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How to Find the Concept for Your Screenplay, TV Pilot or Novel

By Marilyn Horowitz

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When offering writing guidance, my first concern with a new student is not how well written their screenplay, TV pilot, or novel is. It’s not even how well structured it is. My first concern is whether or not the concept is based on some universal emotion. This is what separates a film like Casablanca from just any old movie about two former lovers running into each other in a war-torn country. Tapping into a universal emotion, be it love or fear or some deeply held hope or wish, is what will determine whether or not your story has the potential to become the kind of classic we watch over and over again.

For better or worse, there is no formula for achieving this, except to explore our own humanity and accept that we are always trying to solve whatever problem we’re having at the moment. For example, Romeo and Juliet is about two young lovers from feuding families who die trying to be together, but the emotion undergirding the play is the hope that love can transcend death. This is what so involves the audience in the story: it expresses a universal wish that this could be so and invests us on a completely different level than a story in which two lovers simply die.

This is not to say that there aren’t lots of wonderful tragic love stories, but few are as memorable as Romeo and Juliet. Most of us have seen it more than once, whether onstage, as a film by Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrman, or as a musical such as West Side Story. Romeo and Juliet has seen dozens of adaptations and survived for hundreds of years because the premise arouses a deeply held wish that we all hold.

I encourage my students to achieve this kind of universality no matter what genre they are working in. One classic horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, touched on a spine-tingling universal fear: What if our dreams could become real? This concept led to not only a successful film but also a long-running franchise, and the chilling villain, Freddy Kruger, earned a place in our collective cultural awareness. On the other side of the equation, the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally explores the concept of whether or not men and women can ever really be just friends. Again, this is a question many of us have asked ourselves, and it is the reason the film has become such a classic, its characters a core part of our film culture.

Here’s the exercise I use to easily develop a strong concept.

As I mentioned, a strong concept can often be found in a personal experience, so let’s go there!

  1. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
  2. Write about the best experience you’ve ever had.
  3. Reset the timer.
  4. Write about a traumatic experience you’ve had.
  5. Think of a movie, play, novel, or TV show that you love.
  6. See what connections you can make to the story you’ve selected and compare them with your own good and bad experiences.
  7. Finally, turn the connections into a single concept. For example, if I lost someone I loved, and I really connect to Romeo and Juliet, my concept might be expressed as “I wish love could survive death.”

To recap: a strong story concept is one that connects us to a universal and deeply held emotion, such as love, fear, or hope.

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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