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Use The Four Magic Questions Of Screenwriting To Find The Emotional Logic In Your Story

By Marilyn Horowitz

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In the midst of writing, it’s easy to let your hero or heroine become a slave to your plot. This results in wooden writing, because characters will behave in a way that defies emotional logic. For example, we’ve all seen horror movies where the heroine runs up the stairs instead of searching for the nearest exit.

The Four Magic Questions Of Screenwriting is a technique I developed to help the writer create plot and character together using a simple set of questions.

The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting are:

  1. What is the main character’s dream?
  2. What is the main character’s worst nightmare?
  3. Who or what would they “die” for? (Literally or figuratively)
  4. What is the resolution of the dream or a new dream?
Let’s use the film The Godfather and its hero, Michael Corleone, as an example of how to apply the 4MQS.

In case you haven’t seen The Godfather recently, here’s a brief synopsis using the 4MQS that shows how the emotional logic drives of the events of the plot:

Michael Corleone – a war hero and the youngest son of the powerful head of Don Vito Corleone, one of New York’s five mob families – wants nothing to do with the family business. So Michael’s dream is to live a life free from the Mafia.

When his father’s shot, Michael is forced to save the don’s life by shooting the men who attempted to kill him. Being dragged into the violence is Michael’s nightmare.

While hiding out in Sicily, Michael falls in love, but his father’s enemies kill his new bride. He would have died for her, but didn’t have the chance.

Heartbroken and hardened, Michael returns to America and, in an orgy of violence, takes control of the business and prepares to lead the family into a new era. Michael forfeits his dream and becomes the new godfather.

Here’s how to do the three-part exercise:

  1. Write a brief synopsis of the plot of your own screenplay.
  2. Answer the 4MQS for your main character.
    • What is your main character's dream?
    • What is your main character's nightmare?
    • Who or what would your main character literally or figuratively die for?
    • Will your character realize his/her dream or find a new dream?
  3. The final step is to compare the synopsis with the 4MQS answers for your main character and make sure that each one complements the other. If not, consider making some adjustments.
Remember that even though films are made at least three times – once when they’re written, once when they are filmed and once when they are edited, the screenplay is the place where you, the writer, are in total control. When you allow your characters to behave in an emotionally consistent way, your plot will become convincing and coherent. Now, get back to work and tape the answers to your computer and continue to strive for emotional logic.

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