Finding Inspiration in the Cookie Aisle
Posted by Christina Hamlett on
The arrival of Daylight Savings Time three weeks early this year heralds the approach of a long stretch of summer for you to finally get cracking on that screenplay you've always wanted 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 check stands, 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 forays 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 before repeating the same pattern with the next 6 or 7 magazines. Since the rack was in sight of the check stands, I asked one of the checkers one day what the woman's story was since I never once saw her purchase any of the publications she was so systematically perusing. "Oh, she only reads them for the horoscopes," he explained. (Best 2 out of 3 predictions, perhaps?) Reading magazines with no intention of buying them is a fairly common - although chintzy - practice. Next time, you're in the magazine aisle, pick one up yourself as a cover for creative snooping. Are the people around you (1) reading magazines that seem incongruous with their persona (i.e., a male body builder reading Victoriana or an elderly lady engrossed in Popular Mechanics), (2) taking a free peek at tabloids their children, parents or spouses would not approve of them bringing home, (3) killing time while their roommates 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 screenwriting article to spy on other customers and incorporate them into their screenplays.
Paper or Plastic?
How people pay for their purchases at the check stand can be another clue as to how they manage their lives. Does a person pay for everything with cash because he/she (1) does not want to accrue credit card debt, (2) does not want to leave a paper trail, or (3) has had their credit cards cancelled for defaulting on payments? Is a person who whips out a VISA or MasterCard for less than $5 of merchandise (1) lazy, (2) out of checks, or (3) an out of towner? What about a stylishly dressed man or woman whose method of payment is a handful of food stamps? Is he or she just trying to keep up pride and appearances until fortune smiles again? Or is this the modus operandi of someone who has not only figured out how to abuse the system but flaunt it as well? How do the next customers in line react? With annoyance? With pity? With total indifference? And what about the person paying in cash that comes up 82 cents short on the total? Does his/her age, gender or attractiveness influence whether the person behind them will feel generous and volunteer the difference?
Manager Mug Shots
Who are those guys on the walls? A friend's young granddaughter, having seen mug shots of various fugitives on the post office walls, quite naturally assumed that the framed photos at the grocery store were wanted posters, and screamed in alarm when "Ed," the jovial produce manager, strolled up one day and said hello. As a fun exercise the next time you find yourself idly gazing at the requisite rogue's gallery of supermarket management, ascribe fictitious crimes to those smiling faces and determine what strategy you would employ to catch them.
A Few Free Plot Starters to Kick-off your Summer Writing
1. A woman whose teenage son ran away from home 20 years ago is buying groceries to stock the condo she's staying in while on vacation in Hawaii. She does a double-take when she sees the framed photo of the store's assistant general manager and realizes that it's her missing son.
2. Dan Mason thought he was just doing a good deed when he offered his spare change to a nubile young woman at the check stand who was two dollars short for her purchases. Her earnest promise to pay him back so amused him that, in a lapse of better judgment, he gave her his office address. When she shows up the next day, though, the supposedly sweet lass has turned into an aggressive con artist who informs his co-workers that she is his illegitimate daughter.
3. Mom 'N' Pop's Roadside Grocery has been a town fixture since 1962. For many of the community's poor, it's also the only place served by a bus line. With plans in the works for a new superhighway to go through, the owners are offered a nice chunk of change for their property. Question: Will they finally be able to buy a good life for themselves after years of barely squeaking by or will they use the money to build a new store that can continue serving their longstanding customers?
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