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How Would Your Main Character Escape?

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Getting your audience to connect with your screenplay on a gut level should be the goal of the screenwriter, whether writing a violent action film or a comedy.

But when actually writing the screenplay, sometimes it's hard to know how your hero or heroine and villain would deal with a moment of extreme emotional stress. This is critical knowledge to have, and gaining it can be fun. Placing your hero or heroine and villain in tough situations that they – for emotional reasons – must physically escape, is an effective way to move your story forward and to create a more dynamic relationship between these key characters.

Recently, I watched a beloved film, Garden State, to prepare for a class on a new method for screenplay structure I've developed. In the film, the hero, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his family home in New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral, and after the service escapes on an old-fashioned motorcycle with a sidecar. As he drives off, moody rock in a melancholy key plays on the soundtrack, perfectly underscoring the emotional quality of the film. It's a moment we all have really felt - that we must flee the situation we're in.

As a viewer, I was moved by this moment in the film. It spoke to me and made me care passionately about what happened.

Good writing creates an immediate emotional connection with audiences, which keeps them watching until the story is done. I have taught writers to do this by putting themselves in the story before they write.

When doing the following exercise, I want to encourage all of you to write organically, from a place inside of you that is resonant, so that you actually feel what you are trying to communicate to others as you write it.

The exercise is to ask yourself what you would do to get away from an unbearable confrontation, then to consider what your main character's and your villain's escape method would be and what the soundtrack is. For example, in The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is moved to another prison and kills the two guards, then escapes on a hospital gurney. The accompanying music is soothing, luminous Bach.

Exercise: Part 1

The first part of the exercise is to write a brief scene that drives your characters to that moment of crisis. For example, in Garden State, the scene that leads to the crisis and need to escape takes place in his father, Gideon's, home office after the funeral. The talk is civil, desultory until Gideon can't resist a vicious comment that makes Andrew turn and silently leave the room.

In the next scene, Andrew's very upset and enters the family garage. He rips the tarp off a hidden object as if he were completing a magic trick, revealing the old-fashioned motorcycle with a sidecar. He drives off in state of fury. Andrew's anger is what creates a powerful sequence that will keep us riveted to the screen because we are connected to his feelings.

Now try this for your main character by describing the action that leads to the moment of escape:

Exercise: Part 2

Now write about the specific method that would be used to escape.
Write how you would escape:
And the music that would be playing:

Now repeat the exercise for your hero or heroine. How would he or she escape: And the music that would be playing:

Now repeat the exercise for your villain:
How would he or she escape:
And the music that would be playing:

Good work! I hope you found this exercise useful and will make a habit of imagining situations using this exercise, as it will lead you to more effective screenwriting.

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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