Join Jessica Brody for an in-depth discussion in this video Proven method #4: The people zoo, part of Develop Blockbuster Story Ideas That Sell.
(quirky electronic music) - [Jessica] Welcome to The People Zoo, hands-down my favorite title of all the brainstorming methods. So, just to quickly recap, we've been talking about proven methods for brainstorming high-concept ideas. We've covered the Larger Than Life method, the Extra! Extra! Read All About It! method, and The Magic Talisman method. Now it's time to go watch some people at the zoo. Have you ever noticed how fascinating people are? I mean, like, fascinating.
When you really stop to watch people, they are just as interesting as the animals we stare at in the zoo, maybe even more so. They do the strangest things. People-watching is not only a great way to get character ideas for your stories, but it's a great way to get story ideas in general. Here is what happened to me at one of my trips to The People Zoo. I was sitting in my car on the street in L.A. one day, waiting for my husband to come out of work so we could go to lunch together. I was watching a meter maid write a parking ticket.
I don't know why I was so enamored and fascinated by this meter maid as she ambled down the street, typing license plate numbers into her little handheld device and printing out tickets to put on the dash. But for some reason, I was captivated. Maybe it was the idea muse pointing my gaze in the right direction at the right time. But there I was, and there she was. Now, you might be thinking I'm going to tell you I ran home and started writing a book about a meter maid, and I very well could have. I could've written down the idea for an erotic meter maid romance that day, you never know.
That's the magic of The People Zoo, but actually, something very different came out of this visit. It was the meter maid who inspired the idea, but the idea itself was a long shot from a meter maid romance. As I sat there watching her, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be fun to be a meter maid? But only like for a week, just to see what it was like. Then, my brain being the endless black hole of random thoughts that it is, the next thing I started to think about was, what other jobs would I want to do for just a week? Well, I started to list them out in my head.
There was meter maid, and of course, blackjack dealer, maybe flower delivery person. I've always wanted to work a drive-through at a fast food restaurant, huh, I wonder what it would feel like to milk a cow, going on the list. This went on for quite a while, until I finally gave myself a quick reality check. I thought, wait a minute, Jessica, you don't have time to do all of those things, you have books to write. And that's when the light bulb went off. I don't have time to do these things, but what about one of my characters? What if a character had to take on a different job every week? Who's the funniest character to have to do that? The answer was pretty obvious to me, a spoiled heiress who's never worked a day in her life.
To tell you the truth, I wasn't that much fun at lunch that day with my husband, because I was too busy brainstorming this. 52 Reasons To Hate My Father, you might remember, is about a spoiled teen heiress, famous for her party-girl antics and tabloid headlines, is forced by her ever-absent mogul father to take on a different low-wage job every week for a year, if she wants any hope of receiving her trust fund. To this day, this is one of my favorite ideas, and one of my favorite characters to write. Now this book is in development as a movie.
That's a pretty successful trip to The People Zoo, I have to say, and it all started with a single question: Wouldn't it be cool if? A lot of my ideas actually start with this very question. The People Zoo definitely delivered for me that day, which is why I'm a big fan of visiting it often. It may not always give you the kind of idea you expect, but it will almost always give you an idea. Here's the thing about ideas, like I said, they're everywhere, just waiting for us to discover them and snatch them from the air, and wrangle them like the wild tigers that they are onto the page.
That's what's so fun about being a writer. You never know when the idea will strike. You never know what will inspire it, a meter maid writing a parking ticket, a little girl chasing a balloon, a couple having an argument in the supermarket, maybe a man laughing by himself. So in order to increase your chances of finding these ideas, I recommend visiting The People Zoo as often as possible. So without further ado, let's get into our basic definition. It's a simple one, discovering stories while watching people be people. Notice I use the word discovering here, and with great purpose.
I truly believe that brainstorming is a discovery process. It's finding something that's already there. You just need to look at it in a different way. You need to open your mind to the endless possibilities awaiting you in every person, thing, or place that you see. But sometimes opening our minds is easier said than done. Sometimes our minds get blocked and clouded and filtered by our own experiences. Sometimes we need a little help, which is why I've developed our next exercise, to help you get the most out of your visit to The People Zoo. Now, this is an exercise you probably won't be able to do while taking this course, as it requires you to be out and about in the world.
So I recommend watching the rest of this lecture, then, when you're ready, printing out the PDF handout for this next exercise, or taking it with you on your phone or laptop, and venturing outside to do the exercise. Actually, the more you do this exercise, or the more you visit The People Zoo, the more ideas you're going to end up with, so visit all you want. There is no admission fee to The People Zoo. All you need is time, imagination, and something to capture all those ideas with. So here's your guide to The People Zoo. First, find a place full of people.
The more crowded, the better: parks, coffee shops, malls, supermarkets, restaurants, a bus stop, a bench on a busy pedestrian street, the actual zoo. Observe for at least two hours. This is best done if you're not distracted. For example, no phones, no kids, no books, etc. Find at least three people that you deem interesting in some way. For each of these people, brainstorm the following questions. What do they do? If they're an adult, what's their job? If they're a child, what kind of child are they? What is their backstory? Obviously, you have to make this up.
What is the major conflict in their life right now? Again, make it up, use your imagination. Remember to think outside the box. Go big or go home, the more outrageous your responses to these questions, the better. Then, pick your favorite and ask yourself, what would your life be like if you were in their shoes right now? And now finally, see where this takes you. Remember, each person at The People Zoo is only a starting point. Let your creativity run wild, think outrageously. Okay, we've got one more brainstorming method to go.
I hope you've already got tons of ideas in your notebook or computer, but let's see if we can squeeze in a few more. The Mishmash is up next, and it's a crazy one, stay tuned.