When I was in high school, there were three sets of twins – two fraternal and one identical – all of whom were fascinating to the rest of us.
What would it be like, I often wondered, to have a lookalike sib who excelled in the very subjects that weren’t my strong suit? Would our parents be so attuned to our personalities that we couldn’t occasionally trade places? Would we ever ignore a chance to play tricks on friends or make shopkeepers think they were experiencing déjà vu? As a plot device, zygosity has been used in movies, books, plays and pop culture since the days of Romulus and Remus. Accordingly, virtually every formula involving twins has already been done. Or has it? The screenwriting exercises in this month’s issue all revolve around “seeing double”. 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. Are you a twin? What is life like for you? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
2. Have you ever wanted to have a twin sibling? Why or why not?
3. Do you think that parents of twins should dress them exactly alike, give them the same toys, and furnish their rooms identically? Why or why not?
4. Have you ever been told that you looked exactly like someone else? How has this influenced their interactions with you?
5. If you could be the lookalike of any celebrity, who would it be and what would you do?
6. How many movies or TV shows can you think of in which the main characters were twins?
7. What are your thoughts about cloning? Should science leave well enough alone or are there practical applications to gene xeroxing?
DESIGNER GENES & SPLIT-SCREEN MAGIC
One of the most commonly spun myths about the personalities of twins is that they’re polar opposites. Rather than an equitable distribution of virtue and sin, one twin always gets the goodness while his/her sib inherits all the trappings of wickedness. This not only colors their personal relationships but influences their career choices; good twins abide by the rules, bad twins derive pleasure from breaking them.
Having them operate in separate orbits, however, defeats the whole mystique of them being twins to begin with. Sooner or later, audiences will want to see the paths of these lookalikes collide on the same screen. For TV viewers, technology made this possible in 1963 with the debut of The Patty Duke Show in which Duke played the dual roles of Patty Lane and her identical cousin, Cathy. (Their resemblance was explained as being the respective offspring of twin brothers.) By putting a doorway or window in the middle of a frame to align the shot, the young actress could occupy both sides of the set simultaneously. The concept of being able to carry on conversations with an alter ego was a recurring storyline in other sitcoms of that decade such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, often putting the male leads to the test of trying to tell their sweethearts apart from the vixenesque kin. Thirty years later, Sabrina the Teenage Witch grappled with exactly the same double-trouble.
Your assignment: Do bad twins have more fun? What if a Goody Two Shoes decides to find out by shedding her niceness and participating in sneaky shenanigans? Write a three-page scene in which the sib who is usually the evil one tries to talk some sense into the one who’s acting badly.
Twins have been with us throughout the ages – some as rivals, some as like-minded peers.
• Melanesian myths attribute stupid acts of nature to ToKarvuvu and all the smart stuff to his brother, ToKabinana.
• Cleopatra and Marc Anthony had twin offspring.
• Castor and Pollux – the Gemini boys – merited their own zodiac sign.
• Rome might have been called Reme if the latter hadn’t been killed by his greedy twin. Such are the risks of being raised by wolves.
• Biblical lore yields the story of Essau and Jacob.
• St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica found their mutual calling in the church.
• Conjoined Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker fathered 22 children during the 19th century. Because their spouses constantly fought, the brothers split their time between two separate houses.
• Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren became synonymous with advice to the lovelorn.
• To accommodate California’s child labor laws, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen both played Michelle in Full House.
Your assignment: You have been asked to produce a documentary on one of the pairs in the above list. Write a one-page outline on how you will go about doing this and the elements you will incorporate (i.e., reenactments, art, photos, music, voiceovers, expert interviews, letters, etc.).
SEPARATED AT BIRTH
In The Parent Trap (1961), Hayley Mills played Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, a pair of plucky blond twins who get packed off to the same summer camp and – upon discovering they’re sisters - join forces to get their estranged parents back together. The 1998 remake starring Lindsay Lohan used the contrivance of a mum in London sending her daughter to the same camp in Maine as the one chosen by her divorced husband in California. A similar theme of giving Cupid a nudge was explored in the 1994-1999 television sitcom, Sister, Sister in which twins Tia and Tamera Mowry run into each other at a shopping mall and become inseparable buds. Although their adoptive single parents – Tamera’s dad and Tia’s mom – don’t get along, the long-lost sisters convince them they should all share the same roof.
Your assignment: Why is it that estranged twins in movie plots always endeavor to reunite the family? Write a two-page film treatment in which one or both twins decide that being an only child has way more perks and expend their energy trying to keep the status quo.
One of the most enduring switcharoos in literary history is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Set against the backdrop of 16th century England, a peasant lad and the son of Henry VIII discover that their looks are similar enough for them to pass as twins. On a lark, they trade outfits to see how the other half lives. The charade backfires when the king dies, thrusting the bewildered peasant onto the throne and subjecting the true heir to panic and ridicule when he’s unable to prove he’s a victim of identity theft.
Lookalikes figure prominently in films about monarchs, dictators and presidents. While the two in Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask were actually twin brothers, other stories embrace the notion that everyone has a double somewhere whose appearance could prove useful to the unscrupulous. In The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin portrays a clueless Jewish barber with an uncanny resemblance to the despotic Adenoid Hynkel. The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) calls upon the identical cousin of a soon-to-be king to step in when the latter gets kidnapped prior to coronation. Moon Over Parador (1988) invites an unemployed actor to assume the role of a dictator in a South American regime. In Dave (1993), this same set-up moves to Washington DC where the owner of a temp agency is recruited to impersonate the comatose prez.
The leaps of faith we accept that a person could so perfectly imitate someone he has never spent time with conjure a problem that’s a predictable staple of this variation of the twins theme: there’s always someone in the inner circle that can spot the phony. This is usually the real McCoy’s spouse, loyal servant or beloved pet that ends up playing along with the charade because, frankly, the fake is more likable.
Your assignment: When two people from diverse circumstances trade places, it’s always posed as a temporary arrangement to alleviate the boredom of the one who has the “better” life. Write a two-page scene in which the “lesser” side pitches a proposal to switch that his/her doppelgänger finds too enticing to refuse.
IMITATION OF LIFE
In 1991, Ira Levin published The Boys From Brazil, a thriller suggesting that the notorious Dr. Mengele saved some of Hitler’s DNA in order to reproduce legions of future Führers. Five years later, the possibilities of replicating life in a Petri dish took on alarming controversy with the “birth” of Dolley the sheep, the first clone produced with a cell taken from an adult mammal. Such developments fueled an already existing tableau of science fiction and psychological horror plots in TV series such as The Outer Limits and inspired films such as Godsend (2004) in which a shady physician proposes to assuage the grief of a young couple by using some of their dead child’s genes to create a replacement. Human xeroxing has also made appearance in lighter fare such as Multiplicity (1996) in which a stressed-out Michael Keaton decides there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Complications ensue when his duplicate self can’t get anything done, either.
What each of these scenarios has in common is the premise that a copycat entity has either exactly the same memories as the original or, in the case of The Boys From Brazil, needs to have specific events from the original’s formative years recreated for such memories to evolve.
Your assignment: Imagine a future where cloning guarantees every birth is a multiple. Into this quirky realm is suddenly born a protagonist who has no double and is, therefore, doomed to be a freaky oddball. Write a one-page film synopsis around this premise.
WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER CRIB
In 1934, five little girls made history by all being born at the same time. The Dionne Quintuplets not only became an overnight media sensation because multiple births were uncommon at the time but also because they were taken away by the Ontario government four months later and made wards of the provincial crown until they turned 18. Moved to a gated compound with an observation area for tourists, the quints lived isolated, highly regulated lives that were the functional equivalent of lab rats.
Your assignment: The young couple in your movie plot were elated to discover they were expecting a baby. Finances were tight and the husband’s job was in constant jeopardy. During an ultrasound, they learn that they’re having triplets instead of just one. A mysterious stranger offers to buy two of the unborn babies for a million dollars each, the conditions being that neither child will ever see the parents or third sibling again. Write a three-page scene between the husband (who wants to take the money, no questions asked) and the wife who is fearful of their fate if she lets them go.
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, 142 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.