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An Original Backstory Can Be the Key to a Strong Plot

By Marilyn Horowitz

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When I watch a movie, I look for a story that forces the main character to grow into the best version of herself, and one of my favorite characters is Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In the beginning of the film, Dorothy is powerless to stop Toto’s demise at the hands of Miss Gulch. By the end, however, Dorothy has learned that she has the power to kill the witch and go home—with Toto in her arms!
It’s a great story. But what makes the character of Dorothy so memorable?
In part, it’s because she has a compelling backstory, which allows us to sympathize and root for her from the get-go. For instance, Dorothy is an orphan, and though we never learn how her parents died, we know that she’s been placed with her aunt and uncle and displaced from her birth home. When she finds herself stranded in Oz, away from her aunt and uncle, Dorothy has in effect been orphaned again. So when she triumphs in the end, she does so not just in terms of the plot but in terms of her tragic backstory as well.
Designing a strong and original backstory is critical to our work because the more your main character needs to overcome her past, the easier and more fun it will be for you to design an effective plot. “Orphan” backstories such as Dorothy’s are powerful and can also be seen in such classics as Star Wars, Annie, and Oliver Twist. But because it’s been used so often, I suggest you attempt to find something more original to shape the passions of your characters.
I have developed a fast and easy way to accomplish that. In my book How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks, the first exercise is to create a stick-figure drawing of the main character’s family. Let’s do that now. Yes, right now. Grab a pencil and spend a few minutes drawing your main character and your main character’s family. Then do the same with your obstacle or villain, depicting them in simple sketches. Look to see how you might add an unusual mentor to your drawings, a pet, other caregivers, or maybe some unusual siblings. Originality comes from the specificity of your creative choices.
All done? Good. Now take a look at your drawings. What do you see? How does it inform your main character’s backstory? Our family experiences define our conception of ourselves as well as our expectations from life. For example, when Ray Charles was a child, one of his mentors was one of his father’s ex-wives. While his mother pushed him, the ex-wife coddled him, so we can understand his seemingly contradictory behavior as an adult. (Unfortunately, according to a great article I just read about the movie Ray—by the co-author of Ray Charles’s autobiography—this unusual arrangement was not emphasized and the film was deprived of added depth.)
I must admit, it disappoints me when writers develop ordinary backstories for their characters when so often they themselves have had a fascinating family experience. I see so many clichéd “two parents, two kids, and a dog” scripts, but when I ask these writers more questions, I often find there is much more to their main character’s history: the writers simply seem to have been blocked by a fear of being “wrong” in some way, perhaps by trying too hard to appeal to a large audience.
While this is understandable, audience members all have their own difficult backstories and life experiences, and they can handle, indeed, crave stories marked by individuality and originality. I encourage you to tune into the part of yourself that is a movie fan and try to please that part of you in your writing. That movie fan part of you has sat through hundreds of hours of TV and films. It knows how to distinguish between good and bad stories.
This is also a great way to release fear when writing. We all know when we are emotionally engaged, and by getting in touch with those feelings we can better recognize when we are succeeding. If you follow your emotional barometer, you will make choices that will better please you as well as your intended audience.
To recap: When you are creating or revising your screenplay, create a unique and special backstory for your main character. It will add greatly to the overall impact.

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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