When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I had a backyard full of imaginary friends. The neighbors, in fact, were often surprised to learn that my parents had only one child.
(I was adept even then at doing different voices.) To me, however, these pals weren’t imaginary at all, especially since the names I gave them were those of The Mouseketeers, my favorite TV show. Based on my innocent assumption that the real Mouseketeers were orphans, I even wrote to Walt Disney c/o The Happiest Place on Earth and invited them to come and live at our house. Unfortunately, my mother intercepted this communiqué (it was no doubt my hand drawn postage stamp that tripped me up) and told me never to do that again. Lucky for me, the make-believe versions were not as intimidated by parental disapproval. This month’s screenwriting exercises are all about imaginary beings that can only be seen by those who know where to look. 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. Have you ever had an imaginary friend? How old were you, what was your friend’s name, and what sort of things did you like to do together?
2. What would you say is the role of an imaginary friend?
3. Do you think that imaginary friends are just the playmates of lonely kids without siblings or could anyone – and of any age – have an imaginary companion in their lives? Why or why not?
4. Would you rather have an imaginary friend that’s (1) an animal, (2) an inanimate object, (3) a fantasy creature (fairies, elves, etc.), (4) a ghost, or (5) someone who’s just an invisible version of yourself or someone you know? Explain your choice.
5. The lines between fantasy and reality blur in the 1992 film Sidekicks in which an asthmatic young boy named Barry Gabrewski regularly daydreams that he’s the fearless companion of his favorite action hero, Chuck Norris. If you could be an imaginary friend to someone real (and only he/she can see you), who would you most like to hang out with and what would you do?
In 1944, American playwright Mary Chase penned a play about a mild-mannered man named Elwood whose best friend is a 6’3-1/2” white rabbit named Harvey. (Six years later, her successful theatrical work was turned into an equally popular film starring James Stewart.) Elwood’s ongoing conversations with this invisible pooka are, of course, cause for alarm, worry and embarrassment amongst his family members who are desperately trying to pass themselves off as a perfectly normal household.
Your assignment: Write a three-page scene in which a newly elected President of the United States arrives for his/her first Cabinet meeting and asks that one of the chairs be left vacant for his/her imaginary childhood friend and advisor, Florgbumble.
Extra credit: Write a one-page film synopsis revolving around a premise that the Cabinet members come to believe that Florgbumble is actually better qualified to lead than the prez and concoct a plan to make it so.
Five decades ago, cartoonist Bil Keane debuted a comic strip called Family Circus that is perhaps best known for (1) the warm and fuzzy values it imparts and (2) the unusually round heads of the young offspring. In April of 1975, Keane introduced an invisible character that probably every parent in his readership demographic instantly recognized as having made appearances in their own homes. This imaginary gremlin named “Not Me!” was the round-headed kids’ resident fall guy whenever they were asked things like “Who tracked mud into the house?”, “Who broke this lamp?” or “Who ate the last cookie?”
Your assignment: Write a two-page film treatment in which an imaginary protagonist character that has grown tired of always being blamed for misdeeds decides to get revenge with a few tricks that only the human companion could have perpetrated in order to teach the latter an important lesson about responsibility.
FILLING THE VOID
Imaginary companions often step into the picture to fill the lonely space created by a parent who is either emotionally/physically distant or recently deceased.
• In Margaret Beatrice Chase’s classic, A Fairy To Stay (1929), a young girl named Pamela is befriended by a fun-loving and compassionate fairy she discovers in the garden of the spinster aunts who are raising her while Pamela’s father is off in East Africa.
• In Cloak and Dagger (1984), 11-year-old Davey immerses himself in video games to compensate for his widower dad’s lack of attention. His imaginary pal, Jack Flack, is a swashbuckling spy who introduces Davey to the real world of espionage when the latter gets entrusted with a video cartridge that evil agents will do anything to get back.
• Daniel, the young protagonist in Bogus (1996), is sent to live with his late mom’s humorless foster sister in New Jersey and soon realizes that the imaginary Frenchman who has moved in has a lot to teach both of them about love, loss and living in the moment.
Your assignment: Write a two-page scene in which an imaginary mentor appears for the first time in the life of a character that has recently lost someone very important to them.
NOW YOU SEE ‘EM, NOW YOU DON’T
Not every imaginary playmate is fun and games. Consider what happens, for instance, when the Torrance family assumes caretaker responsibilities for the winter at a creepy hotel in Colorado. (The Shining, 1980) Danny, the psychic offspring, is intrigued to discover the presence of a kid named Tony who has an insider scoop on the hotel’s dark past.
Your assignment: Write a one-page synopsis of a horror or supernatural movie in which an imaginary friend that initially seems like a dream come true turns out to be the protagonist’s worst nightmare.
BREAKIN’ UP IS HARD TO DO
What happens to imaginary friends when we outgrow them? Do they disintegrate into thin air? Do they make any attempt to “grow up” themselves? Do they get recycled to someone else’s imagination?
Your assignment: The heroine of your comedy film has had an imaginary sidekick since childhood who not only shares all of her interests but has aged at the same rate as well. The situation is that your heroine has moved to a different city and has now made so many wonderful real friends that she feels she no longer needs to hang around with a pretend one. The latter, however, has no intention of leaving quietly. Write a three-page scene in which the heroine broaches the subject of going separate ways.
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.