Hogwarts. Oz. Narnia. Wonderland. Isla de Muerta. Film and literature have afforded us a colorful glimpse of distant places that, in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, can only be found by those who already know where they are.
The assignments this time around are all about imaginary environments and the characters that inhabit them. 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. Make a list of every imaginary place you can think of (including the settings of video games and animated series and features). Of these, which one would you most like to visit and why? Which one would you least like to visit and why?
2. In 1516, author Sir Thomas More fabricated a perfect island community in the Atlantic and called it Utopia. What is your personal definition of Utopia? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of a Utopian society?
3. When was the last time you had a dream which transported you to an imaginary place that felt completely real? Describe what it looked like.
4. In a parallel world, what would your other self be doing right now?
5. If your imaginary destination were unknown beforehand but you were allowed to take any single object from the real world with you, what would it be and by?
6. What is your favorite movie or book about an imaginary place and what elements of that movie or book made it seem the most realistic to you?
7. Who is your favorite imaginary world hero? Who is your favorite imaginary world villain?
ALL THAT GLITTERS
Since the age of the Spanish conquistadors, adventurers have scoured the jungles of South America in their quest to discover the riches of El Dorado, The Lost City of Gold. The reckless pursuit of treasure, however, can often blind fortune-hunters to the things in life that truly have priceless value.
Your assignment: Create one-page character profiles for six individuals from radically different backgrounds who are on the same expedition to locate the legendary city. Define why they each want the treasure and what they would each risk in order to acquire it. Only one of the original six will survive this adventure. Which one will it be and why?
A TINY TENANT PROBLEM
Author T.H. White is perhaps best known for his Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King. In 1946, however, he penned an imaginative book called Mistress Masham’s Repose in which the 10 year old heroine, Maria, discovers that a colony of Lilliputian exiles is living on the grounds of her family estate at Malplaquet.
Your assignment: While cleaning out the basement in preparation for his/her family’s upcoming move to a new neighborhood, the protagonist of your story discovers a passageway to a self-sufficient miniature kingdom. Fearing that these little residents could likely be captured and exploited if found by the new owners, your protagonist has less than a week to come up with a solution. Write a two-page scene in which he/she explains the plan to the mini-monarch’s court.
MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY
Whether their arrival in a strange new world is the product of a carefully calculated journey or they simply tumble into it by accident, travelers often carry the expectation that their hosts will embrace the same values as the folks back home. The discovery that they typically don’t often leads to one of three reactions: fright, fight or flight. In contrast, “when in Rome” behaviors are easier to take on when it’s understood from the get-go that the visit is only temporary. A vacation abroad, for instance.
Your assignment: What does your protagonist most strongly believe in? Examples: Love conquers all, time is money, fight makes might, the best things in life are free, let bygones be bygones. The objective of this exercise is to put your protagonist into an imaginary land in which the residents believe and practice exactly the opposite. Write a one-page film synopsis (any genre) that adheres to three-act structure and reveals the protagonist’s choices - and consequences – of rebellion, compromise or acceptance.
AGING IS A STATE OF MIND
An isolated environment is a popular motif for bending the rules on mortality. In James Hilton’s 1933 classic, Lost Horizon, a mysterious lamasery tucked into the snowy depths of Tibet is home to a group of people for whom time has dramatically slowed down the aging process. Anyone who leaves Shangri-La, however, discovers that the decades – or even centuries – will catch up with them in a nanosecond. In Lerner and Lowe’s 1960’s musical, Brigadoon, a spell placed on a Scottish village to protect it from witches makes it come to life only once every hundred years (during which time its inhabitants are asleep). While accidental tourists like Tommy and Jeff have the freedom to leave, any villager who tries the same thing will break the spell and doom Brigadoon to the mists forever. In the early 1900’s, J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame gave us Neverland, a place where children never grow up. If they ever leave, adulthood eventually kicks in and they have to get jobs, pay taxes and raise families like everybody else.
Your assignment: You’ve been asked to develop an imaginary setting for a new television series in which traditional concepts of time and aging are challenged. Describe how this anomaly came about, the conditions under which it operates, and the trade-offs that residents and visitors must make to either reap benefits or avoid penalties. Write a three-page scene in which this history and the corresponding rules are explained to a newcomer.
MEET THE LOCALS
Contrasted to the Lilliputian height scale of 1:12, Jonathan Swift’s intrepid traveler Gulliver discovers that the ratio is exactly the opposite when storms force him ashore on Brobdingnag. In James Cameron’s Avatar, the moon Pandora is the home turf of 10 foot tall blue humanoids. Throughout The Land of the Whimsies, a neighboring community of Oz, everyone has unusually tiny heads. And woe to the pacifist planet of talking doughnut people in the comic strip Brewster Rocket whenever the clueless spaceship captain drops by for an intergalactic coffee klatsch. In short, an audience will likely accept whatever imaginary populace you choose to inhabit your imaginary realm as long as their physical attributes are clearly defined and their powers/actions are consistent throughout the story.
Your assignment: Come up with a fitting name for your imaginary world. (Check out the Online Name Generator at http://online-generator.com if you need help getting started.) Identify what the people/creatures that live in this world look like. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are their goals? What are their fears? Do they have any special powers? In this exercise, your protagonist has had either a pleasant or terrifying encounter with these beings and is now being interviewed by the media about what they’re really like. Write a three-page dialogue scene that relates his/her observations and experiences.
Arthurian legend was the inspiration for Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical, Camelot. With a little conjuring assistance from Merlin, no details of perfection were left to chance in making it a blissfully perfect kingdom. Consider, for instance, the following royal edict:
A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there's a legal limit to the snow here
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
Your assignment: What would it take to make your own modern-day community the perfect place for happily-ever-aftering? Assuming that it will be entirely self-contained, self-sufficient and without any harm or influence from the outside world, write a 12-line rhyming lyric reflecting its transformation to a magical place.
INTO THE WOODS
There’s just no telling when or where the portal to an imaginary realm will choose to open. Maybe it’s discovered when you step through the doors of a vintage armoire. Maybe it beckons through a shimmer of sea spray in the depths of the ocean. Maybe it’s the shifting of desert sands that uncovers a lost civilization. Or maybe – in the case of this next exercise – you’re just taking a casual stroll through Central Park and catch a mysterious glimpse of something that you know wasn’t there the day before.
Your assignment: It’s just before dusk and your protagonist has taken a wrong turn in the woods. He/she is torn between investigating the intriguing sight just beyond the trees or rushing home to dinner and hoping to return the next day and try to find the same spot. He/she decides to just take a quick peek. Write a two-page scene without any dialogue that relates what happens once your character crosses the stone bridge and all sounds of the contemporary world are replaced by….?
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.