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How To Improve Your Story By Understanding Your Main Character’s Spiritual Beliefs

By Marilyn Horowitz

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How spiritual is your main character?  Traditional beliefs? Does she or he have Eastern versus Western versus Pagan beliefs?  How can his or her belief in something larger affect the plot of your screenplay? A great deal is the obvious answer, and knowing where your characters stand will help you refine both plot and dialogue.

In a classic example, George Bailey's recovery of faith is what transforms his journey in the film, It's A Wonderful Life, into a mythic story.  In another example, Scrooge's change of heart makes the film A Christmas Carol into an immortal and timeless tale.

In addition to considering your characters spiritual beliefs, the different seasons also evoke the larger spiritual journey in terms of the plot. For example, as winter changes into spring, and the days get longer with more sunshine, the temperature rises, plants and trees bloom, there is an obvious association between growth, rebirth and awakening. Since movies are a visual medium, defining the season your story takes place in can enhance your plot.

It’s no accident that the season of spring is full of holidays that celebrate this exciting possibility.  For example, the Jewish celebration of Passover is about the journey to freedom from slavery, and the Christian holiday of Easter signifies the resurrection of life.

Using a specific season and holiday is another way to take an ordinary story and elevate it to the mythic. Also, since so many stories are about love, a main character’s experience of love, romantic or otherwise can be viewed as a spiritual journey if love is used as a metaphor for faith.

For example, in the film Easter Parade, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, Broadway dancer Don (Fred Astaire) buys Easter presents for his sweetheart Nadine (Ann Miller). When she decides to start a career on her own (a type of rebirth), Don is crushed. So he takes the next dancer he meets, Hannah (Judy Garland), as a new partner (symbolizing change and growth) and vows to make her a star for next year's Easter parade. He gets over Nadine’s rejection, and falls for Hannah, ultimately proposing to her (symbolizing a new beginning).

What are your hero or heroine’s spiritual beliefs and how do they feel about the seasons and the relevant holidays?

Here's the exercise:

Step 1:  Identify your hero or heroine's faith – or lack thereof. No matter what religion they claim, it is important to note if they were raised that way, and if they truly believe or are merely going through the motions.

Step 2: Set a timer for 10 minutes.

Step 3: Imagine that in your screenplay it's the beginning of spring – and this weekend is a major holiday – Easter or Passover or the Vernal Equinox will occur.  How does your main character celebrate? What, if anything, does your heroine/hero do about it? Attend a Seder, dance in the Easter parade in a gaudy hat, have a Wiccan ceremony or ignore the whole business?

Step 4: Writing as if you are your main character, how your heroine/hero feels about spring and their participation (or lack thereof) in the holiday? A character who is cynical about their faith in a very Orthodox Jewish religious family will have a different experience than a disenfranchised priest who must say Easter mass seven times over a weekend.

To recap, understanding your character’s spiritual make up and his or her connection to holidays and seasons can improve your screenplay.

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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