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7 exercises to find your next story

Alicia Sekhri
Alicia Sekhri
As writers, we rely on our creativity to make a living.
If you’re serious about this and want to make it a career, you can’t just wait for the big idea anymore.
You have to actively find it.
To be completely honest, the brainstorming process of finding a story to write about is my least favorite part of being a screenwriter.
It forces me to face the fact that a lot of my ideas are… shitty
Every time a plot idea pops in my head, I get all excited and I’m convinced that I’m talented and that I have what it takes to make it in this industry.
And then, as I start developing this idea, I realize that this isn’t a story at all — it’s just a scene, at best, that I’m playing in my mind.
And whenever I try to expand on it, I often find that there isn’t enough to sustain a movie, let alone a series.
Having bad story ideas doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.
It just means you haven’t found the right one to write about yet. Many successful creatives put an emphasis on the need to generate hundreds of bad and mediocre ideas before finding the one.
It’s a numbers game, that’s all. 
I did a lot of reading and took various story-development classes to help me brainstorm and find good story ideas. During my research, I used 7 brainstorming techniques, and they have proven to be quite effective. Some are character-based and others are plot/environment-based.
Let’s take a look at them.

Character-based approaches
Start with someone you hate
This one comes from author Myla Goldberg. In her Skillshare class, one of the exercises she suggests is imagining walking into your favorite cafe and seeing the person you hate the most sitting in a corner. 
  1. Describe what you see and think from your point of view.
  2. The person you hate sees you as well. Describe what she sees and thinks from her point of view. 
This is a good exercise to start generating some creative juices and put you in a flow state. Consider using a person you don’t like as inspiration for your main character, and use this exercise to feel empathy for them.
Then, your work is almost done: you already know their flaws and darkest parts because you don’t like them much, but now that you have empathy for them, you’re able to create an interesting backstory and come up with some qualities as well. 
Try someone you know
This exercise is related to the one above. Make a list of people you know well — your friends, family, neighbors, anyone. Write up their qualities and flaws, as well as what they struggle with, according to you. Imagine an inner conflict and a backstory for them. This can be true or made up. 
Now, pick one that stands out. Maybe it’s someone that really triggers your imagination.
From there, put them out of their comfort zone by using the following exercise…
What if…?
Every Pixar story starts with a “what if…?” 
Generate your own what-if list — you should aim at 50 at least. 100 is best. Write down what-ifs that scare you, that make you dream, crazy ones, horrible ones.
For example: “What if I had only one day left to live?” or “What if there was an extraterrestrial invasion tomorrow?”
These ones are actually the foundation of multiple popular stories. 
Come up with your own list. Then again, pick one that stands out: it’ll be what the character you created earlier will have to face.
Limiting beliefs
We all have limiting beliefs — “rules” that we have internalized and have always assumed to be true. Limiting beliefs aren’t the same for everyone, they depend on your education, experiences, etc. 
These limiting beliefs can lead us to make poor choices or walk on a path that isn’t ours. This is exactly why your characters need limiting beliefs too — to make mistakes and poor choices, which is what makes good stories. 
Take a moment to write down your own limiting beliefs. They can be anything from “I am not good enough” to “I can’t be my real self or I’ll be judged.” 
Now, build on that to create a situation where your character will need to change this belief in order to succeed.
The beginning of the story being their life as it is, then there’s a catalyst and a middle where they are fighting/challenging the limiting belief and still making poor choices, and then an end where eventually, they have changed.
Yeah, that seems a bit intrusive… but we eavesdrop all the time whether we want it or not, so we better make this habit useful. 
Actively listen to strangers. Grab bits of conversation.
For instance, I heard a woman in the street saying “you’re never gonna see your child again” on the phone. That’s pretty dramatic. Could be a story.
What stories pop into your mind based on these stolen bits of conversation? 
Plot-based approaches
Philosophical questions
If you’re an overthinker, this technique will work well for you. Put on paper all the “philosophical” aka life questions you have in mind. If you can’t think of any, this list is a good starting point and source of inspiration. A few examples I find interesting:
Is happiness just chemicals flowing through your brain or something more?
Is there an alternative to capitalism?
Is it more important to be respected or liked?
Now, brainstorm a few story ideas/plots/characters for each prompt. This should fuel your creative engine!
This can also be a character-based approach, depending on the questions and how you position yourself.
List your worlds 
I stole this one from Save the Cat! Writes for TV.
We all have worlds we live in, have explored, or would love to explore someday.
For example, I’ve worked in a PR agency in the music industry, briefly volunteered in a nursing home, joined a theatre club, and practice horse-riding at a semi-professional level. These are “worlds” I’ve explored and potential material for stories. 
Your turn. List all the worlds you’ve explored and the ones you’d like to step into. Come up with at least 20 for each. 
Final words
Try all of these techniques and mix-and-match them. At the end of the process, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find a story worth telling. A unique concept that is yours and yours alone.
Good luck!
Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter for quick tips and nuggets of wisdom.
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Alicia Sekhri
Alicia Sekhri @aliciasekhri

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