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What's For Dinner?

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Setting a scene at a dinner is an amazing way to raise the stakes and to provide new opportunities for character development, both from the situation itself as well as the ongoing plot. A good example is in the film “Seven”, a thriller in which a retiring detective (Morgan Freeman) has to train the new detective (Brad Pitt) who is taking over his job while a serial murder case is still in progress. The new detective's wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) invites the retiring detective to dinner at their home.

After a difficult meal where the two detectives reveal their conflicting views of the case, they reach an impasse. Suddenly, the table begins to shake as a subway train passes outside the apartment window. The three diners collapse into helpless, uncontrollable laughter and because of this shared experience, they bond. By placing them in a home setting, it allows them to agree to solve the case together in a way they couldn’t otherwise.

A comic example is the classic first dinner scene in the movie “Moonstruck”, where Johnny (Nicholas Cage) proposes to Loretta (Cher) in the Italian restaurant. This scene is what sets the entire story in motion. How can she not accept in such a romantic situation? She has no time to think because he proposes during dinner, in a public place and her inner conflict is revealed when she insists that he get on his knees because she wants a more traditional proposal.

Now, think of a critical scene in your screenplay that is not working as well as you would like and see what happens if you add to or change the situation so that the characters are at dinner together. Consider this a practice exercise. Even if you don't end up using it in the script, you may find out new details that you didn't know before.

Here's the exercise:
  1. Select the scene in your current project you are going to practice with.
  2. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Write without stopping, making sure you have the scene reach a crisis. Answer the questions listed below.
  3. Who is having dinner (For example, Somerset, Mr. and Mrs. Mills) What: Is being eaten specifically (For example, Manicotti) When: Time of day and the season/weather Why are they having dinner? What is the occasion? For example, Johnny is leaving to visit his dying mother in Sicily. Where: Location, i.e. busy public restaurant or at home
  4. Write the scene and put it aside for a bit.
  5. Make a list of 10 great dinner scenes in movies that you love.
Here's my short list, in no particular order:
  1. The scene in Silence Of The Lambs where the guards bring Hannibal Lector the extra rare lamb chops and he murders them while Bach plays on the soundtrack.
  2. The scene in Alien where the monster comes out of John Hurt's chest
  3. The scene on the train in North By Northwest
  4. The dinner scene in When Harry Met Sally after they have slept together
  5. The eating scene in Tom Jones
  1. Now watch one or two of them and study each scene to see why they are or aren't good. Is there anything in what you're watching that inspires you?
  2. Now read your practice scene and improve it using what you have just learned.
  3. Go have a snack -- you deserve it.
Bon Apetit!

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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