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Use Storytelling to Create Depth and Subtext in Your Screenplay

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I saw the new version of The Great Gatsby last night, and as I was watching the scene where Gatsby drives Nick to a luncheon in his yellow convertible, he tells Nick his life story, including his stint as a soldier and an education at Oxford. Earlier in the film, when Nick attends Gatsby’s party, the first thing that happens is that two partygoers tell him different stories about Gatsby. This creates a fascination in the audience to know who this fabulous, mysterious creature is. The movie opens with Nick in a mental asylum telling the doctor a story about his experience with Gatsby.

Having your characters tell stories about their lives is a powerful way to convey the essence and intuit the core conflicts that drive their actions in the story you are telling.  Whether the story is about the character’s personal past, as in the example of Robert Shaw telling his story about the shark attack in the film, Jaws or a historical event in the actual film, as when Humphrey Bogart reminisces about Paris in Casablanca, the use of a story told by a character on-screen acts as a magic wand which allows us to immediately grasp the essence of a character without having to give many chronological details. A story also will subtly underline the message or question the film explores AND helps to create subtext. 

In the latest episode of Iron Man, the film begins with a narration or story told by Tony Stark about a single night in his life, where all the seeds that will be sown in the movie were planted. The story works to frame the message or subtext we are intended to receive, in this case, “what goes around–comes around.” In the story, Tony slights two characters who come back to haunt, and very nearly destroy him in the course of the movie.

In The Great Gatsby, the subtext of the film is an exploration of the questions of whether or not you can relive and correct the past and what makes someone decent? Gatsby is a crook who is willing to take the rap for the woman he loves, while Tom Buchanan, an old money pillar of society is quick to instigate Myrtle’s deranged husband to murder by allowing him to assume Gatsby is the man who was cuckolding him.  Daisy doesn’t even bother to attend her lover’s funeral!

In Casablanca, the message in the story about the Paris romance is: though choosing to serve the greater good comes at a high price, making the hard choice brings peace of mind. In Paris, Ilsa leaves Rick high and dry to reunite with her saintly husband; at the end of the film, Rick sacrifices a life with Ilsa to fight the good fight.

This is an extremely powerful technique.  Why not take advantage of it and use it in your own work to promote your story. Does your main character tell a story in your current screenplay? If the answer is yes, look at the details on this symbolic level, and ask yourself what you can infer is the message and /or question that your characters are exploring. If not, or if you want to explore another character more deeply, try the exercise below.

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1. Set a timer for 15 minutes

Step 2.  Writing in the first person as if you were the character, write down a story about his or her life.

Step 3. Repeat the experiment for your Love Interest, Buddy, Villain or Obstacle.

Step 4. After a brief rest, reread the two stories and see if you can elicit the subtext, message or questions revealed by the story.

You may find that you are inspired to make small changes in plot and dialogue that suddenly make your screenplay seem to come to life.

Good luck and happy writing!

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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