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To Dramatize Or Summarize? That Is The Question

By Marilyn Horowitz

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We often need a single organizing principle to act as a compass as we navigate through our own work and pinpoint what needs rewriting. Finding the right question to ask, one that allows you to evaluate each part of your screenplay, is the key.

Here's how it works: As you read through your draft, at the beginning of each scene, ask yourself, have I dramatized and summarized the right parts of the story? While the concepts of summarizing and dramatizing are not new, their application will help you get a handle on the work that needs to be done in a fresh and fun way.

In my private class, students write a screenplay, revise the draft and complete their script in 9-week cycles. Many take the class several times to support and speed their rewriting progress. Every week we workshop each student's pages and I give a talk about an aspect of rewriting. While there are many elements involved with this process, having the right place to start saves much confusion and time.

An effective way to begin is to imagine that every scene has a moment before it began and a moment after and each one of these is a separate scene, and so each of your scenes becomes part of a larger whole, called a sequence. If you look at each scene as a sequence, it will give you the overview you need for correct assessment. Now ask yourself if you have dramatized the moments where there is the most conflict? Did you stay in the scene with the characters until they resolved it, or cut away to a new scene just as the previous one got juicy?

I often read drafts which include a two-page scene of the characters dining at a restaurant. When the waitperson finally leaves, the writer summarizes the conflict of the scene in a line or two. What the writer should have done was start the scene after the waitperson left, and stayed with the characters until the conflict was resolved.

Question: But how do I make the right decision as to what to rewrite or cut?

Answer: By identifying the conflict in the scene, and determining what each character wants. For example, in The Godfather, Michael wants to murder the Turk, who wants to make a drug deal. As they eat dinner in a restaurant, each seemingly mundane event (sitting down, ordering, being served) is loaded, because it all leads up to the climax.

Why do we so often dilute the tension or suspense that writing real conflict generates? Simple - we're trained to avoid conflict in real life, so we naturally try to minimize the conflicts in our scripts. However, we must overcome this, because our job as writers is to look for conflict and to amplify it. Audiences don't want to see films that are like everyday life; but rather, larger than life. Using the questions will help you do that.

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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