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Using Personal Experience To Write Better Stories

By Marilyn Horowitz

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This summer I am teaching a private rewriting class with three of my very best New York University students, all of who are writing father-daughter stories. While the genres are different – one’s a political thriller, another a road movie and the third an urban comedy, the effect of each writer’s personal experience cannot be denied.  The class is an advanced rewrite class using my trademarked writing system. 

While all good writing is the product of rewriting, using personal experience cannot be avoided, so some of the work of the revision is to create a balance between the “imaginary” and the “real”.

It is impossible not to write from personal experience, because that is all we have to go on.  When students are told to “write what they know,” I privately giggle because what else do they have to work with?

Even if you are writing about something about which you have no personal experience, and do research on a topic such as crime or history, the interpretation of the data will have to filter through your own perceptions, which are shaped by your current experience of life.  The concept of objectivity also makes me smile, because it is so…subjective!

Acceptance that objectivity and imagination are both shaped by personal experience is a key to writing better, faster because if you are willing to embrace rather than avoid, the moment by moment details of your life. The resulting awareness can fuel the actual project you are working on.

The events of daily life, whether real or imaginary are often similar, although I will admit that our fictional characters go to the bathroom far less than we real characters do. My point is that by observing the rhythms of our own lives we can be better able to create screenplays and books that feel “real” to our audiences.

For example, if we mentally review the wedding sequence in the film, The Godfather, it follows the events of a real wedding: the preparation, the arrival of the guests, eating, dancing, and the giving of gifts, etc. Knowing this “real life” sequence helps us organize the fictional one.  So next time you are struggling with a scene, stop and imagine the events preceding and following such a scene if it were happening in “real life.”

Imagining or remembering what usually happens in such situations will spark your creativity to meet the demand that something unusual and dramatic can happen.  By knowing what usually happens gives us a frame of reference that allows us to create other possibilities.

I have found that using this technique feels like cheating because it makes things so easy!

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Step 2. Select a key sequence in your current script.

Step 3. Make a list of what would happen in “real life.” Using the wedding idea, an example would be: select the date, find a place, make a guest list, ordering the food and so on.

Step 4. Make a second list of the wildest things that could happen, for example, the bride leaves the groom at the alter or a bomb is hidden in the wedding cake.

Step 5. Re-read your sequence while asking yourself if you can improve it by making it closer to what would “really” happen – or if it is boring because it is too close, whether you need to add some drama?

Step 6. Repeat as needed.

To recap, using personal experience when writing is unavoidable, so embrace and improve your writing by using that knowledge to improve your stories.

Here’s to your successful 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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