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How To Improve Your Plot By Asking Three Questions About Your Main Character

By Marilyn Horowitz

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One of my students was utterly stuck on a rewrite because he felt the plot had become convoluted and contrived. The story was about how an accountant helped recover millions of dollars stolen from the Jews by the Nazis during World War 11, risking his life in the process. In the course of the screenplay, the mousy accountant picks up a shotgun and discovers he likes using it. This change from mild-mannered to murderous came too abruptly and without sufficient motivation for the screenplay to flow. Although the second half of Act 2 of the script became a well-structured action movie, the third act once again fell flat, although there was lots of violence and the bad guys were killed. My student was ready to abandon the project when he came to see me.

Over the years, I have learned that many seeming plot problems are the result of the writer not knowing his or her hero or heroine well enough. I dug into my bag of tricks and asked three questions:
  1. When is your main character's birthday?
  2. Was anyone famous born on his or her birthday?
  3. What's the relationship between your main character and his or her parents?
There was a pause, and then my student, a strapping ex-quarterback type suddenly began to sob in my office! I handed him a box of tissues. After he calmed down, he said, " I was born on Hitler's birthday. That's why I wrote this script."

I nodded. "Thank you for sharing, but it's not about your birthday, it's about your hero's. When is it?"

There was a pause, and then my student leaned forward. "Of course! My hero shares my curse."

"What about his parents?"

"Mine were concentration camp survivors -- and so are his."

I nodded, pleased. He looked unsure, "Can I do this? Can I use my stuff from my own life?"

"Who else's can you use?"

He thought about it, then took out his notebook and made a note. "Okay, I get it -- the accountant's parents were survivors and he was told all his life about the money that was stolen from them. He was filled with a burning desire to find it and return it to his parents among others."

"Yes, now we're getting somewhere -- but not far enough. Why did you make him so timid? What was his relationship with his parents?"

My student said, "my father..."

"No, think of what your character's father was like."

"Every loud noise, every sight of a man in uniform or a gun would cause my hero's father to tremble uncontrollably, and to tell stories about how he'd suffered in the camps. As a result, my main character grew up afraid. On top of that, his mother told endless stories of the wealth they had lost in the war as she cooked over a hotplate in their tiny poverty stricken apartment."

"Very good, "I started to say, but he was already at the door.

"Okay, I can do this." He smiled, waved and left. Four weeks later I received a fully revised script that was on the road to becoming excellent.

Here's the exercise:
  1. Decide what date your character's birthday is.
  2. Find out who else was born on that day. If no one relevant shares the day, reverse the process and find a date that a relevant public figure was born on and give that date to your hero or heroine. For example, if your main character were a struggling actress, have her be born on June 1 as Marilyn Monroe was, and see how that affects your character’s motivation.
  3. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write from the main character's point of view as if you were the character about a specific childhood birthday experience and how the parents were or were not a part of it. My student might have written pretending that he was the accountant, "On my 13th birthday, my father gave me a gold watch, the only thing that was left of the family fortune. At that moment, I swore to get that money back."
In summary, by asking these three questions and answering them, you can easily improve you plot -- even if it's already pretty good.

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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