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How To Set Up Act 1: Think In Your Hero Or Villain's Voice

By Marilyn Horowitz

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In my new class, Story Development 2.0, a student came in with a problem: "I have a good outline, but I feel like it's taking me too long to get into the story. What can I do?" Exposition is the hardest part of any new script because you are setting up the world of the story. The facts surrounding the set up the story can be vast and overwhelming.

There are many techniques that can effectively help you when you present your screenplay to the marketplace. The original Star Wars utilized an onscreen written narration The Godfather shows us a lengthy wedding sequence, and GoodFellas uses a narrator to talk us through the beginning.

Whether your screenplay is a comedy or a drama, presenting the character and situation takes time. I find that screenwriters try to squeeze the set up into their script without fully defining what it is. Very often this happens out of fear of not fitting into screenplay form. And yes, make no mistake - be afraid, very afraid, for this process is much like trying to take a photo with a camera with a standard lens. Only a fraction of what you see actually makes it into the picture. Ironically, the attempt to control what you imagine will hinder and not helps you because you are not allowing yourself to fully express your vision. The key here is to allow yourself to mentally "see" the whole picture before you decide which "snapshot" to present to your audience. But how can we do this and not end with a fifty page first act?

The answer is to write a first person narration of the events of the first act as if you were the hero, heroine or villain. Understanding the way a character thinks and feels about the situation you have placed them in can cut your writing time in half. By allowing your characters to think and feel in their own voice is the fast track to successfully compressing exposition so that you can get into your story more quickly.

Think of how the opening narration in Goodfellas gets you right into to the story as the camera pans through a restaurant. You can borrow the idea of the character explaining him or herself to the audience no matter what kind of story you are trying to tell, because you will use this technique as a tool for exploration only. Don't assume everything you write has to go into the script, though you will often get a great line or two from this exercise.

Here's the technique:

Decide whether you will write as your hero or your villain or obstacle. Next, find a way to physically mimic your character by finding a gesture and a sitting position that they would use. For example, the guy who asked the question is a well-built guy with a shaved head who often sits with one ankle crossed onto the opposite knee. He's writing a comedy screenplay about a woman trying to get to her wedding on time. In his outline, the first act was all about the heroine going through the lengthy preparation the many women go through to get ready for a big event. This was the right approach, but he went through every procedure from hair washing to make up. How could he figure out what was most important to his character? I suggested that he sit the way she might sit and to select a gesture that she would make.

His heroine was a flirtatious girl with long hair. He changed his posture so that his legs were crossed and he dangled an imaginary shoe from his left foot, and twirled his imaginary long hair with his hand. He began to write, "I am trying to get to my wedding, but first I have to do 500 things that bore me." he looked up with a grin. When I asked him why he was smiling, he told me that he'd suddenly understood that his character didn't care about the details, but the overwhelming amount of them, and that the steps that were taking so long could be combined into a montage! His writing exercise gave him new insight into the character and he actually used a brief opening narration that came out of this exercise.

Now you try it:

  1. Use a timer. Set it for 15 minutes.
  2. Take a minute to find a posture and a gesture.
  3. Write by hand. Begin by writing "I".
  4. Now start the timer and try to write without stopping until the timer goes off. Have the character describe the events in Act 1.
Very good. Put the work away for an hour or two, and then reread it out to yourself. You will find that you have naturally compressed and simplified the plot so that you can get to the action more quickly.

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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