The arrival of Daylight Savings Time early this year heralds the approach of a long stretch of summer for you to finally get cracking on that screenplay you’ve been wanting to write.
There’s only one obstacle: Where to find a fresh story to whet the appetite of prospective producers and appease moviegoers who are hungry for a plot they can really sink their teeth into. If you’re gleaning a slick segue here to the topic of food, it’s a theme that figures prominently in Where the Plots Are, my current work-in-progress which affirms the fact that extraordinary muses tend to lurk in some of life’s most ordinary settings.
Supermarkets, for instance.
In a recent screenwriting workshop, I sent my students around the corner to a local grocery store with the instructions to generate a story concept based on what they noticed in the aisles, at the checkstands, and out in the parking lot. Not only did over half of them return with 3-4 ideas but they also proposed that I start including restaurants, cafeterias, and even Starbucks as future venues that cater to cinematic inspiration.
Here’s a cook’s tour of why this approach works so well and how to hone some delicious powers of observation.
WHERE TO LOOK:
The Grocery Store
The neighborhood grocery store is a 24/7 milieu that’s stocked daily with ripe romance, fresh frenzies, and seasoned synergy. (And all this time you only thought it was a place to buy your next meal.) A friend of mine swears that he learned more about how to craft credible dialogue and quirky characters from just one summer as a bagger at Safeway than he did from two years of professional screenwriting classes.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Way They’re Dressed
One of my most indelible childhood memories of grocery stores in the 1950’s was the number of women who trolled the aisles with their hair wound tightly in pink curlers. While some of them attempted to cover the offending rollers with triangular scarves, many more opted to show the world that whatever they were doing later that evening hinted of a glamour that necessitated looking less than perfect for their daytime chores in public. I also fondly recall the satisfaction I used to feel as I got older in dressing up for the most inconsequential errands with the expectation of accidentally running into an ex-boyfriend and making him feel really, really bad for dumping someone so stylish. In a nutshell, wardrobe choices are never accurate indicators of personality, social standing or occupation. (Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is a prime example of deceptive appearances.) The unshaven hunk wearing faded jeans and a tee could just as easily be a mogul taking a break from working on his Jag; a professionally dressed businesswoman who looks like a banker could instead be a member of - well, the world’s oldest profession. What sort of clues do their purchases yield? Is it before 8 a.m., after 5 p.m. or somewhere in the middle? Finally -if you happen to see them leave - what kind of vehicle do they get into? Does it match the way they’re attired?
Ten Items or Less
We’ve all dealt with the exasperation of pulling into the “10 Items or Less” line only to find it already occupied by someone who doesn’t think the rule applies to them personally or else has interpreted it to mean “10 Items That Are Loosely Related to Each Other By Color or Flavor Equal 1 Item.” The next time this happens, take a moment to see what their 10 items are and, from that, make a determination about the buyer’s eating habits. Have they purchased a week’s worth of convenience in the form of microwave meals? Is their basket a health nut’s delight with representations from the 4 food groups? Do alcoholic beverages dominate? Are the items generic store brands or their pricier counterparts? If you see someone with an eclectic mix of bananas, marinara sauce, sardines, coffee creamer, and a pork loin, do you envision a truly scary menu in the works or just assume these particular items got left off the last shopping list and would actually make sense in the context of the full picture?
Buying in Bulk
A male friend of mine was pretty excited when items started being sold in bulk at his neighborhood supermarket. He was especially enamored, as I recall, with paint-gallon size cans of peaches, tomato soup, and Crisco. This seemed odd, of course, considering he (1) traveled 80% of the time and (2) never cooked when he was home. “Why buy in bulk?” I asked when I tripped over a sack of dog food in his kitchen that was not only larger than his entire dog but would probably outlast it by 3 years. Apparently Max-packs and Everest have the same answer in common: “Because it’s there.” Spend some time in the bulk food aisles and consider the following scenarios behind jumbo purchases: (1) throwing a neighborhood block party, (2) preparing for a nuclear holocaust, (3) feeding teenagers, (4) being really insecure.
The Magazine Racks
In my early years as an actress, there was a Safeway right down the street from my studio apartment. Since I always had plenty of starving actor friends dropping in after rehearsals, I saw a lot of the store's regulars in my frequent forways for food. Like clockwork, the first of every month, I'd see the same middle-aged woman at the magazine racks going through exactly the same routine of opening to the table of contents, finding the page she wanted, reading it for less than 20 seconds and putting it back. She repeated this pattern with the next 6 or 7 magazines. Since the rack was in sight of the checkstands, I asked one of the checkers one day what the woman's story was since I never actually saw her buy any of the publications she was systematically perusing. "Oh, she only reads them for the hososcopes," he explained. Next time you're in the magazine aisle, pick up one yourself as a cover for creative snooping. Are the people around you (1) reading magazines that seem incongruous with their persona (i.e., an elderly lady engrossed in Popular Mechanics), (2) taking a free peek at tabloids their children, parents or spouses wouldn't approve of them bringing home, (3) killing time while their housemates buy food, (4) using this seemingly casual hang-out for an exchange of drugs or information, or (5) applying what they've learned from this article to spy on other customers and incorporate them into their next story.
Who are those guys on the walls? A friend's young granddaughter, having seen mugshots of various fugitives on the post office walls, wuite naturally assumed that the framed photos at the grocry store were wanted posters...and screamed in alarm when "Ed", the jovial produce manager, strolled up one day to say hello. As a fun exercise the next time you find yourself idly gazing at the requisite rogues gallery of supermarket management, ascribe fictitious crimes to those smiling faces and determine what strategy you would employ to catch them.
In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 26 books, 132 plays and musicals, 5 optioned feature films and several hundred articles that appear online and in trade publications throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her latest release, Screenwriting for Teens (Michael Wiese Productions), introduces young adults (and the young at heart) to the 100 concepts they need to know in order to successfully write film shorts. To engage her services, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.