Take a look around you at all of the things that make your life easy and convenient – the cell phone for calling your friends, the microwave for heating quick meals, the washing machine that cleans your clothes, the iPod that lets you download tunes. You probably take a lot of these objects for granted because it seems as if they’ve always been there. Once upon a time, though, such devices didn’t exist and were waiting to be thought up and created by someone. The screenwriting exercises in this month’s issue revolve around inventions and how they 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.What do you think is the most amazing thing ever to be invented? Why?
2.What do you think is the dumbest invention on the planet?
3.What invention do you wish you had thought of first?
4.What invention do you think is the most beneficial to mankind? Why?
5.What invention do you think is the most dangerous to mankind? Why?
6.What is the one invention that you personally couldn’t go a single day without?
7.What do you wish someone would invent to make your life better?
8.What, in your opinion, is the difference between an invention that’s created by an individual and a commercial product that’s developed by a committee?
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT
Unless you’ve been living at the bottom of a well, you’ve probably heard that there are iPhone APPS for just about everything. Whether you need to calculate the amount of oxygen in the room, figure out your age in gator years, or check out the “Haircaster” forecast to see if it’s going to be a bad hair day, technology has literally put all the answers at our fingertips.
Your assignment: Your protagonist has come up with an APP that he thinks is going to be the hottest idea ever put on the market. Whether it’s truly phenomenal, fanciful or totally far-fetched and weird, he manages to score a pitch session with no less than Steve Jobs. Write a two-page scene between these two in which your character describes what the new APP is and Jobs is intrigued, hostile or too distracted to pay close attention.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
The emergence of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century America was met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, goods could be manufactured faster, cheaper and with greater uniformity. On the other hand, the people whose jobs were replaced by the new mechanical marvels of this era often lacked the skill sets to do anything else and were, thus, unable to support themselves or their families.
Your assignment: The heroine you want to write grew up in a coal mining community in Pennsylvania. Almost everyone she knows not only has some sort of connection to the mines but has been touched throughout the years by tragedies associated with it. She pursues a degree in science and, while working at a lab, invents an amazing multi-purpose robot that can accomplish everything currently being done by the miners and their equipment. If she releases the plans for her invention to be used, it could mean the end to all mining accidents in the future and save countless lives. It will also spell the end of the town because everyone’s job will be eliminated and they have nowhere else to go. Write a one-page film synopsis based on this premise and reveal how she resolves her moral dilemma.
LEAVE A MESSAGE AT THE SOUND OF THE BEEP
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. The following year, he formed the first telephone company and even found time to fall in love and get married. Perhaps the only thing he regrets is giving his phone number to his mother.
Your assignment: Write a two-page scene in which Alexander is trying to get back to work but his mum simply refuses to hang up.
LET THE CHIPS FALL
Who doesn’t love chocolate chip cookies? They very nearly didn’t come about, however. Once upon a time, a woman named Ruth Wakefield and her husband bought a roadside lodge that served home-cooked meals to its guests. Ruth, a dietician, was whipping up a batch of chocolate cookies one day in 1930 when she discovered that she’d run out of baker’s chocolate. On impulse, she grabbed some broken bits of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate and swirled them into the cookie dough, assuming that they’d evenly melt. When she took the sheet out of the oven, she was amazed to see that the chocolate lumps were still intact. The rest, as they say, was dessert history.
Your assignment: Write a two page scene in which the star of a live cooking show discovers that he or she is missing a key ingredient. The cameras can’t be stopped and there’s no time for an assistant to rush to the store. What’s the desperate chef going to invent to get out this predicament?
THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY
Did you have cereal for breakfast this morning? If it was a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you’ve got John Kellogg and his brother, Will, to thank for coming up with the concept in the 1890’s. Like Ruth’s chocolate chip cookies, it was completely by accident. With the Kellogg siblings, that first bowl of flakes was actually supposed to have been a long sheet of dough for the granola they served to patients at the hospital where they both worked. Though pleased with the results, it wasn’t until 1906 that the general public had its first taste.
Your assignment: Keeping in mind the 1906 backdrop, costumes and props, write a 60-second infomercial in which John and Will give an aggressive pitch on why their cereal is the greatest in the world. (And if you call in the next 10 minutes, we’ll throw in a second box and personalized cereal bowl absolutely free…)
The Kelloggs weren’t the only brothers with an inventive streak. Just before Christmas in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright got their dream off the ground and inspired others to start thinking about just how far man could go on a wing and a prayer.
Your assignment: Hollywood has decided to revisit this famous chapter of aviation history and hired you to write the screenplay. The good news is that you can have any actors you want to play the Wright brothers as well as the use of whatever sets, props and costumes you need for authenticity. The bad news is that the studio can only afford to produce a 10-minute short. In a one-page essay, describe how you will accomplish this assignment.
TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS
In the early 1900’s, a young Quaker woman named Lizzie Magie wanted to teach others about the evils of real estate and the tax burdens created when monopolies were allowed to flourish. Recognizing that the lessons people learned in the course of amusing pastimes sometimes had more staying power than tedious lectures about politics and economics, she applied for a patent to start selling her new invention called “The Landlord’s Game”. Although the addresses on Lizzie’s board were all for rent rather than purchase, it’s believed to have inspired a 1930’s version that’s still played today: “Monopoly”.
Your assignment: This one requires you to go find yourself a “Monopoly” board. Taking the pack of properties, pull out all of the ones on which houses/hotels can be built (i.e., St. James Place, Ventnor Avenue, Boardwalk). Shuffle them and – with the names face down - draw two cards. Your task is to come up with a sitcom or drama series premise involving these two neighborhoods. It can be a romance, friendship or adversarial relationship. Write a two-page treatment that introduces the ongoing characters in the show, their respective circumstances, and what is going to happen in the first episode that you will believe will hook an audience into coming back each week.
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, 128 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.