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Seeking a story idea? These four exercises can help

January 11, 2023


By Sam Zalutsky, faculty, writing for TV, screen, and stage


We’ve all had the experience of sitting at our desks and staring blankly at the screen. What should I be writing? Why can’t I think of any new ideas? What next? 


It can be frustrating and discouraging. But there are so many ways to jumpstart our creative juices. This fall I taught Storytelling Strategies to a class of thirty-nine predominantly first-year NYU undergraduate film students. This was my third year in a row teaching this foundational requirement. I loved introducing these talented and enthusiastic students to the foundations of dramatic structure for film and TV. We read and watched pilots and features throughout the semester while also viewing and discussing short films. 


In recitation or smaller sections, students worked individually or collaboratively in “story teams.” We started with the basics of character and worked our way through visual scene writing, dialogue, loglines, synopsis, and multiple drafts of a ten-page short film script, which was their final project. Of course, all of these exercises are supposed to help them integrate core ideas such as three-act structure, antagonist/protagonist, objective, obstacle, conflict, reversal, and resolution. They came up with so many dynamic ideas and scripts, and it was exciting to see their skills developing as the semester went on.


Some of these ideas may be familiar to you. Most of these ideas are adapted from various classes and workshops I’ve taken or taught. (Thank you to colleagues and collaborators whom I might have stolen these ideas from.) We all know that when starting a new project, it’s important to return to the basics of storytelling. These exercises are great for writers at any level. Hopefully one or two will help you brainstorm the next time you’re feeling stuck. 

1.    POSTCARD EXERCISE. Over many years of travel and looking at art, I’ve collected hundreds of postcards. They take up a fair amount of space in my dresser and my husband often asks if I can get rid of some, but they are all kernels of great ideas. So no! A Manuel Alvarez Bravo photo of a young girl on a dock holding a fish or a photo of teenage Serena and Venus Williams embracing or a travel postcard from a friend visiting Beijing in the Nineties or a Balthus painting of a woman climbing out a window: we can all develop a story from these images. Each student had to choose two images. Then I gave them fifteen minutes to write a character biography of one of the people in the first image. They shared their biographies out loud. Then they did it again with another postcard. And then they had to write a scene between the two chosen characters. Sometimes I made them trade postcards with their neighbors before they wrote the second bio, but either way it’s hard to not find some kernel of a story idea.

2.    OVERHEARD CONVERSATION. Go sit in a public space. Maybe a cafe. Office waiting room. Bus station. Train car. Listen closely to a conversation between two people and take notes. Write down ONLY the dialogue and let it stew. Think about what each character’s objectives are in the scene and revise, this time clarifying the objectives, adding visual details and behavior. 

3.    VISUAL OPENING. Think of a recent dream or nightmare. Write the scene using the most visual language you can. Colors, light, shapes, landscapes. Immerse yourself in dream time and dream logic. When you finish your first draft, go back and make sure the scene has a beginning, middle, and end. Could you use this scene to start a new script or story?

4.    NOTECARD EXERCISE. Divide a set of notecards into four groups. On one set of cards, write the names of interesting actors or stars (Michelle Yeoh, The Rock, James Gandolfini). Have fun. Be silly. Or serious. On a second set, write intriguing locations (the moon, the Women’s World Cup, the Amazon rainforest, Las Vegas casino). On the third set of cards, a key prop: (the Mona Lisa, a plastic bag, magic candlesticks). On the fourth set of cards, a genre: Thriller, Rom-Com, Noir, Period Drama. Now randomly select two actors and one card from each of the other three groups. Write a logline in fifteen minutes for a feature film. Crazy? Stupid? Outrageous? That’s OK. It’s not about getting it right; it’s about seeing if you can think of something that excites you to develop into a script.


Now it’s your turn. I hope you’ll share some of your favorite story brainstorming exercises here in the comments or with me at residency. Happy writing!


Sam Zalutsky is a writer/director from New York currently living in Merida, Yucatan, where he is developing a new horror script about a haunted hacienda.


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