The Cocktail Party of Needs

Jennifer Buentello

I adapted this game from Dr. Philip Zwerling, who had originally adapted it from Dr. Judith Olauson, his acting teacher at the University of California–Santa Barbara. The Cocktail Party of Needs is an interdisciplinary exercise that incorporates principles of acting and theater. It can help students understand abstract concepts such as developing believable conflict or creating subtext within dialogue through an interactive game as opposed to a traditional, handwritten exercise.

In teaching introductory creative writing classes, I have met plenty of students who initially approach writing as a chore because they believe it to be either tedious or formulaic. Many non-English majors who enter creative writing classes expect stories to be rigidly structured in the same way one would expect an academic paper or traditional lab report to be. Those who approach creative writing from this mindset have a tendency to develop work with unbelievable characters, superficial conflicts, and rigid dialogue that contains little to no subtext. Teaching students such abstract concepts can be incredibly difficult, but I have found that adopting certain principles from the performing arts can help students break out of this structured mindset through interactive exercises that foster active learning. Although not every student approaches writing with dread, many can learn to become more comfortable with abstract writing concepts if they are given a hands-on exercise that requires them to act and become their own character in a cocktail party.

The Cocktail Party of Needs familiarizes students with several major concepts, such as character development, conflict, dialogue, and character needs and objectives. It can be used to open discussion about writing techniques and elements found within playwriting, creative nonfiction, or fiction. Although this game can be introduced at any time during the semester, it works especially well once students have already been introduced to major principles of writing. It can also be paired with other lessons regarding subtext in dialogue, developing minor and major conflicts, or character creation and development.

Before the game begins, I often refresh students on the different types of conflicts that can exist within a narrative, whether internal or external. Throughout this game, students will face several types of conflicts based on the objective they draw from a container, and they must convey their desires and needs through creative dialogue and conversation. The Cocktail Party of Needs touches on various principles of writing; however, it primarily teaches students that believable character development stems from how characters are shaped by their objectives, needs, and desires. Because of this, students have to find ways to meet their objectives and resolve their conflicts through nuanced conversation.

The cocktail party begins with a list of objectives, one of which will be randomly assigned to each student. The list of objectives can be modified to include fewer or more items depending on class size. The following list targets a medium class size of around eighteen students:

  • Find out which people in the class are in love.
  • Get as many people as you can to shake your hand.
  • Take as many people’s keys as you can. (You must convince them to hand over their keys.)
  • Get as many people as you can to tell you a joke.
  • Find out who speaks French.
  • Find out who is vegetarian.
  • Find out who dyes their hair.
  • Find out who has a tattoo.
  • Find out who wants to become an engineer.
  • Find out who has been to Washington, D.C.
  • Get each person to say your name.
  • Figure out how many people in the class have a pet cat.
  • Figure out how many people like mint chocolate chip ice cream.
  • Get as many people as you can to give you a penny or a quarter.
  • Find out how many people like to read literature. Find out their favorite authors.
  • Get as many people as you can to smile at you.
  • Find the third-tallest person in class.
  • Find out who the youngest person in class is.

Each objective is designed to provide students with low-level conflicts for which they will have to find creative solutions. Students have to meet their objectives and resolve their conflicts through conversations with their peers as they move around the classroom during the party. This game requires participants to think of creative and nuanced ways in which to meet their goals without directly stating their objectives to others. A student cannot simply approach others and ask, “Who has a tattoo?” and proceed to write down the answer. Students must find creative solutions to these minor conflicts via conversation, and this enables them to start thinking of how to develop dialogue and conflicts within their own writing through interactions with peers. The Cocktail Party of Needs can take fifteen to twenty-five minutes, depending on class size. However, instructors should debrief students at the end of the game, and this might take another fifteen to twenty-five minutes. The entire game and debriefing session can take up to forty-five minutes of class time.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Print the list of objectives and cut out each one. Place the objectives in a container.
  2. Allow each student to draw one objective from the container and read it silently. They cannot share with others.
  3. Explain to students that they must meet their objective and resolve conflicts through conversation. They will need to resolve their conflicts without directly stating their objectives.
  4. Introduce the cocktail party. Describe the setting in any way you would like. Where does the party physically take place? What time and date does this event occur? Setting the scene can help students better immerse themselves in the situation.
  5. Give students a time frame of fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Begin the party and let students navigate the classroom.
  6. Once the activity is complete, ask each student to rearrange their desks or sit in a circle of chairs.
  7. One by one, ask each student to state their objective and elaborate on what conflicts they faced. How did they meet (or did not meet) their objectives? This should take an additional fifteen to twenty-five minutes, depending on class size.

Example of the Exercise

Once the instructor starts the party, students will immediately begin processing their objective. Some of them will jump right into conversation as they move around the room. Others will quietly make their way across the room in search of someone to talk to. Once they become comfortable with their objectives, students find incredibly creative solutions to their conflicts through clever and nuanced conversation.

A year and a half ago, one student developed an interesting persona for the objective “Take as many people’s keys as you can.” This student put on sunglasses, grabbed a bag, and approached his classmates pretending to be a robber. He exclaimed, “This is a robbery! You better hand over your car keys!” Some students agreed and handed over their keys, while others simply laughed in response. Regardless of the reaction, this student did succeed in completing his objective through creative means.

In a different class, a student was assigned the same objective but was able to obtain people’s keys in an even more creative way. Instead of pretending to be a robber, this student utilized the setting to her advantage. She went around the room and asked her peers, “How many of you feel like you can’t drive home tonight because you drank too much?” Some of her peers agreed and stated they needed help going home after the party. Many students happily handed their keys over to her in hopes of getting a ride home.

In another instance, a student was assigned the objective “Get each person to say your name.” The student’s solution was to announce to the whole class that the cocktail party was actually her birthday party. Once she established this, she asked for everyone to sing her the “Happy Birthday” song. This, in turn, required all of her peers to say her name at the same time.


Jennifer Buentello is a writer and doctoral student at Texas Tech University, where she is pursuing a PhD in English and serves as an associate editor of Iron Horse Literary Review. Her stories, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Newfound, Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere.


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