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How To Raise The Emotional Stakes in Your Screenplay

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Yesterday, I worked on a project with a novelist who is adapting her book into a screenplay. It’s an epic saga about a middle-aged woman who must take on her role as leader of her country when the other members of her family are murdered. The book took two years to write, because as a talented but inexperienced writer, my student was reluctant to give the story high enough stakes for it to be commercially viable.  This problem resulted in numerous rewrites and is typical of the process I often must go through, which is pushing the writer until the stakes are as high as they can go.

The need to rewrite so often could be cured if only we could accept that our unconscious minds, the part of us that dreams, does not understand what is “Real” and what is “Imaginary.”  As a result, we are reluctant to create bigger problems for our characters as if we were actually going to affect the life of an actual person! Haven’t you ever awakened from a bad dream and been sure that what ever happened was “Real”? Of course, we all have, and my point is that deep confusion is what prevents many of us from going all out when plotting our stories.

After years of working with many writers, I concluded that often when we begin to create screenplays, we come up against a basic instinct, which is to try not to generate conflict, but to resolve it. This is a core survival technique and one of the ways we are taught to fit into society. Consider that in all the Tarzan movies, one of the key themes is that he must learn to control himself around others, and that we have all been trained to conform and stop being overly dramatic.

Ironically, this ability to create drama is the key to success as a writer! Writing a story is the one place you can let loose because it is an imaginary situation, but we resist because a part of our mind is not sure it’s safe to do this.

Understanding this part of your mind is the first part of the cure for this seeming weakness in storytelling and the second part of the cure is to accept that on another equally deep level, writers are teachers and we are trying to get a message or lesson across however subtly we hide it.  I have found that if the writer can make the connection between high stakes and the lesson or message they want to convey, this survival part of our minds can be reasoned with by understanding that however catastrophic the situation, or brutal the torture your characters must undergo, if you feel that you can help one actual human being resolve something in their own lives and become a better, happier person, then it will all have been worth it.

In my New York University classes, where I teach a class based on my book, How To Write A Screenplay In 10 Weeks, I use an exercise that generally helps the students get over this hurdle, which I am now going to share.  Remember to be gentle with yourself: this reluctance to create conflict is based on a survival technique that is hard-wired into your brain.

Step 1.  Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 2.  Without stopping, make a list of the worst things that can happen in your script and the effects these events would have on the various characters. Really let loose and leave the logic of your current story behind. For example, in the film, Casablanca, what if the Nazis were invading, and Ilsa had been two-timing Rick? What if he were captured and tortured?  While I don’t think Casablanca needed higher stakes, I intended this as example so you could apply the technique to your story.

Step 3.  Have your main character describe how these events changed the outcome of his or her life. Rick might write, “ I could have taken everything but knowing that she was sleeping with another man.”

Step 4.  Put the exercise away for a while and watch one or two movies in your chosen genre that were very successful and that you like.

Step 5.  Consider the relative stakes in these films and your script and make any adjustments.

A tip is that if you complete this exercise in a modified form BEFORE you design your next script, you may find you have a juicier script that requires few drafts.

Happy and 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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