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How To Make Your Climactic Sequence "Pop"

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Most holidays and celebrations are fun, however this one, the Ides of March, is infamous for being the date of the brutal stabbing death of Julius Caesar by his associates. An oracle had warned Caesar that he would be harmed on or before the Ides of March. While making his way to the Theatre of Pompey, Caesar passed the oracle and said, "The Ides of March have come," joking that the prophecy had not been fulfilled.  The oracle supposedly replied "Aye, Caesar; but not gone."  Shakespeare dramatized this warning in the play Julius Caesar with the soothsayer famous words: "Beware the Ides of March."

This concept of betrayal is one of the fundamental tropes of drama. We use the Ides of March in our Script Tip today, using this 'really bad day in the life of your character' concept, to intensify the drama leading up to your climactic event in Act 2, part 2 or Act 3 by surrounding it with ordinary events. These events, combined with a prophetic warning, create a natural ticking clock and unbearable suspense. The best news is that we creative screenwriters can turn any day into an “Ides of March” day by adding the profound elements of betrayal and murder lurking in the character’s near future.

For example, in the award Steve Spielberg movie LINCOLN, the premonition Lincoln had was not shown in the movie. However, because of our knowledge of the real life outcome of Lincoln's murder, we are on the edge of our seats for the whole story, knowing what will happen, but hoping against hope that somehow this time Lincoln will escape his fate. The suspense of whether or not he will be shot is increased by the filmmaker’s brilliant choice to keep the events leading up to the moment as mundane as possible. On that doomed last day, we watch with bated breath as Lincoln achieves his dream and the papers are signed, and then as he spends time with his son, and then we follow his son and see his reaction to the news that his father has been shot. As an aside, I would have preferred to see the shooting first hand, as it would have allowed the audience of the grim satisfaction of seeing the prophecy fulfilled. However, the choice to build the sequence by selecting simple events made the final tragedy completely devastating.

Now try this technique for your story.

Here's the exercise:

Using the 'worst day ever' concept of the Ides of March, intensify the Act 2, part 2 or Act 3 climax by creating everyday events that lead up to the decisive moment.

  • Step 1. Set your timer for 5 minutes.
  • Step 2. Identify the climactic event of Act 2, part 2 or Act 3.
  • Step 3. Backtrack from that scene; write a list of all of the events that lead up to the peak moments. Surely Caesar had breakfast and a wash before he left, maybe argued with his wife over what to have for dinner, etc.
  • Step 4. From your list choose which events to dramatize that will make the ordinariness highlight the culmination of your climactic scene. Remember that ordinary does not mean boring, so choose wisely.

You can find many examples of 'the worst-day' technique in films, though not all of these will have literal portents of the future as in a psychic prediction. Sometimes the inevitable outcome is implicit in the structure of the plot, as in movies like Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and LA Confidential.

I invite you to watch a film similar to the story you are working on and study how the film builds to the to the climax of Act 2, part 2, or Act 3. Did they use this technique and if so, how?

Add this concept to your storehouse of techniques, and I promise you that your writing will improve.

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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