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How To Use An Illness To Improve Your Screenplay Plot

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Illness can become a profound story catalyst that takes an ordinary plot and life to the level of something mythic and unique. You can utilize illness as either a structural tool, or as a way to shockingly advance conflict.

For example, in Fried Green Tomatoes, a film with a story within a story structure, the main story involves a frustrated middle-aged housewife (Cathy Bates) who befriends a dying resident (Jessica Tandy) at an old-age home she visits with her husband. As the two woman bond, the elderly lady begins to tell tales of her youth revealing the story of two best friends, Idgie and Ruth who go through all the ups and downs life can offer, only to have their happiness ruined when Ruth gets cancer, and dies.  This sad tale ignites the frustrated housewife to take charge of her own life and to take on the old lady who is the “real” Idgie from the stories and care for her until her death.

While Fried Green Tomatoes uses illness as catalyst, an illness can be the core of the plot. Movies like The Descendants and The Notebook, each center around one character with an illness that every other character must come to terms with.

In The Descendants, the mother of the family lays in a coma for the entire story while the remaining members, father George Clooney and his daughters must come to terms with their responsibility of whether or not to continue the mother’s life support system.

In The Notebook, through the reading of her journal, we learn that Alzheimer’s is the disease that lovers Allie (Gena Rowlands) and Duke (James Garner) must tackle in this bittersweet romance.

Illness can powerfully affect your screenplay.

Here’s the exercise.

Step 1. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 2. Chose an illness, such as the flu, and subject your main character to it at a pivotal moment in the story. Writing as if you were the main character, describe the effects.

Step 3. Repeat the exercise writing as if you were your villain and see where it takes you.

Step 4. Put the work away for a little while, then reread. How does the introduction of an illness change or improve your story?

In the meantime, take your vitamins, wash your hands and be well!

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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