Writing Exercise: Generating Story Ideas, by Chris Tebbetts

 I like to do a lot of spontaneous writing when I’m working on an idea, and one of my favorite outcomes there is when I surprise myself—with an insight, a random idea that I love, or a turn of phrase that captures exactly what I’m going for in a given writing moment. 

With that in mind, here’s a quick story idea-generating exercise that I do in some of my workshops. If you feel like playing along, please do! Maybe you’ll surprise yourself, too.

NOTE: Don’t read ahead. Take these steps one at a time. 

1) Write down five favorite movies. Not the ones you admire most, but the ones you enjoy the most. 

2) What is it about each of these movies that appeals to you? Think about plot, character, setting, and theme — along with anything else that occurs to you. Write down several items for each movie.

3) Now, what recurring elements do see in the lists you’ve just written? It doesn’t have to be something that’s true for all five of your movies. You’re just looking for things that show up more than once. It might be as basic as “lots of fantasy,” or as granular as “three of these movies have extreme weather in them.” Similarly, with character, it might be as obvious as “stories with female protagonists” or as subtle as “characters who make things with their hands.”  Maybe it’s “movies about friendship” or “stories with ambiguous endings.” Whatever it is you see, write down those recurring elements. 

4) Pick two favorite elements from the list you just made. Which ones grabbed you the most, in your gut, as you wrote them down? 

5) What are the feelings those two elements evoke in you? For example, if I were thinking about ADVENTURE, I might write down: excitement; anticipation; danger/foreboding. If I were thinking about STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS, I might think: heroism; determination; flexibility. Write your own answers down.

6) Where and when else do people have those same emotions? Where and when else have you? Going off my ADVENTURE example (excitement; anticipation; danger/foreboding), I might think about a job interview. I might think about a road trip I once took. I might think about going off to college for the first time. And for my SRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS example (heroism; determination; flexibility), I might think about a city bike messenger; Olympic athletes; or mystic shape-shifters.

7) Now, just start playing. Take everything you’ve written so far, including the rest of your list of recurring elements (not just the two you picked), and see where it all takes you. Incorporate what you like, discard what you don't need right now. What kind of story idea develops from here? 

Again, working from my own examples here, I might start thinking about a young woman who works as a bike messenger.  

And maybe she’s a shape-shifter as well. 

Maybe this story is a fantasy. 

Maybe she’s trying to get a new job in this mythical city that’s developing in my mind as I sit here, doing the exercise. 

Maybe it’s a fully green city, where bikes are the main form of transport. 

And maybe someone—some antagonist—wants to steal my hero’s bike, for some reason. 

Maybe that bike holds a secret. 

And on, and on… 

Your mileage may vary, but for me, the value is in just allowing the ideas to unfold without worrying where they take me. More often than not, I walk away with something I can use, either as a whole story idea, or maybe a new nugget of something that I can fold into one of my existing works in progress. 

I hope you find a few happy surprises of your own! 


  1. interesting and thought-provoking technique Chris. It's always character that drives me back to movies like THE MARTIAN, THE FUGITIVE, THE STING...I guess that's why my stories tend to be character-driven.

    1. I like finding that kind of insight as much as anything else with techniques like this. (And -love The Martian!)


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