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Act “As If” to Truly Write Better in Half an Hour

By Marilyn Horowitz

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A well-known playwright, once wrote that we always write about the problems we have. I seem to be frequently sent students who are working through the same issues I myself have as a writer. For me, it is always some form of struggle relating to believing in my talent and myself. My newest student is a successful actress of a certain age (you would know her name) and now she’s decided to write and produce movies that she will star in. The alternative for her is waiting around for a good script – and as we all know, they are few and far between.

To this end, she took an online class with me a couple of years ago, and worked on a short film script that she plans to star in and produce. When she sent the draft to me, I was very impressed with her writing and agreed to coach her through the process of completing a feature length screenplay.

I asked her to begin by writing a treatment. My student’s treatment was well thought out and well structured. Also, the characters were better developed than most first time writers, and the dialogue was strong and distinctive. Clearly, she was talented as a writer, but when I asked her what her plans were once she had completed the script, she said, “Oh I am no writer. So I guess find a real writer to finish it up. I just want to get the story down as best I can.”

I was frankly shocked. I have worked with plenty of writers who thought they were great and had far less going for them than this student. I replied, “But you wrote a short film, a treatment and are now going to write a feature length film. In what way are you NOT a writer?”

“I mean that I am not a good writer. You know I have no talent.”

Wow, what to say next? Part of my job as a writing coach is to encourage and inspire. I realized that I had a big job here. “How are you going to motivate yourself if you are so sure you have no talent?”
She said, “I know. I am so worried that I won’t finish.”

Based on my experience with many writers, I knew that she was right. With that negative attitude, her project would be doomed at best to a very limited success.

To remedy this potential mess I suggested that she use an acting technique in her writing. Stanislavski, the great acting teacher used an exercise he called “The Magic If.” This is a technique taught to actors to allow them to play characters beyond their known experience.

I have often adapted this idea when teaching writers to create better characters, but had not used it on a writer to improve their actual writing technique before. The question you are trying to answer is “What would I do differently if I were…” I asked my student to describe her writing process, and then how it would change if we used the “Magic If” technique using the question, “What if I were… really talented?”

Now you try it and see what happens. If you think you are talented, increase the superlative to “creative genius,” “Oscar winning screenwriter,” or whatever the ultimate description of being a great writer is for you.

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1.  Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Step 2.  Write about your writing process. For example, “I write when I get home from work. I take a shower and a nap. I try to write a page a day while listening to Heavy Metal music.“ The trick is to write exhaustively so you explore your process thoroughly.

Step 3.  Reset the timer.

Step 4.  Write out the question at the top of a new page. For example, “What If I was an Oscar winning screenwriter?”

Step 5.  Imagine yourself accepting your Oscar. What would you say, and whom would you thank? What would you be wearing?

Step 6.  Write about how your process would change.

I asked my student to do the exercise answering the question, “What if I truly had talent?” for homework.

In our next session, my student behaved very differently. Much to my delight, she had rewritten the treatment and it was simpler, more exciting and more visual than the preceding version. But there was something else that really made it “pop” and that was a certain confidence in the writing. During our private class, she spoke as if the movie had already been made, unaware of how her whole manner had changed. Best of all, there was no mention of other writers taking the project over.

I am happy to report, having just read her draft, that it is really good.

To recap, a simple imagination exercise can improve your writing in a half hour; by pretending that you are “good” at writing, whatever that word means to you will actually change the way you write!

It helps, however, if your writing is truly solid as this student’s writing is and she got to that point by understanding and applying the principles she learned in my online class based on my New York University textbook, How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks.

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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