Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, TV show creator, producer, and Manhattan-based writing coach, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. Nectar News had the privilege of sitting down with Professor Horowitz to discuss her work and how she has been helping writers continue to work throughout the pandemic:
Gracen Hanson: We can jump right in with my first question which would be, could you tell me a little more about the 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting?
Marilyn Horowitz: The 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting are part of my trademarked method, The Horowitz SystemⓇ. The method has taught hundreds of people to write a well-structured screenplay in 10 weeks or less. The 4MQS are an easy way to learn to structure any story well because answering the questions help writers use character motivation to design the plot. The next step of the method, found in another of my New York University textbooks, How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks, expands this structure into a full-length feature or TV script. I have taught many people at NYU, which is my hobby, and as a private writing coach which has been my business for 20 years. Two of my proteges have been nominated for an Emmy, and another won a Peabody. The method works! I’ve been holding a series of free zoom webinars to help people write during the pandemic, and having a blast because once you learn to structure stories with the 4MQS, writing becomes fun!
GH: My next question would be, when and why was Double Asterix created?
MH: DoubleAsterix is my animation company that produces the material for jokeonastick.com. Jokeonastick.com is an animated joke website. Our motto is: Any joke, anytime. It’s subscriber-based. It’s new. It’s free. When you subscribe you get a weekly episode with four animated jokes. I invite you to go on the website and have a giggle! We post animated joke clips daily on Social Media five days a week. We’ve been getting 18,000 plus views! Jokeonastickfans is our Instagram “handle.”
GH: That sounds like fun.
MH: Laughter is the best medicine! Everyone needs a laugh. Especially these days!
GH: How does screenplay writing differ from writing for online streaming in an animated style?
MH: It doesn’t. The basic premise of my writing system is that there is a universal story whether it’s told in 20 seconds, 120 minutes, or as a 6 -part series. There’s a certain way we like to hear our stories told; a journey of a relatable character overcoming obstacles, and also to learn something about ourselves. We want to know how other people overcome obstacles and thrive, or fail. I’m sure that you are familiar with Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who posited that there is a basic story shape and wrote a book called, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Also, Aristotle back in the day wrote a book called, The Poetics, which describes the three-act structure that we often use in dramatic storytelling. My writing method is based on the understanding that we also organize reality as a story, and by using the 4MQS as a universal translator, you can make your creative work feel life-like and juicy — easy for your reader or viewer to plug into. As long as you hit the right structure notes, people may not like your story, but it won’t be because it’s not good, and that’s what I promise in my work. The one thing I can’t supply is talent.
GH: What would be your top three pieces of advice you would give to an up-and-coming screenwriter?
MH: Work villain or obstacle first. Most main characters are good people, just trying to maintain the Status Quo. By creating the problem first, your story can come to life right away! Second, learn the 4MQS so you can get a good version of your story with ease. Third, you must actually schedule time to write, and honor that commitment. Writers write! You should write a lot. Not just in one format. Write everything, stories, jokes, journals, etc. Read everything, watch everything. Not as a fan, but as a student.
GH: A quick follow up question to that would be, how did you create this system? Where did you come up with these building blocks?
MH: I wrote a novel and I had one of those amazing things happen where I went to a party and a cute guy said to me, “Hey baby, my best friend’s a Hollywood producer.” I thought, “Yeah, right.” But he was telling the truth and introduced me. I finished the book on Saturday, went to the party, and the producer optioned it the following Monday. I was then hired to adapt my own story into a screenplay. I had gone to film school. I’m a graduate of NYU and my degree is in film production. I thought, “No problem, I can do this.” But it was really hard. Finally, after many drafts, the producer said “I’m going to hire someone else.” I was in despair! That night I had a dream in which Joseph Campbell appeared to me wearing a toga and a laurel wreath like a Greek god! He was sitting in a tree and he said, “I guess I’m metaphorically where you are. How can I help you?” I said, “Well, the only thing I do worse than writing at this point is read maps.” He said, “Great, I’ll give you a map.” I said, “Great. I’ll see if I use it.” I woke up and wrote down the map that he dictated. My next draft was accepted, and I got paid and hired for another project.
GH: That’s literally the dream.
MH: Yeah, that really was the dream. The punchline of this story is that the centerpiece of the writing system is a version of this map! Soon after I had the dream, I began teaching writing to animators at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and then went on to NYU.
GH: Wow. That’s really incredible. That’s super cool. Here’s my final question. What would you consider to be your greatest career achievement so far?
MH: One thing I’m proud of I was awarded the medal for Teaching Excellence from New York University.
GH: What an achievement! Thank you so much, Marilyn.
MH: All right, Gracen. Thank you! Have a great one.