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How To Heighten The Tension in Your Plot By Creating The Irresolvable Problem

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I recently visited my mother for dinner, and one of the topics we spoke about was whom we would want to run into in the Afterlife, if there was such a thing.

"I would want to see my beloved dogs," she said.

"What about Ollie?" I said, covering Ollie's ears. Ollie's a big beige tabby with green eyes.

She looked at him sadly and said, "He'll never be a dog."

"Maybe that's why he's so fat," I replied and it then occurred to me that here was a great way to create more intense inner conflict in a screenplay: if your main character is involved with someone who wants him or her to be different in a way that he or she cannot achieve no matter what they do, then the inner conflict can never be resolved, a great element when plotting a screenplay. For example, in Ollie's case, no matter what he does, excluding a species-change operation, Ollie the cat can never become the dog my mother wants him to be. That will keep some cat psychologist in business for year, and might make a cute story.

One of The Horowitz System’s most effective techniques is to teach screenwriters how to find the hero or heroine's inner conflict and let that drive the plot of the script. Ollie's predicament became a powerful analogy for a human situation that is both clear and irresolvable. Creating a problem like this for your character is a great way to increase tension and raise the stakes of your plot.

Consider Michael's character in the film, Tootsie. His inner conflict is that he can never become a famous actor as a male. That Michael finds success as a female actress is a great twist. And since Michael will never actually become a woman, his becoming famous portraying Dorothy would seem to be a solution, but the situation brings itself to a perfect Act 3 crisis because Michael is not a woman, in the same way Ollie is not a dog, Michael can't both be a famous actress, and get the girl. He must choose one or the other. Getting the plot to culminate to this degree of either/or choice is one of the keys to writing an original, well-structured and entertaining script.

Here's the exercise:

  1. Select a main character from a favorite movie.
  2. Define their Inner Conflict by completing this sentence: No matter what my main character does, he/she can never be a _______________. In Tootsie, Michael can never be a famous male actor, and poor Ollie can never be a dog.
  3. Look at your current project and see how you can use this irresolvable conflict to improve your plot, especially the third act, where your hero or heroine must be faced with an impossible choice, i.e., does Michael remain a famous actress, or pursue love?
  4. Write out this choice as a sentence. Set a timer for ten minutes and write as if you were your main character talking about the situation. You may end up using no lines in the actual screenplay, but this exercise will help you, the writer, find clarity.

Good luck and happy 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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