By Kara Lennox
She thinks it shouldn’t be that hard.
As an award-winning New York University professor, script consultant, producer, and the author of six books, her goal s to help writers write good scripts without all the suffering.
“I help people get over that last little thing so they can sell,” she said at the Scriptwriters Network meeting on June 18th. And as part of her overall writing system, she developed the “four magic questions.”
With this one set of sharp tools, Horowitz said, you can stop being a student and become a writer “You're all professional writers,” she said. “Once you have written a screenplay and you've told a whole story, you are a writer. Own that."
A writer has to be the most important character in his or her life, she said. “You are the filter through which this story is going to come out.” So no one can tell your story like you can; you are the expert. We all know what it is to have a dream because we’ve located our writers’ hearts; ergo, we can locate our characters’ hearts.
All of which leads to the first magic question:
1. What is Your Main Character's Dream?
“Never think of your hero without a problem,” Horowitz says. She advises creating a strong villain from the beginning, rather than taking six drafts to create adequate opposition. The villain (who is not necessarily an evil person, just someone in your main character’s way) must have a dream, too, one that opposes that of your main character. She also says you should have more than one opposition character, or it gets boring.
If the two dreams don’t line up exactly, she says, it’s more interesting.
Using an example from the audience: The hero’s dream is to prevent a kidnapping. The villain’s dream is to restore the honor of his tribe.
Which leads you to a question with rich possibilities: How can kidnapping redeem the honor of a tribe? With that question, she says, “we can start seeing what the movie is going to be.”
This is a fundamental story technique. If you can find the basic opposition, you’ve got a movie on your hands because we can see it rise to a crisis. “We have a clear target to drive toward: losing the kid or losing the honor. You must have a clear sense of what is blocking your main character. Many screenplays I work on involve making things worse. So start out with stakes as high as you can make them.
Moving on to the second question...
“How many think Act II is hard?” Horowitz asks. “Anyone who didn't raise their hands is a liar.”
Questions 2 and 3 help writers to structure Act II from the beginning. Horowitz breaks Act II into two pieces: Act II, Part 1 (pages 30-60) and Act II, Part 2 (pages 60-90). “If we break Act II into two pieces and ask two different questions,” she says, “we can have an easier time structuring the movie.”
If Act I is all about the character's dream, she says then Act II is the character's nightmare. So that is the actual question:
2. What is Your Main Character’s Nightmare?
“Whatever you set up in Act I goes terribly, terribly wrong.” (She made the point that you can reverse these two concepts, and have Act I be the nightmare and Act II be the dream.) By using this “hard flip,” she says, you can do much more than you thought possible. She advises against being subtle. “Always push your story hard, throw in your strongest plot point,” she says, so you’ll have enough momentum to get through Act II.
Things go wrong in Act II because the character hasn’t yet evolved to the point where he’s capable of achieving his dream. She used the movie Tootsie as an example. In Act I, the main character uses people, he’s inconsiderate, etc. which is why he’s where he is (a loser). Act II Part 1 is his nightmare. The nightmare is not necessarily the failure to attain the dream, it’s just the dream gone wrong.
Moving to Act II, Part II, the third question we ask:
3. Who or What Would Your Main Character “Die” For?
“’Die’ is in quotes because in a comedy you're not wanting real death,” she says. In Tarot cards, the death card doesn’t stand for literal death; it stands for change on a more fundamental level. “On more fundamental level, movies teach us how to deal with fears,” she says, where Change = Death. In Act II, Part 2 the character has to change, has to have an experience that changes him.”
Using The Godfather as an example, Horowitz says that by the midpoint, Michael isn't ready to be the godfather. The writer used up that plot in the first half of the movie, so he had to add a new element. What part of the story had he not been using? “When his love is blown up in the car,” she says, “that's when he becomes capable of being the godfather. If you can find that in your script, you'll succeed. Put your character through a crucible so they become (or don’t become) the person they need to be to overcome the obstacle in Act I.”
Act II, Part II has to provide a new experience. But you do have to set it up in Act I. “Plant it in Act I so it's not coming out of left field,” Horowitz says, “and it feels inevitable.” But when you are actually coming up with this “new element,” she advises you “go crazy, knowing you can go back and plant it.” Something crazy happens, and then you reverse engineer. “We all have these amazing things we call coincidences happen to us,” she says. “That's what you get to use in Act II, part II.” For example, what are the chances of Corleone going to Sicily and meeting the most beautiful girl in the world and falling deeply in love?
For Act III, we get to ask the fourth and final question:
4. Does Your Main Character Attain His Dream, Fail, or Get a New Dream?
You may ask, do you have to know your ending? “Your best writing comes when you are entertaining yourself and you're not sure,” Horowitz says. “You can plan a happy ending but be open to something different. You can dance with your characters more [using this method] than if you have a hard outline.”
She urges writers to think of the wildest ending possible, but above all, to be open to changing it. This "soft target" approach allows us to be looser as writers, she says. That way, if our characters start running away with our movie, we can let them. Being open to new, intense experiences in Act III—perhaps even giving our characters a new dream—reflects the more intense experiences we’re having in today’s world.
Horowitz then offered one last trick, which is not in her book but is her favorite thing. “I call the technique ‘Understand the Want versus the Need.’” She used the movie Wall Street as an example: The main character wants money, but he needs his father's approval. The same dynamic is true for The Godfather. “The trick of being a writer is to knowing what your character needs but not letting them know it.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to go home, but she needs the ruby slippers so she's empowered.
To recap the four questions (and a few sub-questions), each covering ¼ of the script:
1. Whatis my main characters' dream? (And what is the opposition character’s dream?)
2. What is my main character's nightmare? (And these two questions can be reversed.)
3. Who or what would my main character “die” for?
4. Does the main character attain the dream, forfeit the dream, or get a new one? (soft target approach)
In a comedy, Horowitz explains, they get the dream; in a drama they forfeit it. (The Godfather is an example of this.)
When dealing with wants vs. needs, she says, we want to go for the external conflict. Because we are writing movies, we can only show what is physical. Our conflicts have to be shown externally. So the dream has to be a visible, tangible goal. We have to show it, then we have to give the character something to push against.
In response to a question from the audience, Horowitz explained that the dream can be just to stay alive. “That’s about the highest stakes. And if the stakes aren’t life or death, you have to sell it to the audience.” In Little Miss Sunshine, for example, the little girl isn't going to die if she doesn't make it to beauty pageant. “But doesn't it feel like it?” Whatever the character needs, you have to prove it to us, and it can’t be subtle.
When asked how we decide whether a character should achieve, forfeit or change his dream, Horowitz responded, “Hopefully you have enough courage to work with your character and not know. Aim them toward your target but let them be 50 percent of the story… In first draft, you have to see what happens. In act II Part 2 there's a kind of alchemy that happens. You might come up with something completely new. Your interest might shift. You might even change genres.”
Horowitz says this system works whether you’re writing for features or TV, short or long. “This rhythm is story-telling, and it works in all formats. You can take this and be masters, you don't have to be students anymore.” Horowitz ended her talk with some compelling advice: “Take back your power. Own it. If something gets you screwed up, don't use it. This is just top of the iceberg. This is my party trick. Listen to others talk about writing, but make your own determinations. If you hear yourself say something that makes sense, assume you do."
More on Marilyn Horowitz's books, DVDs and consultations can be found here: