In the 1960’s a TV game show debuted in which contestants had the choice of hanging on to the prizes they’d already won or risking it all on an unknown surprise that lay behind a door, a curtain or inside a box.
The mystery deals could be anything from a brand new convertible to half a tuna fish sandwich. The players – who often dressed up in ridiculous costumes to improve their chances of getting picked – were then faced with the daunting dilemma of trusting their own intuition or succumbing to the pressure of their audience peers. The screenwriting exercises in this month’s issue all revolve around choices and consequences and how they can be used for story-starters in film and decision-making in real life. 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 is the best decision you have ever made? Why was it smart? Did you decide on your own or did someone help you?
2. What is the worst decision you have ever made? Why did you think it was a good decision at the time? If you had an opportunity for a do-over, what would you do differently and why?
3. Has anyone ever asked for your advice about making a choice? Did they follow the advice you gave? Why or why not?
4. If you knew that your chances of winning a contest were less than 50 percent, would you still enter it? Less than 25 percent? Less than 10 percent?
5. If an outcome of an upcoming event were already assured to be successful whether you did well or badly, how would this influence your participation in it?
6. Have you ever said, “I told you so” to someone? What were the circumstances? What was their reaction?
7. If you knew that you could get away with cheating on a test, would you do it? Why or why not?
8. Would you swap sack lunches with someone if you didn’t know what he or she had brought? Why or why not? Would you answer be different if you didn’t know what was in your own lunch sack that day?
THE LADY OR THE TIGER?
In the late 1800’s, an author named Frank Stockton wrote a short story in which readers to this day continue to draw their own conclusions about the ending. Set in a barbaric realm, The Lady or the Tiger is about a cruel king who enjoyed punishing wrongdoers by putting them into an arena with two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful lady. Behind the other was a ferocious tiger. When the king discovered that his only daughter was in love with a young man he didn’t approve of, he promptly sentenced him to this cruel fate. Little did he know that his daughter had conspired to learn which door was which and, on the fateful day of reckoning, gave her lover a signal undetected by her father or any of the spectators in the amphitheater.
Your assignment: Where Stockton’s story leaves off, your movie idea begins. Construct a two-page film treatment in any genre which reveals the consequences of him trusting the princess’ nonverbal cue.
What if you knew what was in the works before it actually happened? In time-travel stories, historical hindsight is more often a curse than a blessing when it comes to warning people of impending doom. If you think that’s a problem, consider the unique dilemma of Gary Hobson (played by Kyle Chandler) in the 1990’s TV series, Early Edition. For inexplicable reasons, he’s been opening his front door each morning to a skittish ginger cat and a newspaper with tomorrow’s date on it. What he initially thinks is just a typesetting error turns out to be a prophecy of the next day’s major news stories. Hobson’s Choice (which derives from a 17th century English phrase meaning “take it or leave it”) requires him to discern which event is within his power to prevent.
Your assignment: The protagonist in your film can keep only one of the following three tragedies from occurring:
1. A bridge collapse during rush hour that claims the lives of 2,000 commuters.
2. A manufacturing plant explosion that claims the lives of 200 workers.
3. An automobile accident that claims the life of his or her best friend.
Assuming that the protagonist has the reputation, resources and influence for his or her warning to be believed and acted upon, write a three-page scene of dialogue in which another person tries to exert pressure on the protagonist to choose a different option than the one he/she believes is the right thing to do.
In Greek mythology, the daughter of Queen Hecuba and King Priam was given the gift of prophecy. While such a talent could certainly come in handy for helping others meet their true soul mates, make discoveries of treasure or determine the outcome of wars before the first battle cry was ever issued, there was one pesky little obstacle that Cassandra couldn’t overcome: none of her predictions would be believed by her listeners.
Your assignment: A modern-day Cassandra needs to convince her boss to follow her advice on an important business matter or else risk losing the entire company. Since she knows the truth won’t be believed no matter how earnestly she imparts it, she realizes that the only way to achieve her objective is to keep saying the opposite. Write a two-page scene in which she puts this artful strategy to the test.
In the 1992 film, Forever Young, a 1939 test pilot volunteers to be frozen for a year as a way to cope with the grief of losing his fiancée. Things go amiss, however, when he ends up staying on ice for a little over half a century and awakens to a world that is completely bewildering to him.
Your assignment: The protagonist of your story has been diagnosed with a disease that will result in an excruciatingly painful death within two months. Enter a scientist who’s been making the final tweaks on a top-secret cryogenics project. If your hero or heroine will consent to be flash-frozen in the next 30 minutes, it is guaranteed that a cure for the disease will exist when he or she is brought back to life – and still at his/her current age - 100 years from now. The only condition is that your protagonist can neither leave the room nor make any phone calls to say goodbye during that 30 minutes. Write a one-page film synopsis which reveals the decision made and its consequences.
How many times have you smacked yourself in the forehead and said, “Ack! I wish I’d done something different?” While it’s often said that for every door that closes, a new one opens, wouldn’t you like to be able to go back and just nudge it open a little to see what you missed?
Your assignment: Years ago when your protagonist was young and foolish, he or she “borrowed” something without permission that had lots of sentimental value to the owner. Time-travel now affords the chance to return to that very moment and put it back. Is anything really that simple, though? Construct two separate one-page synopses, one which shows what happened to the protagonist as a result of that initial theft and the second one showing the course that life took if the item had never been taken.
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.