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How To Write Well Every Time

By Marilyn Horowitz

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People who have not learned my writing method never believe that it is possible to write well every time you sit down to do it, yet hundreds of my students have not only written good screenplays, but have gone on to also write plays, novels, magazine articles, poetry, memoirs and TV shows.  While the method is helpful, and of course I recommend that you learn it, this is not the only reason why it’s possible to always write well.

The key is to allow yourself to treat writing as if it were any pleasurable but challenging activity that you already enjoy, whether it’s playing basketball or climbing a mountain.  Success depends on the following four things: your own relationship to yourself in terms of self-respect, your skill level, having an organizing principle and a clear purpose for writing will determine the quality of that experience.  Here are four steps that will lead you to write well every time.

Step 1:  Gain More Self-Confidence

When I suggest to my students that they must find a way to feel okay about themselves before they sit down to write, one of them always asks what his or her feelings about themselves have to do with writing the story? I am no longer surprised at this question, and simply point out the obvious: Can you take a photograph if the camera isn’t turned on?  The writer is a recorder of mental pictures with sound that hopefully have some motion, hence the old fashioned name for movies: moving pictures.

Here’s the exercise: Set a timer for five minutes and write your Oscar speech.  Don’t forget to thank the Academy!

Step 2:  Using Your Dream Experience

Science has proved that we all dream between three and five times a night, whether or not we remember.  Every dream is like a movie, with a plot, however “crazy,” actors, sets, and camera angles. You, the dreamer, are always the director.  How many dream movies have each of us made?  Do the math: 365 x your age + leap years = How Many Films You Have Already Made. That’s a lot of movies! Still think you don’t know what you’re doing? Au contraire – we are ALL experts!

Step 3:  Understand the difference between “storytelling on paper” versus “screenwriting.”

My approach is to teach students how to write a “movie on paper,” rather than a screenplay. What’s the difference?  The Horowitz System® trains you to literally “see” the edited version of your story before you write, rather than conceptualizing it in words.

Here’s the exercise: Watch a favorite scene from a movie. Set a timer for 10 minutes and recreate the scene in screenplay format from memory.

Step 4: Answering the right question

Having a clear purpose is the key to success in any endeavor.  Using the idea of a premise to shape a screenplay is a commonly taught technique. I have found that this approach leads to scripts that are like term papers –they prove a point rather than explore the dramatic possibilities of the script. To avoid this outcome, I took the premise concept and changed it into a “premise-question.”

For example, when working on a cop story, instead of making a mental or written statement or premise of the piece such as “good always conquers evil,” I invite you to rephrase it as a question and focus on having every line uttered by every character and every plot twist attempt to answer that premise-question. This is a very relaxing approach, as it will encourage you to explore your own imagination and creativity, since you literally have nothing to prove!

Writing to answer a question also lowers our performance anxiety, which almost all of us writers suffer from on an unconscious if not conscious level. The shift in perception from proving to answering leads us back to Step #1: Gaining Self -Confidence.

Self-confidence is the single most important ingredient besides independent wealth, luck and connections that will insure your success. We are rarely in control of the first three conditions, but can control how we feel about ourselves. In order to feel self-respect, we writers must be writing. But merely writing is not enough, as we know from the many stories of writers drinking and abusing drugs. We must also find a way to feel satisfied with the process.

Here’s the exercise: Select two movies in any genre, one that you enjoyed and one that you disliked.  Watch both movies again. Ask yourself to notice which one seems to be exploring the premise rather than proving it.  Usually, the one you enjoyed is more of an exploration than a case study. This may sound abstract, but in practice, it becomes obvious.
Please try out these exercises, and let me know if they improve your writing experience. 

Good luck and happy writing!

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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