Family Matters

AmericanGothic00

Screenwriting exercises about families appeal to students of any age, especially those who have ever wished they lived in a more liberal household or that a mysterious letter would show up one day with the news it was time to take their rightful place as a freshman at wizards school. For younger students who haven’t yet mastered the rudiments of script structure, these lesson ideas lend themselves easily to extemporaneous storytelling and role-playing skits. Older students are encouraged to draft scenes into correctly formatted screenplays as well as film them for peer review.

As a popular English idiom goes, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”.

A writer, however, can invent to her heart’s content all the parents, sibs, and quirky relatives to people a fictional Sunday dinner table. More often than not, many of them will be composites of real-life personalities she’d love to be related to or - on the flip side - thinly disguised incarnations of those who have wronged her and who will get their just desserts by the time the table is cleared.

TABLE TOPICS

These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.ScrnwrtngTeens_website_large

  1. How do you define family?
  2. What are your own family’s three best qualities?
  3. What are their three worst traits?
  4. If a movie were made about your family, who would you cast (including an actor to play you)?
  5. If you have sibs, have you ever wished you were an only child? If you’re an only child, have you ever wished for sibs and, if so, would you prefer them to be older or younger than you?

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SITCOM

If you could be adopted for a day by any sitcom family in television history, who would you choose and why? Here’s a partial list to get you started: The Cosby Show, The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle, The Addams Family, The Nanny, Family Ties, The Munsters, Hannah Montana, Gilmore Girls, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Happy Days, The Flintstones. If you need more ideas, you can find them at http://www.sitcomsonline.com.

Your assignment: Write a 2-page scene between you and one of the characters in your TV family in which he/she gives you advice about a problem you’re having at school. Try to capture the other character’s distinctive speech patterns and vocabulary in your dialogue.

THE FIXER UPPER

DilapidatedHouse

Scenario: Your parents have always done weird things but buying a dilapidated old house in the middle of a Vermont forest really takes the cake.

Your assignment: Write a 100-word monologue that expresses your reaction to this place the first time you see it and learn that it’s going to be “home”.

A PICTURE’S WORTH A THOUSAND STORIES

Writers often get their inspiration from images they see in magazines, on posters, and in art galleries. For this exercise, study the following three paintings by Norman Rockwell and pick the one that intrigues you the most.

NormanRockwell1 NormanRockwell2NormanRockwell3


Your assignment: If you chose #1, give each of the characters a name and write a 1-page conversation in which all three participate. If you chose #2, assign each face a name, determine what kind of performance they’re watching, and their respective relationships to the performer. Write a 1-page scene involving one of the characters and the performer which will radically change the latter’s life. If you chose #3, give the older man and young boy names, explain where and when the action takes place, and show us in 1 page of dialogue what they’re discussing.

MEDIEVAL MIMES

CastlePicture

Families come in all shapes and sizes and function in a broad variety of circumstances. They also engage in a lot of unspoken dialogue to express how they’re feeling. This is particularly true for the family of five that occupies this Scottish castle. They are mimes.

Your assignment: Write a 2-page scene that uses absolutely no dialogue and revolves around the premise of the teenager mime coming home two hours after curfew.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

AmericanGothic00

Do you have any distant family members whose visits you totally dread? What if you had to spend an entire summer with them in the middle of nowhere and you couldn’t take your computer, cell phone or iPod?

Your assignment: Pretend that the people in this picture are your least favorite aunt and uncle. Adhering to traditional storytelling structure of beginning/middle/end, write a 2-page film treatment (any genre) of what happens to a character your age over the course of that summer.

MUM’S THE WORD

What would we do without mothers to feed us, clothe us, tuck us in, bandage our boo-boos, and bake our favorite cookies? Mothers, of course, can also be critical, nosy, embarrassing, unreasonable, and completely out of touch (or so we think).

Your assignment: Choose any historic figure from the following list and write a 2-page scene in which his or her mother is offering unsolicited advice:

  • Henry VIII
  • Joan of Arc
  • George Washington
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  • Napoleon
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Meriwether Lewis
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Agatha Christie
  • William Shakespeare
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine

    HOUSE RULES

EastCoastHouse

Reality shows are all the rage, especially those in which people from diverse backgrounds are thrown together and forced to co-exist for “x” amount of time. Instead of an island setting, the backdrop of your new reality show is this large house on the East Coast.

Your assignment: As the producer, your job is to choose 10 real-life celebrities who will live under this roof as a family for 10 weeks and vote one another off each episode until only 1 remains. Write a 1-paragraph proposal for each of the first 3 episodes and explain (1) what the challenge is going to be, (2) whether members will compete individually or as teams, and (3) how the results will be measured.

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ChristinaHamlettAs part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.

Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 128 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.