Halloween is one of my favorite holidays! It’s a time to express a different aspect of our personalities by wearing a costume and a time to socialize with others in that assumed persona. When we are writing a story, we often get so involved with the details that we limit our understanding of our imaginary characters to fit with the twists and turns of the plot we are developing. Changing the situation we are working with is a great way to shock yourself into new insights about your work.
I often use the Halloween Party Technique to gain a fresh perspective when I am working with students or on a project that feels a little stale. There are two parts to this exercise: One is to try to imagine what costume the main character and villain or obstacle would wear if they had to each attend a different Halloween party, and the second is to imagine what kind of party it would be.
Last year, on my way to a Halloween party, I saw a group of teenagers dressed as “superheroes—a “Wolverine”, a “Green Lantern”, two “Supermen” and, most striking to me, a “Wicked Witch of the West.”
Although a Halloween costume allows us to take on another character, the selection process is never arbitrary—we can never get too far away from ourselves, and so it is with our characters.
The costume your character selects reveals an aspect of their true personality. So in this way, each of these teenagers was unconsciously projecting a hidden aspect of themselves. I doubt that the young woman dressed up as the Wicked Witch of the West was truly a villain. Rather her choice of costume was an expression of her identification with the particular character. Identification does not necessarily mean that we are similar—it means that there is some emotional connection, which is not necessarily obvious.
I was intrigued because I noticed how sad her eyes were, and she held the broom gingerly, not with the kind of aggression normally associated with the Wicked Witch. Conveniently, I was working with a student on a project that involved a teenage girl who had to deal with a family tragedy, and the writer could not connect to the anger and guilt that naturally occur. I suggested that she write a scene in which her gentle character goes to a family Halloween party dressed as the Wicked Witch and has to get into an argument. The scene turned out very well – the main character has a screaming match with her brother, who she blames for the death of her sister.
After I read the scene, I realized that the identification came from the plot of the Wizard of Oz where the Witch’s sister is accidentally killed when Dorothy lands in Oz.
The second part of the exercise that I gave my student was to select the kind of party that her character would attend. By using a family party it allowed the writer to imagine the costumes for all the characters as well as the teenage heroine and to subtly reexamine the relationships from a fresh point of view.
To recap: when our characters or we dress up on Halloween, it is not random—we are always indirectly expressing something about ourselves. In the same way, the parties our characters or we attend are often a microcosm of our lives.
Here's the exercise:
Step 1: Set a timer for 20 minutes. Eating candy corn is optional!
Step 2: Analyze how you, the writer, spend your Halloween. Do you go trick-or-treating with your kids, do you go to a costume party, or do you ignore it altogether? Do you spend all year planning your costume? By observing what you would do you can easily compare your choices with those of your character.
Step 3: Form a mental picture of your main character, and imagine what costume they would wear if they were attending a party. If your first thought is that, “My character would never go to a party,” you have already learned a great deal about your character. But for this exercise, your character must attend the party whether they go in costume or not.
Step 4: Next consider whether or not you, the writer, would attend a party, and what kind it is. If you wouldn’t attend, imagine a party you would either love or hate. Then make the same determination for your main character.
Step 5: Writing as if you were your character, create a scene describing your character’s experience of going to a Halloween party and getting into an argument.
Step 6: Reset the timer and repeat the exercise for the villain or obstacle of your story.
Step 7: After a break, reread both scenes.
Bonus step: Reset the timer and repeat the exercise. This time have both characters attend the same party and get into an argument with each other.
This exercise will stimulate your imagination and perhaps even offer the opportunity to write a great scene that might actually appear in your screenplay.
Good luck and Happy Writing!