Veteran TV writer and producer Ross Brown worked on some of the U.S.’s most beloved 80s and 90s sitcoms, including “Step by Step,” “The Facts of Life,” “Who’s the Boss,” and “The Cosby Show,” so he was required to come up with new ideas for his storylines nearly every day. We wanted to know: How do full-time creatives do it? His answer surprised me, and considering the frequency of his writing, you should have no problem using this technique to drum up enough ideas of your own to get started on your next screenplay.
“My biggest technique for new ideas is when I feel something emotional in my life,” Brown told us when we asked him how he dreams up storylines for his scripts. “Either I’m observing somebody else’s life, and I’m moved by something going on in it, or in my own life, I feel something.”
I fully expected Brown to say something different, like he people-watches, or reads lots of books, or scans the newspapers, or a handful of other tips I’ve often heard. But to recognize a feeling or emotion as the start of a great story idea is smart for a couple of reasons. The first is that we’re always trying to make our audiences feel something and to get our point across by accessing their emotions, so if we feel it in real life, we have a better understanding of what triggered that emotion. The second is that we feel things all day long, every day, so there’s no shortage of material; disappointment, boredom, excitement, aggravation, irritation, and pure joy are all emotions that your characters can feel, too.
How are you feeling today, right now? Start there.
“It can be embarrassment. It can be me feeling like, what a jerk I was there, or something,” Brown went on. “But when I feel something strong emotionally, my antenna goes up and goes there’s a story in here somewhere, because emotions are what the heart of most stories are.”
I know a daily newspaper comic strip artist who has to generate jokes every. single. day. Can you imagine waking up on the wrong side of the bed, and having nothing funny to say? Yet, every day, he turns in his assignment.
His trick is that he’s built-in creativity to his daily habits so that he always has the inspiration to tap into.
Make it a habit to pay attention to and tap into your emotions for story ideas.
Let’s go through this exercise to generate a quick story.
Name an emotion that you felt today.
Describe the events leading up to that emotion.
Who or what was involved in this scenario?
What is the opposite feeling of this emotion?
When was the last time you felt that opposite emotion?
Using those opposite charges, write a scene that takes us from one emotion to the next.
Irritation and physical pain.
My dog woke me up with a scratch and drool on my face.
My dog and my boyfriend.
During our daily walk to the ocean.
Script Snippet - Using Emotion to Generate New Ideas
INT. BEDROOM, MORNING
Ouch! Jesus! What the heck, Domino.
Courtney’s BOYFRIEND flicks on the lights. DOMINO, a massive harlequin Great Dane, hovers over Courtney, jowls and drool hanging down. Courtney cringes and whines beneath the covers in pain.
Good morning sunshines. Coffee?
INT. KITCHEN, FOGGY MORNING
BOYFRIEND, a morning person, emerges from the dated kitchen, two MUGS of steaming coffee in hand. Courtney sits at the table, aggressively brushing white dog hair off her pajamas.
One Keurig off-brand coffee with cashew milk.
Boyfriend sits down at the dining nook next to Courtney and stares out toward the ocean view. Courtney’s eyes widen, and eyebrows shoot up as she hears a plastic crunching sound from the living room. She leaps out of her chair.
DOMINO! What are you –
Domino rounds the corner to the nook, a new plastic crunchy toy crushed between her teeth. Jowls puffed up on either side like Deputy Dog.
Oh, thank God, it’s just your toy.
What a view, huh? I’m looking forward to a nice evening walk with the two of you later.
Courtney sits back down. Domino nudges up to her leg, re-applying white dog hair on her pajamas. Domino looks up, puppy dog eyes, and lays a big slobbery kiss on Courtney’s face, which she can reach without trying.
Okay, I love you, too pups. Yes, a stroll sounds nice.
Courtney takes a deep, audible breath, sips her coffee, and stares out at the ocean, her face unclenched.
Wow, we’ve got it good, don’t we?
Okay, so there’s not a lot going on in that scene. But I used emotion to put something, anything, on the page in less than five minutes. If I can do it, you can do it better 😊, And from here, I can go anywhere with this story. Maybe it becomes a story about my dog, Domino. Perhaps an inciting incident occurs during our beach walk later. And perhaps the entire script comes back around to being a message about gratitude. Again, I just came up with that. Give it a go!
Ready to practice? Let’s talk about our feelings,