Ideas do not appear from nowhere. The reason ‘write what you know’ is prevalent as advice is that it makes sense: we mine the resources of our lives and history within our own work. Characters are reflections of ourselves or our impressions of those around us, settings are based on places we have visited or seen, plots follow sequences we have experienced or been told; we write what we know. Yet, we only being this mental mining process when we need to; it is a survival instinct, not a conscious choice. To be able to mine our minds we need to be in a position where we cannot solve a problem otherwise.
Ideas often originate from dialogues in which an individual hears about a challenge and recognizes a new path for solving it. It is therefore crucial to create a space in which challenges are discussed openly and without fear, stimulating new solutions.Abraham Loeb, Where Do Ideas Come From
In practical terms, this means we—as writers—need a challenge; we require problems to solve. This first lesson will address how to create inspiration by forcing your mind to address a problem.
Make a Leap
At some point in your life, it is highly likely you have played a word association game. Often, one person says a simple word, and the next person says a word they associated with it, and then the next person says a word associated with that word, and so on until someone pauses for too long. The idea is based on the ability of the subconscious brain to connect items and experiences together. The words selected are often obvious, though also entirely dependent on the player’s person interests, sphere of knowledge, and biases. For example, a game could progress like this:
Here each connection is understandable, though you may not have picked those words if you were playing. Despite the subjective nature of the game, in five steps we have gone from ‘dog’ to ‘fire’ following a lateral order; that is its strength.
Using a similar principle, our brains can make connections and progress from one topic to another, to another, until eventually reaching somewhere that seems off-the-map, yet when the sequence is backtracked it becomes obvious. Have you ever stopped a conversation midway-through and asked, “How did we get to talking about this?”
By applying this leapfrog association to creative endeavours, we can capitalise on our existing knowledge and memories to reach a place that feels new, and then use that as a starting point for a fictional story.
As an example, I would like you to write out the word ‘Outsider’ on a piece of paper. Then play the word association game with yourself. Write the word you first associate with ‘Outsider’ and then beneath that write the word you first associate with that word, and so on. What is the tenth word you have written down? Circle it.
For another example, I would like you to think about a toy you remember from your childhood. Don’t think about a photograph of yourself that you’ve seen, but remember an actual moment from your childhood where you had a toy. Once you have it, I would like you to surround yourself with that memory. Imagine the toy is before you now. What colour is it? How heavy is it? What is the texture of it like? Where were you in this moment? What could you also see? What could you hear? What could you smell? How did you feel? Let the memory become potent, and then pick out a detail around you that is not the toy. Focus on how you were feeling, and then try to bring back another memory of a time you felt like that. Do the same thing, but consider the insignificant details. What was the floor like? What temperature was the air? How were you dressed? Who else was there? What did you feel about them? Why? Bring up another memory where that emotion is echoed, and this time look around you. Where are you this time? What can you hear? What can you smell? How do you feel now? Pick out an insignificant detail from around you and write it down. Think about it, put all your attention into it, until the scene has gone and only that detail remains. Let your mind fill in the gaps around you, then step back and look at where you are now. If it is somewhere you would like to explore, write some notes about it.
Now consider how the insignificant detail you just imagined in the memory exercise relates to the tenth word you associated from ‘Outsider.’ Is there a connection? Could you make one? Allow your mind to try to solve the problem of linking those two things. Perhaps the place you came up with at the end of the memory exercise could be key to connecting the detail and the word.
For a final example, think about a dream you had that you can remember. Focus on it so it becomes vivid. Step into the dream, figuratively, and imagine you are there. Allow yourself to daydream. Get a feel for the place. How do you feel? Now, with that emotional state, consider the detail and the word you already have written down. Do you see them differently?
Whatever is in your mind’s eye now is nowhere near where you were at the beginning of this lesson, but that is the point. Your brain can make these leaps, and you need to not only let it, but encourage it to. Practice switching off your thoughts and quieting your mind, so you have a kind of empty bubble in there. Then, inject a few things into that bubble and watch them stir. The result will always be different to what went in, and the more relaxed your mind, the further it will travel.
Visualise a Moment
Fiction begins with a concept, and two essential parts of that concept are a character and a setting. Using association, follow the threads you have already developed: the word, the detail, and the dream, until you arrive at a new moment in time. You need a character there, in a place. Imagine it as a still image of a film reel when you press the pause button. That is what you need to be looking at. A character in a place.
If you are looking at a memory, then this will not work. Keep associating by leaping from one word or feeling to another. Let your thoughts drift some more. When you have a moment that you have held on pause before your mind’s eye, write it down.
That moment is a point within your next story. It does not need to be the beginning, nor the end, but it will be in there somewhere. What you have created is a problem. The challenge for your brain is to now solve that problem.
Ask yourself these three questions:
- Who is that character?
- Where are they?
- Why are they in that place?
Your mind will start to fill in the blanks around them and you might get a little movement in your imagined film reel. Perhaps it is only a gesture, or a suggestion of action, but it should be enough to make that moment more than just a still image. Write down the answers that you come up with.
Cause an Effect
A story is made up of characters in a setting who make decisions. Whilst in the real world, decisions are made all the time, and often life continues as normal, in a fictional world that is not the case. There are two key rules to all fictional settings:
- Every decision has a consequence.
- There are no coincidences.
Actions need repercussions in the same way that characters need settings to exist in. Without one, the other is pointless. The driving aspect of all fiction is tension, and tension is brought about by consequence. A convict upon release is brought into a bank and their companion pulls out a gun. If the convict joins in the robbery and takes the money, they’ll be hunted down by the authorities. If they leave the money, they’ll appear weak and could be killed by their companion. If they do nothing, the police will arrive and the robbery will turn into a hostage negotiation. If they kill their companion they’ll be the sole guilty party and, as a convicted criminal, will be charged with murder. There is no decision without consequence.
If the convict’s parole officer just happened to be in the bank, without reason, then the reader would reject the scene and their suspension of disbelief would be lost. Although in reality coincidences are rife, in fiction the mind will not believe it. The convict could be an alien from another planet and that would be plausible, but a coincidence would not be. The convict’s parole officer needs their own story and trajectory, showing they made a choice which brought them to the same bank at the same time, and even then there needs to be a good reason for the timing.
Your moment in time that you imagined, with a character in a setting, now needs a decision included. You know who the character is, where they are, and why they are in that place, so ask yourself three more questions:
- What are they doing?
- What do they want?
- What is preventing them from getting what they want?
You now have a starting point for a story.
Having forced your mind to address a problem, you should have found yourself with the outline of a story. You have a character in a setting, and you have given them a motivation. Finally, you need to bring them to a decision and then let the consequence of that decision play out, without coincidence.
Your assignment for this lesson is to write the story you have already mentally begun. Give yourself a limit of 1,000 words for the story itself. You do not need to explain the backstory, nor do you need to continue beyond the scope of the consequence of the decision. Instead, explore around the moment in time and write a vignette-style story covering the time before, during, or after the moment you have imagined.
Emily Temple, Should You Write What You Know? 31 Authors Weigh In, Lithub, 7 February 2018
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