen.

Using our example of North By Northwest, the events that led up to the climax were:
  1. Roger is mistaken for a spy
  2. Roger is framed for a murder at the U.N.
  3. Eve saves Roger on the train and they begin a love affair
Now, list the crucial events for your story...

Part 3

The last step is to pretend that you are the hero or heroine of your story, and that the story of your screenplay is over. It is now several years later, and you have moved forward in your life and are looking back.

Again using North By Northwest as a model, writing as Roger, your story might read: "After I survived the climb down Mount Rushmore, and got the girl, I thought back to how this all happened: I was in a bar, and these 2 men mistook me for this spy, and I was taken to this fancy house in the suburbs. I was made to drink liquor and put in a speeding car, but managed not to crash.When I found out who the owner of the house was, I went to the UN to confront him, but before I could he was killed and I was framed. I escaped and found myself on a train to Chicago. The cops were about to catch me but I was befriended by Eve, a beautiful woman who hid me in her compartment..."

Set a timer for 15 minutes and write without stopping, completing the phrase: "After I survived..."

You get the idea. They say: "Hindsight is 20/20," so why not make practical use of it and imagine your story beyond the end.This act of imagination frees you to make more interesting plot connections you would otherwise have been unable to make. These connections enable you to create more unusual and effective scenes and will tighten your screenplay as a whole.

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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