Try These 6 Quick Story Exercises to Spark Your Creativity.

At the recommendation of a friend, I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. She told me that while she wasn’t writing a screenplay, the book was extremely helpful for writing any kind of story.

She’s right, it’s a fascinating look at storytelling, and it also includes some terrific exercises to foster creativity. This kind of playful thinking is fun. It’s fun to mess around with ideas, to have new thoughts, to come up with a great idea. It might even inspire you to write a screenplay or start a novel.

Blatant self-promotion: in The Happiness Project, I talk about my experience of writing a novel in a month, inspired by the book, No Plot? No Problem!, written by Chris Baty, also the founder of National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I wrote a novel as long as The Great Gatsby in thirty days. (Actually, I’ve written three very bad novels, all safely locked in a desk drawer.)

Sometimes creativity exercises are a bit boring – what’s that tiresome exercise with the candle, the cup, the matches? – but these exercises by Snyder, meant to jump-start ideas for movies, are very amusing:

1. Funny _____
Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy.

2. Serious _____
Likewise, pick a comedy and make it into a drama. Serious Animal House – Drama about cheating scandal at a small university ends in A Few Good Men-like showdown.

3. FBI out of water.
This works for comedy or drama. Name five places that a FBI agent in the movies has never been sent to solve a crime. Example: Slob FI agent is sent undercover to a Provence Cooking School.

4. _____ School
Works for both drama and comedy. Name five examples of an unusual type of school, camp, or classroom. Example: “Wife School.”

5. Versus!
Drama or comedy. Name several pairs of people to be on opposite sides of a burning issue.

6. My ______ Is a Serial Killer
Drama or comedy. Name an unusual person, animal, or thing that a paranoid can suspect of being a murderer.

It’s funny: seeing this exercise showed me how screenwriters got the ideas for several very famous movies!

Feeling creative helps boost happiness. While people often associate brooding melancholy as the spirit most appropriate to creative outpourings, research shows that people tend to be more creative when they’re feeling happy.

Do you have any exercises you use to help spark your story-telling spirit?


    I am auditory so music always works for me. If I feel particularly gloomy, which happens less and less nowadays, I put on a certain type of music. I have yet to understand why some type of music lifts me, yet other types don’t. However it is good to know what works for you and to utilize it! Interesting post.

  • I usually just eat a lot of chocolate, and then start writing, but these tips would probably be better for me. I recently got Save the Cat. Have so many books on my to-read pile. I guess I should move it up in the queue.

  • Mal

    I’m thinking of “Miss Congeniality.” These prompts sound like fun.

  • Nice

  • I love making up fake, funny lyrics to well-known songs, on the fly, to make light of some moment in life. Oh, if I could get paid to do this!

  • Okay, it’s completely nuts, but I have named my houseplants (for example, I have a Wisteria, named Lena; the only thing I had long enough to stake her up was a lefse stick, so she needed a Norwegian name, clearly!). Anyway, when I’m having trouble getting creative, I invent a conversation with one of my houseplants; Charlie, The Hardy Ficus, pretty much always tells me to “suck it up” and stop whining. My lucky bamboos, Feng, Shui, and little Zen, preach to me about my Tao and Te, and give me life lessons. Quirky, I know, but it helps me not only with character creation but I am better-able to imagine how my characters would react to my plants’ (or other characters’) comments! 🙂

    • Jennifer S. Martin

      I’m pretty certain you need to write a book like “Conversations with my plants” and have it divided by life subjects. This would be awesome. Just an idea.

  • dww

    Fun idea! This reminds me of the mashup paranormal classics, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

    As a writing exercise, I like to pick two or three unrelated stories from the day’s news, and weave them together into a fictional story. Sometimes I pick random stories by opening Google news, closing my eyes and clicking to see what comes up. Some stories turn out better than others, but it is a good way to spark creativity and get ideas, especially if experiencing writer’s block or having a hard time finding ideas.

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  • These are great. I think I need a therapist now after the ways I filled in the blanks.

  • Heather Weber

    Congratulations on the success of The Happiness Project! I enjoyed reading it so much, I bought ten copies for my sisters and daughters as Christmas gifts. Great book with great daily life lessons.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Michael C Strand

    Thanks, Gretchen! This book cuts right to the heart of the matter. Many think that it’s all about a clever turn of phrase or the exceptional metaphor, but it’s all about story and the telling.