Tio Louie: We know that some of the best films ever made are the ones with a particular “arc,” but many people lack a complete understanding of what an arc is. What is your philosophy about arcs in screenwriting?
Marilyn Horowitz: A character arc is the journey of a character who wants something specific and important. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy needs to get back home to Kansas, but she doesn’t know where it is or how to get there. She is lost. Through the events of the movie, she learns how to get home and, further, that “there’s no place like home.” In this final moment, Dorothy completes her character arc, making peace with being an orphan and all that sort of thing.
If you don’t like a term like “arc,” try something else. My philosophy as a teacher in general is to try to speak in a vocabulary that my students understand. So if “arc” is a bad word, I find another one. In my writing system, I have something called the Mythic Journey Map, which is a graphic form containing 12 questions that, if answered properly, will give your main character an arc naturally without you ever having to use the “A” word.
I think one of the problems is how writing is taught. We’re taught to think about aspects of writing as nouns. But it doesn’t work. Writing is, in fact, an activity—a verb! So when I teach conflict, for instance, I’ll say, “No, let’s not say ‘conflict.’ Let’s talk about what you are fighting for: What is preventing the main character from getting what he or she wants? The most important thing is to find a language that works for you, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit exactly with other people’s terminology.