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How To Develop Your Story Fast: Tips from my recent Writer’s Retreat in Italy

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Buongiorno! I have been in Italy where I recently held a writer’s retreat, based on my book, How To Write A Screenplay (or novel) in 10 Weeks – but this workshop offered to teach you how to structure your screenplay or novel in 7 days, and create a mini-draft. A daunting task, but I am happy to report that all 11 of my students succeeded – and two of them managed to write a short film in their spare time! We spent the week at a beautiful villa in Tuscany (There are photos available on my Facebook page) and all of our meals were arranged for us as well as a couple of field trips – but we were there to write.

I thought it would be helpful for me to share the highlights of this intense development process in which there are three key steps.

Step 1: Select A Genre

In my coaching work and my group classes, we begin by getting a sense of the genre of the story we want to tell, for example, one student is writing an animated comedy in the style of the Toy Story series, and another student is writing a drama about a young girl rebelling in East Germany during the 60s.  Of course, genres often overlap, for example, a thriller will usually also have some kind of love story as a subplot, but for our purposes, the first step is to define the main genre of your story.  For a detailed list of genres, you can refer to my book, The 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting.

Step 2: Select Your Main Character and Your Villain or Obstacle

Instead of focusing on your main character, who you probably know fairly well, consider that he or she most likely is not driving the story unless it’s a revenge tale or a crime story. Most heroes and heroines are trying to hold their lives in place and maintain the Status Quo. Your obstacle or villain, however, is trying to change things, usually for their own gain. For example, in the film, The Godfather, Vito is trying to keep his family together, while Barzini is trying to take over and destroy Vito’s empire. But Vito is not the main character of the movie -- it’s Michael, who is trying to live a life free from the family entirely. It is not until Vito is shot that Michael can become an active hero when he has to step in to save him.

Step 3: Define The Plot

Using my writing method, we can use the main character’s hopes and dreams to design a simple plot that will allow you to expand and develop the story as you go, so as to prevent unnecessary revision. I have found that if you work plot first as opposed to designing character and plot together, you can often build a story that is hard to revise, as the character’s nature has not been considered seriously enough. 

I use my book, the 4MQS, to help overcome this tendency. The book suggests that there are 4 questions that if answered correctly will form the basis for a screenplay or novel. While this column is not long enough to allow a full discussion, the first question, which asks, “What is my main character’s dream?” will help you succeed because if you know the answer to that one, you can also answer the final question, which asks, “ What is the resolution of the dream?”

Using our example of The Godfather, Michael’s dream is to live a life separate from the family, and in the end, he is sucked back into it.  By knowing this much about your own story, you can then build a plot that is character driven and well structured. By defining the character’s journey through his or her dream, you will open the possibility of creating something that is very good and also is easy to fix.

This was the basic structure of the workshop, and everyone who attended left with an outline and scenes.  The problem, now that they have licked the usual struggles, is the really big question: Is my story good enough?

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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