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How To Use Christmas Eve To Raise The Stakes Of Your Screenplay

By Marilyn Horowitz

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The Christmas holidays bring both excitement and stress. Determining how your main character feels about holidays can be a fast track to understanding them on a deeper level. Scripts also need a deadline, a "ticking clock", and by placing your hero or heroine in a situation with the added pressure of a holiday is a sure way to raise the stakes in your screenplay.

This is true for holidays in general, but I want to focus on Christmas Eve since that seems to be an ultimate moment in time that can reveal character and heighten the tension in a script, regardless of the genre you're writing in. Here are some examples of how setting a story on Christmas Eve can help:

In A Christmas Carol, which is based on a book by Charles Dickens and seems to be remade once a year, Christmas Eve is used as a catalyst for Scrooge to realize he's capable of love. Scrooge hates the holiday. On the eve, he is visited by ghosts and gains clarity about his life, and learns to love Christmas. In It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is dissatisfied by his life, and becomes suicidal on Christmas Eve. Being shown what a difference he has made helps him both appreciate his life and help save the town.

Love Actually has several plot lines that all reach a crisis on Christmas Eve. A few of them are: The Prime Minister (High Grant) is moved to find Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the girl he's scorned, because he receives a holiday card from her explaining her suspicious behavior; a little boy (Thomas Sangster) finds out his love is requited when he follows his girl to the airport, and in another subplot, adultery is averted when the wife (Emma Thompson) confronts her wayward husband (Alan Rickman) when she finds an expensive Christmas gift not intended for her.

Try the following exercise for your current screenplay or the next one you are planning to write:

The Christmas Eve Exercise

It's Christmas Eve in the world of your story. Visualize your main character doing what they might be doing on that evening. Is he or she celebrating? Brooding? Committing a crime? This can be a current experience or a past one where something traumatic occurred which affects the current events on your script.

For example, if you were writing Casablanca, you would imagine that Ilsa and Rick were planning to leave together on Christmas Eve, and she stood him up. Using this example, Ilsa would now walk into Rick's Bar on -- you guessed it, Christmas Eve. Imagine how that might have changed their first reunion. If you were writing Die Hard, your hero would be visiting his wife and get caught up in a current situation.

Now take your screenplay and make the same leap of imagination. Write a brief monologue for each character as if the experience has already happened and see if you don't get something helpful for your current script.

For example, if your main character were John McClane, you might write, "Geez. If I'd known that I was going to have to save my wife from a bunch of thieves pretending to be terrorists, I would've brought some extra weapons and would never have taken my shoes off in a strange bathroom. I'm not much on the holidays, but there was something about it being Christmas Eve that really made me realize just how much I loved Holly, and nothing was worth losing her over."

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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