Exercise: When you’re stuck on your story, try telling it in a different setting.

I’m a big fan of exercises , they drill fundamentals and unlock creativity when we get stuck. This is one of my favorites, because it spurs creativity, helps bypass plot problems, and establishes what story truly is. Story isn’t setting, story isn’t world building, story isn’t even dialogue. Stories, at there core, can be boiled down to primal, archetypal relationships. Friends. Enemies. Lovers. Mentors. Sidekicks. Parents. The beautiful daughter of your enemy. God walking the earth in peasant clothes.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. It’s been told and retold in a variety of settings, to the point where it’s a cliché. It’s been done in space, in L.A.’s gangland (more than once), in New York’s West Side. The story specifics are so iconic that it can be moved to any other setting.

A good story can fit into any setting. The specifics of the world are of secondary import to the primary forces of character and conflict.


Take AVATAR, which is famously analogous to Pochantas. You can change the specifics and the story remains the same:

If AVATAR is about a crippled soldier who uses his dead brother’s Avatar to infiltrate an alien culture, only to go native, you can put that in other worlds:

SAME STORY, OLD WEST: Jake Sully is a greenhorn from back East who comes to the frontier. His late brother had respect from the local Lakota tribes, so he’s able to use his brother’s reputation to join them, only to go native…

SAME STORY, FAIRY TALE: Simple Jake’s brother left home, only to die. Don’t worry, said Simple Jake, I will take my brother’s old magic boots. The boots carried Simple Jake into the clouds, where he met the elves of the sky. There, he went native and…

SAME STORY, PIRATE: Jake O’Sully is a merchant mariner who inherits his late brother’s dread pirate ship. He uses that ship to infiltrate the pirate king’s fleet, only to go native…

In these various examples, love interest Neyteri goes from a noble alien huntress to a proud Lakota Squaw, or the Giant King’s amazonian daughter, or a rare female buccanneer. Villain Miles Quartrich becomes a racist Federal Marshall, the closeminded burgomeister of a town, or a merciless Admiral of her majesty’s navy.

If you’re stuck on a story, consider writing a one page plot precis and then change the setting. Your story isn’t about worldbuilding or specific details, it’s about archetypal relationships, the primitive, primal stuff. The stuff you could pitch to a caveman . By solving the story in the one page version using, say, old western specifics, you can then go back into whatever setting you’re actually working in, and use the old west specifics to fix your actual plot.

Note: Reddit user jc2535 had a great comment on this a few months ago, and it’s worth a read.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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