Ideation / Plotting Exercise

FootprintsPeople tend to think that writing is just, well, getting words down on paper. That’s true to an extent. As they, say, “If it ain’t on the page, then it ain’t on the stage.” Much of the time, though, there’s an awful lot of story development that happens well before the first key is tapped on a keyboard.

That’s what this exercise is about…story development We’re going to generate a story idea and then do some high-level conceptual work on the plot of our notional story.

Task 1: The List

Make a list of three things…none of which are SF or Fantasy. These “things” could be:

  • A Book
  • A Movie
  • A TV Show
  • A Person (historical, celebrity, or somebody you know)
  • An Event (maybe even something that happened to you personally)

Time Limit: 5 minutes

When I did this exercise, my three ideas were:

  • Running on Empty: A highly recommended 1988 movie about a family (mom, dad, and two boys) on the run because the parents were radicals in the 1960s and blew up a university building. It’s a coming-of-age story for the eldest son, who leaves to have a life of his own.
  • Convoy: A mediocre but memorable 1978 movie about a convoy of big 18-wheeler trucks united against an evil sheriff.
  • Omaha of Nebraska’s Wild Animal Kingdom: A nature show that was on TV when I was a kid.

Task 2: Add a Phrase

Add a phrase to the end of each item on your list. It could be one of the phrases from the list below or something else that you’ve come up with on your own. The important thing is that it’s a phrase that adds an SF or Fantasy element to the item on your list.

Possible phrases include:

  • …in space
  • …with dragons
  • …with zombies
  • …with time travel
  • …with an apocalypse
  • …on an alien planet
  • …with magic

Time Limit: 5 minutes

My choices ended up being:

  • Running on Empty …with time travel
  • Convoy …after the apocalypse
  • Omaha of Nebraska’s Wild Animal Kingdom …on an alien planet

Task 3: Pick Your Favorite

Choose your favorite of the three story ideas that you’ve generated. Then try to develop the core premise for a story based on that story idea.

Time Limit: 5 minutes

When I ran this as a workshop, I chose Running on Empty as my favorite:

  • Running on Empty …with time travel: A family is on the run because the father, a professor, has independently developed a theory for time travel and is being chased by time agents from the future. His eldest son, now seventeen years old, leaves his family to take the fight to the enemy.

Task 4: What Might Happen?

Think about what might happen in a story based on the premise that you’ve developed. Define three events or scenes that might occur in the story.

Time Limit: 5 minutes

In my examples, here are some key scenes from Running on Empty, with Time Travel:

  • The family uses dice to choose their next destination, in order to foil tracking by their enemies
  • Eldest son leaves to take the offensive against their followers. Starts tracking the bad guys when they show up at his family’s last location.
  • As people who have jumped from one time to another, their remembered past doesn’t change when time is altered. They start noticing that the timeline is being regularly altered.

Task 5: When Might Those Events Occur?

For the events or scenes you’ve defined, when do they occur in the story? Act 1, 2, or 3?

Time Limit: 2 minutes

For my story idea:

  • Dice Scene: Act 1
  • Eldest Son Leaving: Act 2
  • Timeline Changes: Act 1 or 2


What we’ve just done is basically a thought experiment. We’ve generated a story idea and then experimentally developed some key events or scenes that might happen in a plot based on that story premise. All without committing a single word of prose to a page.

This type of experimentation is cheap. Much better than writing five chapters or maybe an entire 200-page novel and then finding out that the story doesn’t work. We only did three scenes, but there’s nothing keeping you from doing more. Take the experiment as far as you need.

You can use this technique to play with ideas and then discard the ones that don’t excite you enough to continue further. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a planner or a pantser when it comes to writing. This kind of high-level story development can benefit both types of writers.

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