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Exploring Unusual Character Relationships To Improve Your Script

By Marilyn Horowitz

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When helping writers design their screenplays, I always explain that movies are about relationships. The characters we choose to put in your film must interact in order to fulfill the goals of the plot. This being the case, the audience also likes novelty and so the usual relationships that we see everyday can be tedious when put in a dramatic setting.  Choosing an unlikely character relationship is a fast track to creating a screenplay that is truly original.  A few examples of these types of unusual pairings are Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector in The Silence of The Lambs, Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix, and Thelma and Louise in the movie of the same name.  

I recently saw a wonderful film, Ida, which gives a perfect example of the type of unusual and unlikely relationship I am discussing in this Script Tip.  Set in 1962, the film explores the relationship between Ida, a young acolyte about to take her vows, and Wanda, her middle-aged aunt; a high powered, hard–drinking prominent member of the communist party who did not adopt Ida after Wanda’s sister and Ida’s mother were killed during World War II.  

In the beginning of the film, the Mother Superior sends Ida to see her aunt before she will allow Ida to take the veil. After an uneasy meeting between Ida and Wanda, they embark on a road trip to discover the secret of Ida’s parent’s death. The interaction of the two women combined with the unraveling of a mystery is masterful for two reasons: firstly, the relationship by its nature is complex and fascinates us, and secondly, the revelation of the mystery is tragic and original.  

In our other examples, the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal leads to the capture of Jame Gumb, but also provides a character arc for each character. Clarice becomes empowered and solves the crime, and Hannibal regains his humanity when out of love, he helps Clarice find the essential clue to the mystery. In The Matrix, Neo, a depressed programmer and dealer teams up with Morpheus, the leader of the rebellion, to save humanity. Not only are they able to achieve the goal, but Neo finds a purpose and Morpheus finds the hero mentioned in the prophecy that has sustained him.

In Thelma and Louise, two friends embark on a road trip that leads to their untimely deaths, but only after they have resolved their personal issues and stood up for their right to live their own lives as they see fit.  In conclusion, you can easily see the value in creating unusual relationships in your screenplays.

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Step 2. Select two characters and write a brief synopsis about what might happen if they had to take a road trip to solve the mystery in your current story. (Hint: all good movies regardless of genre should have a mystery that is revealed.)

Step 3. Writing as one of the characters in the first person, describe the action that occurred in the synopsis from their point of view.

Step 4. Reset the timer and repeat the process for the other character describing the same events from their point of view in the first person.

Step 5. Reset the timer and write a brief dialogue between the characters as they unravel the mystery. For example, In Ida, when the two characters are told about what really happened with the parents they must discuss what to do. It’s an amazing scene – so full of subtext and inner conflict!  Imagining this crucial scene in your script can give you, the writer, powerful insights that will dramatically improve your understanding of the character and therefore improve your writing.

Step 6. Congratulate yourself and see how you can use what you learned to tweak your current script or develop a new idea.

Good luck and here's to your successful 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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