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Use the Cultural Context of Your Screenplay To Improve Your Plot

By Marilyn Horowitz

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It's the end of the year, a time when we often reflect about recent past events. It's hard to believe President Obama has been inaugurated, the Jay Leno Show moved to a ten o'clock timeslot, and the Yankees have won their 27th world series. What we often don't do is take a moment to connect what was happening in our personal lives at the moment these larger events occurred. Making this connection for the characters in your screenplay can be the key to turning the script into a profound story instead of a superficial confection. For example, in the movie Forrest Gump it's because the events in the larger world drive the plot that the lovable simple-minded character played by Tom Hanks assumes heroic proportions.

Here's a practical application of this idea that worked for one of my students who was writing a period screenplay about a lesbian who finds true love. The script is set in San Francisco during the 1970s and the heroine lives a few doors down from Harvey Milk. The climax of the screenplay was a gay wedding at the City Hall, but this had no significant impact in large measure because there had been no mention of the larger political turmoil of what eventually led to the assassination of Harvey Milk at the same City Hall. Once she connected the story indirectly to Harvey Milk and made the homosexual activism part of the story, the screenplay came to life.

Here's how to do the exercise:

Step 1: Define the year (or years) in which your screenplay is set

For example, one of my novelist students is writing a book that spans 20 years. I suggested that she create a time line of world events for her book. She discovered that her love story spanned the entire Gulf War. Even though it's a love story, not a war story, adding contextual references to the war and introducing a secondary character that was a soldier was a way to take an interesting story and make it fascinating and relevant.

Step 2: List 3 world events that happened during your screenplay

For example, the film A Walk On The Moon takes place during the summer of both Woodstock and the Moon Landing, and the juxtaposition of these events will create an overall cultural mood making make your story more concrete and defining the plot.

Step 3: Consider how the cultural context of any story can be another character

Consider how in the film Casablanca how the German invasion of Paris functions like a character – a villain or catalyst to push the lovers apart, and later how the Nazis create the frame for the difficult and noble choices the characters must make.

Step 4: Rewrite a current scene to explore the potential of how the cultural context could shape the plot of your script

Select a key scene in a screenplay you are working on that just doesn’t seem to be as significant or effective as you would like. Select one of the three events you identified in Step 2, and add it in some way to the scene. For example in Casablanca there's the famous scene where Ilsa comes to Rick and they "remember" their romance in Paris in flashback.

If this were your scene you would add the cultural context -- the German's invading Paris. So if the scene you are going to work on has the characters drinking in a bar, and the TV is currently showing sports, you might change what's on the TV screen to a newscast of the event you selected and have the characters express their reactions. Try it and see what happens, you may be happily surprised at the improvement.

To recap, to create profundity in your screenplay, use the cultural context as a character.

Happy 2010!

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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