Buy Screenwriting Software Download Free Script Writing Software Trial
Free Screenwriting Tips

How To Use A Specific Cultural Heritage To Improve Your Plot

By Marilyn Horowitz

Share |  
If your current script is feeling a bit anemic, one way to beef up your story is to add a dash of ethnicity. While it's a fairly obvious idea that by giving a character a specific ethnic background you can add depth, adding culture as a plot element is not. The beliefs and expectations of any ethnic group help to define the range of possibilities available to your plot, and will suggest organic rather than contrived stories.

For example, in the film Bend It Like Beckham, marriage for a young woman is a cultural expectation and not a personal choice. The key here is to look at how the social behavior of that particular culture's customs and beliefs affects the plot. A dramatic example of this is in the film, The Godfather, where the cultural convention is that on the wedding day of the eldest daughter, an Italian father must grant wishes. This convention creates the plot event that snaps the story into motion. In the film, Love Actually and in many other films, it's the cultural traditions of Christmas that drive the plot.

Let's put this idea into practice. Imagine that you are writing a script about a plain, and not young woman who can't get herself married. She is rescued from that fate by a wonderful man who falls in love with her. Somehow your script is flat and you can't figure out how to make it "pop." By adding some Greek culture to the mix suddenly an ordinary screenplay can be transformed into -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding! In this film, as in the other examples above, it is the conventions of the culture, not the character elements that the ethnic element could provide.

The key to this technique is to understand that the culture does not have to be religious or national. Rather the story has to have a set of specific beliefs and rules that define the world in which the characters make their choices. Perhaps the paradigm of the use of ethnicity, are Science Fiction films which create an imaginary world altogether.

For example, in the film Avatar, the culture that shapes the story is that of the Na'vi culture of the aliens who live on the planet, Pandora.

Even fantasy films such as The Toy Story series are based on a culture where the toys have a society apart from that of the humans they "belong" to.

In many dramas, try adding culture to the plot. This technique can set up and suggest the inevitable climax even before the characters enter the play. For example, in the innumerable Romeo and Juliet stories, the lovers always meet in a setting where the cultural context is the enmity between their two families. While this is not limited to any specific ethnicity, the basic situation of any two families being at war with one another provides a fundamental cultural foundation that will make the plot gripping.

To summarize, one way to intensify your story is to add a specific cultural heritage to the plot.

Here's the exercise:
  1. Take your current script and write a few lines defining the cultural elements in the story and how they affect your plot. For example, In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the culture is Greek-American, and in Avatar, it's the Na'vi culture of its inhabitants.
  2. Next, consider how the script would play out if you transferred the story to a different culture. What if The Godfather had been written and directed by Spike Lee? What if My Big Fat Greek Wedding had been set in a Muslim culture?
  3. Write a one-paragraph synopsis describing how the plot of your script would change as a result. For example, what events would change in the plot if you changed the locale of the film, Witness, to an ashram in India?

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

New Release: Script Studio

Buy Script Studio Online

What the Pros Say...

Upgrade From Movie Outline

30 Day Money Back Guarantee

Download Free Trial

Tag Cloud