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How To Use Your Main Character's Belief System To Improve Your Plot

By Marilyn Horowitz

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My stepmother is dying. She's got a form of emphysema that is slowly strangling her. My father and she have been married for about 30 years and live in a beautiful house on top of a mountain in the Southwest. It's somewhat isolated and I worry what my father will do since he is no longer allowed to drive. He called me to tell me of this grave situation. I have never heard him cry before. I struggled for something to say, some notion that has helped me.

I offered the idea that even in the face of the worst loss, there is an essential part of us that is always happy, regardless of the external situation.

It's A Wonderful Life and Life is Beautiful are examples of films where the hero finds a basic joy within himself, far deeper than the despair the outward situation engenders.

Although my father was understandably overwhelmed by the prospect of losing the person he loves most, he repeated the idea and agreed that there was this aspect of himself. There was a pause and then he said, "Everyday she stays is a gift, she is not in pain, she is very stoic and is helping me to make the final arrangements." He was suddenly finding all of the positives in this terrible situation. He is a remarkable man.

Later I asked myself, why does such a simple idea have such a helpful effect?

The connection to a deeper self brings us to the present moment and helps us find relief. This is the state of mind called the "flow" state.

"People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging."

This is the description of the term coined by psychology Professor Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. Somehow, accepting that there is a deeper place within us that is impervious to the events that are presently occurring are both helpful when we are confronted with the rocky parts of life, and also can help when writing a screenplay.

How can you use this idea when writing your script?

Deciding up upon the level of awareness that your characters have is a great way to develop subtext. Make the following choice: Does your hero or heroine see the glass half-full or half empty? Do they feel a connection to this larger self, or do they feel alone?

In It's A Wonderful Life, George Bailey begins at half-empty and ends at half-full. The painful events of the plot teach him to see things differently. Even if you find this kind of message annoying, it doesn't mean that you can avoid noticing that many great films embody this message. And further, that it isn't one we aren't all secretly relieved to hear.

Look at your current script and ask yourself if your character has an awareness of something larger than him or her. Here are some easy ways to figure this out: Does your main character pray or go to church when stressed? Meditate or do yoga? Curse God? Mention a fear of going to hell in their dialogue?

If the answer is yes, how are you dramatizing this? And if not, how could add an arc that begins at one end of the spectrum and ends with the other?

Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) in The Bucket List begins the film in a state of lonely despair and ends up uniting with his daughter and finding inner peace. The plot involves him learning that he has six months to live and befriends his hospital roommate, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). The lesson he earns is that by healing others you help yourself.

Ask yourself: Does your character learn from the lesson that they have received by going through the events in the plot?

In Next Stop Wonderland, directed by Brad Anderson, a nurse played by Hope Davis combats her feelings of despair by randomly opening a book of poetry written by her late father, and placing her finger on any word on the page she opens to. She uses this word to help her find a deeper thought, and to solve the problem she's having. The plot of the film is about whether or not two people who are meant to be together will allow circumstances to let them come together. In It's A Wonderful Life, that deeper awareness is represented by Clarence, the struggling angel who shows George (James Stewart) how much value he has to others. This allows him to accept his life as it is and find the joy in it.

Ask yourself: is there a plot event that forces the character to reexamine or confront his or her belief system?

The "miracle" in Pulp Fiction is an example of how a plot event creates subplot and breadth of story. In the film, both Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel Jackson) witness the "miracle", by the end of the film, one changes as a result and the other doesn't. One reforms his life and the other doesn't. Vincent refuses to see that the event is a sign, a call to adventure to change their lives. Jules realizes it and stops killing people, because he realizes he's a part of something larger than himself.

Finding a deeper level of awareness, understanding that everyone and every character has a "god speck," within themselves, a phrase that, Adrienne Weiss, director of Love Ludlow, used in a wonderful short film called Mother's Day, can improve both our writing and make life itself more bearable.

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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