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How To Use The Formative Event Technique To Raise The Stakes In Your Story

By Marilyn Horowitz

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When I teach my New York University course Writing The Screenplay In 10 Weeks, I begin with a series of character exercises that allow the student to do deep character work efficiently in order to get them directly to the information they need to begin writing. One of the exercises calls for the student to create a Formative Event that explains why the character must do whatever she or he has to do in the film. This is very useful tool when designing a first draft or revising an existing draft.

The example used in my writing program is taken from the film, The Silence Of The Lambs. The heroine, Clarice Starling, recounts how she was unable to save the spring lambs born on her uncle's farm from being slaughtered. We learn about this Formative Event through her conversation with Hannibal Lector. He observes that her desire to be an FBI agent springs from a deep need to resolve the guilt she feels for not saving the lambs by saving people from violent deaths. So her mission has a double purpose -- to cure the current problem, and to make up for something in the past.

Another example of a Formative Event that creates depth and motivation for a main character can be found in The Wizard of Oz. In the film, Dorothy has already lost one home before she ever sings, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." She has been orphaned and taken in by her Auntie Em, so her quest for home encompasses a far greater need than to merely return to Kansas.

When you are plotting your own screenplay, try to find some Formative Event from the past that will raise the stakes. While this is relatively easy when crafting a first draft, it takes a little more work when working on a rewrite or finished draft that hasn't sold. Reverse engineering the back-story after you have already written your plot is a trick I teach to my advanced students and I am how happy to share it with you as a bonus.

Here's how it works: Let's look at the film, In The Line Of Fire. The hero, Frank Horrigan, is a Secret Service agent who failed to protect John F. Kennedy when he was shot in Texas. This is Frank’s Formative Event. The plot concerns Frank's obsessive efforts to prevent a second president from being killed. The subplot of his romance with fellow agent, Lilly Raines, also echoes the past -- he lost his wife because of his work, and would have to give up his work to win Lilly. What might have been a fairly irrelevant subplot takes on deeper meaning because there's a past sin to undo. Because of Frank’s past, the stakes begin at a very high level and are pushed to the limit from the moment the story begins, because he has to resolve the past before he can have a future.

How to do the exercise:
  1. Write a sentence encapsulating your current plot. For example, if your film were In The Line Of Fire, you might describe the story as: An aging Secret Service Agent finally gets a chance to save a president.
  2. Look at your description of the action and ask yourself whether something similar happened to your character before the story began? Whatever answer you get will describe a Formative Event. In our example, Horrigan's Formative Event was that he was on duty when John F. Kennedy was shot, and failed to save him. Knowing this raises the jeopardy in the story much higher, because Frank has already failed and this is a second chance.
  3. Think of a Formative Event for your main character that is similar to an event or plot line you described in your previous answer:
  4. Now try to restructure your story line as follows:

    Because of the Formative Event________________________________, my main character has to overcome _________________________________ in the plot, which will allow him or her resolve the past and move on.
This technique works equally well with the villain or obstacle and can humanize them. Try it!

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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