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From Story To Screenplay, Keeping It Commercially Viable

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I recently attended a non-fiction book conference, Author101 University, where writers come to turn their personal stories into books and businesses. The conference focuses on the marketing aspects of a story rather than its creation but therein lies the value of such a perspective to us screenwriters.  The purpose of the conference is to teach aspiring writers to mine their personal stories for the commercial possibilities as a part of the creation process, rather than as an afterthought. While this consideration can destroy a good script, it can save a writer much time and effort if the idea of commercial viability is applied correctly.

The first time I attended the conference I was surprised to learn that the writer of a non-fiction “how-to” book had to take themselves through a similar path that we screenwriters have to do with our imaginary characters: that is, organize the details of a profound experience into a story and then present it to an audience. There are of course, major differences in that the personal story is used as a parable and then combined with the techniques for repeating that experience rather than as the entire presentation. Also, the author uses their life experience rather than pure imagination. Nonetheless, comparing our work to theirs is valuable.

And really, if you think about it, almost any how-to book is based on the author’s personal successful quest to attain peace of mind, whether it is to get thin, get rich or find love.  In a related way, the movies we love help us to understand something about our own lives and gives us the same elixir as a good “how-to” book. That magic potion can be best described as hope. The stimulation of this feeling is the core of a successful product of any kind. This insight has been very helpful to me over the years because when I work on stories with my students and in my own work, I always have a hard target: to make the audience invest in the outcome. That is, make the audience hope that things will somehow work out for the best. This is one of the true secrets to making a story commercially viable.

On a personal note, I have always straddled both aspects of writing. As the spawn of two generations of entertainment lawyers, I have grown up with the box office gross attached to the premise of any story, but as the sole artist in my family, I have tried to marry that hard-nosed process of assessment with authentic story creation. This led me to develop The Horowitz System®, my copyrighted and trademarked writing system.

Since 1998 I have helped thousands of students write a screenplay in 10 weeks or less, and also worked with fiction and non-fiction writers, many of whom have been published.  One of secrets of my method is The Mythic Journey Map®, a technique that allows writers to structure a story in a classical way that almost always jibes with the kind of story his or her intended audience is seeking.  The Map works as a kind of Rosetta Stone or universal translator that helps the story emerge from the writer’s imagination already shaped in such a way that the audience can instantly connect and invest in what happens to the main characters.

In a movie or screenplay, the main character has an experience that forces him or her to take action. In Act II, the main character is faced with a series of increasingly insurmountable obstacles, and in Act II, they have an insight that allows them to battle the obstacle and win.  There’s a comparable structure in a “how-to” book: the author presents their own problem or the problem of someone they are connected to, explores the problems they had to overcome, and then offers the uplifting solution they have found to the reader.
So, to assess the commercial potential of a screenplay idea before you write it, complete the following exercise:

Step 1:  Imagine that you are writing a how-to book based on your character. For example, if your main character were Dorothy in the film, The Wizard of Oz, what would her “how-to” book be about? Why, empowerment of course and how you too can find your “ruby slippers” and find “home,” in as long as it takes to watch a movie! I am being facetious to make a point – but you can see how to do this first part of the exercise with ease.

Step 2:  Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 3: Writing as if you were your character, describe the experiences your character will go through in the story you’re working on. For example, Dorothy might write, “I found myself in Oz and had to find a way to get home.”

Step 4: Read what you have written and ask: What was the lesson learned that could be applied to anyone’s life? Again, remember the “ruby slippers” example.

Step 5: Ask yourself whether or not your story gives you a sense of hope? Does Dorothy find a way to get home? Yes, and we are filled with hope at the news of her success and inspired to find our own “home.” If you are interested someone actually has written a how-to book based on the film. It’s called, The Zen of OZ: Ten Spiritual Lessons From Over The Rainbow by Joey Green. If your story creates a strong sense of hopelessness, that is also powerful. There’s a reason why stories that end sadly are eternal – but that is the subject of a future Script Tip.

Step 6:  Finally, consider how you could tweak the script to deliver more hope to inspire your reader/viewer? Do you need to add a scene like the one in the film where Glinda, the Good Witch tells Dorothy that she had the power to go home all along or do you need to add a symbol like the ruby slippers or the lightsaber in the film series of Star Wars?

To summarize, there are two lessons we can learn from the incredibly lucrative world of the “how-to” book. Firstly, that by giving our audience hope, we easily capture them and secondly, that by looking at our fictional stories as if they were “real life” we can improve the structure and make them commercially viable.

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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