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How The Past Can Block Your Storytelling

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I once worked with a talented, hardworking student who had written two spec scripts and a TV pilot.

Charles came to me deeply distressed that everything had been rejected in the various contests he’d entered, and that he’d been unable to find an agent or manager.

“I work hard,” Charles said. “I know people. What is my problem?”

I read his material. His scripts were flat and predictable, unlike the writer himself. While a strong work ethic does not guarantee talent, it does create a platform for the talent to appear. He was a good storyteller, so something was preventing this gift from getting onto the written page.

When we next met, I observed some interesting body language: even when smiling, he clenched his teeth and often unconsciously balled his fists. His shoulders slumped just enough to suggest he’d had a tough day, every day.

I asked him gently, “Charles, what was the worst thing that ever happened to you?”

“Why?”

“Because I think whatever it is is holding you back from being able to let yourself be successful creatively.”

He hesitated a moment and said, ”Yes, somehow that makes sense.” He unballed his fist and placed his palms on his forehead. He told me the story of a series of childhood events, and then started to cry. I handed him a box of tissues. “I see how this is holding me back,” he said. “What do we do?”

I suggested that for the next few sessions he write about the true events from different points of view, including his own and that of the villains. He agreed and bravely did the work. Meanwhile, I also asked him to pay attention to the form he most liked to watch or read. For two months, we met once a week and worked on his material. Finally, one day Charles arrived and said, “I’m bored with writing about this. I no longer feel victimized or angry, so let’s move on.”

“How about sad?” I asked.

“I wish I could have gone back and saved that young me.”

This is what I’d been waiting to here. “What did you decide was your favorite form of entertainment and in what genre?”

“Crime thrillers, movies with detectives, things like that.”

I suggested that he write a screenplay about a detective who saves a little boy from a situation similar to his. “It will be cathartic for you to write the part of the detective who solves the crime and rescues a little boy.” He was thrilled at the idea, and so we went to work.

At the end of six months, he had a solid draft of a crime screenplay about a detective who saves a little boy. But, more importantly, Charles was no longer gritting his teeth or clenching his fists. He was relaxed and often smiled. He reported that his relationship had improved and that he had started freelancing in a real-estate office. We worked on the second draft, and a third.

The script was now ready to be presented, and at the same time Charles’s partner wanted to get married and have a child. The company where he’d been working part-time approached him to become a full-time broker.

We met and he said, “You know, I think I want to move on from this. Is that terrible?”

I laughed and said, “Of course not. It seems that the creative process for you was to heal your past, not necessarily to become a professional screenwriter.”

He gave me a big smile, a hug, and I was recently invited to a baby shower.

The moral of the story is that sometimes healing the past is how you get to the future. So if you are not happy with the response you are getting to your work, perhaps there is a personal issue that is preventing you from getting your passion on the page. If so, there’s no need to write a whole screenplay. Write a short treatment that tells the story from your point of view, then from the villains’ points of view, and then from an adult’s point of view. This may be enough to release whatever is keeping your work from flowing. Then revisit a recent project and see if improvements don’t immediately suggest themselves.

By the way, Charles’s screenplay was excellent and would have launched his writing career.

Here’s to Your Successful 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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