One of the most common questions that writers get asked by non-writers is “Where do you get your plots?”
If you’re the whimsical sort, you can probably spin answers like “Under cabbage leaves”, “Via satellite transmissions from Saturn”, or “By subscription to the Schenectady Idea Service”. If your listeners are none too bright, however, they are likely to accept these answers as more plausible than telling them that they have access to the same daily mine field of imagination as you do: Real Life. For those occasions, when the world around you does fail to provide inspiration, there’s a great resource called Hatch’s Plot Bank (http://www.angelfire.com/nc/tcrpress/plotbank.html). To introduce you to how it works, the one-liner set-ups provided in these exercises can be used to generate ideas for movies, documentaries and TV shows. For younger students who haven’t yet mastered the basics of script structure, these lesson ideas lend themselves 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.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. Where did you find your last idea for a good story?
2. What is the most unusual place you’ve found a plot?
3. Which do you usually come up with first – a plot and then the characters or the characters and then the plot? What are the challenges of the method you use?
4. Do you keep a notebook of ideas, titles and character names?
5. Consider the following statement: “All of the best plots are taken.” Do you think that’s true or false? Why?
6. Do you create an outline for your plot before you start writing or do you just jump in?
7. Do you usually know how your plot will turn out or do you let the characters’ actions guide you?
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
Premise: “childhood friend turns out to be a talk show host”
What would happen if your lead character discovered that a former classmate has risen to talk-show stardom on the basis of a past that has been completely falsified?
Your assignment: Write a one-page character profile of the talk show host that identifies his/her true background and offers justification for wanting to hide it. Write a one-page character profile of the former classmate and what he/she hopes to accomplish by exposing the real story. Write a one-page film synopsis that establishes what is at stake for both characters, the actions taken to escalate the conflict, and how it is resolved.
MEET THE ROOMIES
Premise: “must round up a set of new friends before folks come to town”
In 2008, BBC America debuted a supernatural series called Being Human in which a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf attempt to coexist at the same address while struggling to cope with their respective “problems”.
Your assignment: The roommates in your story are a pirate, a zombie and Sasquatch. Determine which of this trio is the one with the relatives coming to visit. Write a three-page scene in which this character has to explain to the other two why they need to leave for the weekend. Not only must they argue why this isn’t feasible for them but the one who is staying has to explain who will be temporarily replacing them.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Premise: “writes a book way outside their expertise”
In 1964, Rock Hudson starred in Man’s Favorite Sport, a comedy in which his character, Roger Willoughby, is regaled as being an expert on fishing despite the secret that he has never caught a fish in his life. Complications ensue when his boss enters him in a fishing competition that will get lots of media attention.
Your assignment: Your character has written a best-selling book on ancient civilizations. This has attracted the notice of an archaeologist who wants your character to be part of an upcoming expedition into the darkest depths of South America. The money, of course, is impossible to turn down. Write a two-page comedic scene in which your character is put on the spot to explain the meaning of some curious carvings the group encounters in the jungle just before dusk.
HIGH FLYING, ADORED
Premise: “must overcome fear of flying”
It’s not easy being a superhero, especially if you have a fear of heights, can’t outrun locomotives, and gag at the thought of trying to catch bullets in your teeth. The ability to fly, of course, is often a necessary skill set for caped crime fighters.
Your assignment: The setting of your contemporary scene is a psychiatrist’s office. Write a two-page scene in which your superhero attempts to explain to a therapist why flying is so terrifying.
NO MATTER WHAT YOU HEAR
Premise: “a business partner shows some unexpected demands”
Your character has just been hired as the new partner at a prestigious address. Two of the terms of employment, however, are a tad bit odd. The first is that he or she will be required to work the graveyard shift when no other staff will be present. The second condition is that no matter what strange noises seem to emanate from behind a pair of locked doors, they must never, ever be opened.
Your assignment: On the first night at work, your character passes by the doors and hears something. Write a one paragraph description of the sounds coming from the other side. Next, write a two-page scene in which the partner unlocks the doors to see what’s going on.
Premise: “kids switch tags on presents late that night”
In the hopes of scoring better gifts for themselves this holiday, a pair of siblings decide that, sight unseen, their two cousins’ presents are probably much cooler and more valuable.
Your assignment: Determine what it is the siblings were originally supposed to receive as well as what was destined for the cousins. Write a two-page Christmas morning scene in which these four young people react to the realities of the previous night’s mischief.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Premise: “thinks old painting in the attic is worth something”
Your character has been hired as the housekeeper for an absent landlord’s English country house. While going through the attic one day, she comes across a truly hideous portrait. Since her boss obviously has no fondness for it because of the way it has been tucked out of sight, she decides that he might not mind if she attempts to see what it’s worth. Fortuitously, Antiques Roadshow is filming its next segment in London and so she takes the painting in the hope of getting it appraised, unaware that her boss is one of the spectators casually milling about.
Your assignment: Write a three-page scene in which her devastatingly handsome boss, Dorian Gray, interrupts the enthusiastic appraiser to insist that the painting is not for sale at any cost.
As 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, 134 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.