Unplugging a blockage in the old grey matter can be desperately hard when you’re writing, particularly if you have a deadline looming and you just can’t find a way to get from one scenario to the next. Meanwhile your characters are sitting there on the page looking at their watches waiting for something exciting to happen so that they can get out of a terrible bind, evade death or simply do something that will tempt your readers to keep reading. But what? What? What!?
Don’t despair. It’s the worst thing you can do, as you’ll just end up treading water; using lots of energy, but going nowhere. Instead try a few simple creativity techniques to get your head in gear and your plot chugging off down the road again.
- Fresh air – The simplest technique is to just leave it for a few minutes. Walk away from the computer, have a cup of tea and get a breath of fresh air. Think about something else. Have a bath. Go to the loo. Pop on a load of washing. But avoid stewing on the problem at hand.
- Lateral thinking – Edward de Bono has written a number of books on solution generating through creative thinking, but the most famous would be lateral thinking. This technique can be learned using de Bono’s books, but in reality you already know what to do. It’s worth doing a few little exercises first to get your mind in gear, as what you’re trying to do is not continue to dig a hole in the same place to solve your problem, but to solve it by digging somewhere new. Here are a couple of links to get into the right frame of mind: Exercise set 1 and Exercise set 2. What you’re trying to do with lateral thinking is solve the problem by looking at it in a more creative light and brushing away the constraints that are blocking your way. Write down the problem. What are you assuming about that problem? What are the obvious solutions? What if you can’t use those solutions? Break the rules. How would someone else solve that problem (e.g. a mechanic, a doctor, a chemist)? If I have already solved the problem how did I get to this point? For example, I couldn’t think of the word ‘ergonomic’ one day. It was driving me mad, but I was determined not to Google it because I knew the solution was in my head. I was getting nowhere trying to force myself to remember so I thought about what it meant (sitting correctly, chair and table at correct height, etc.)… still no luck… I walked away and did something else for a few minutes… still no luck… so I went through the alphabet backwards trying to form the word in my mind using each letter – bingo! That worked.
- 6 thinking hats – This is another de Bono technique and works well if you’re collaborating with other people to create your book. But you can use it by yourself. This technique allows each ‘hat’ to look at the problem from different perspectives: white – focus on facts; red – focus on feelings and reactions; black – focus on what could go wrong; yellow – focus on everything with a positive light; green – focus on creative possibilities; blue – focus on the process to follow. You can work through each hat one at a time or use just a few, but a logical sequence you might like to try is: white – state the facts; green – generate plenty of solutions; yellow – list the good things about the solutions; black – assess the bad; red – assess your feelings and instincts on each solution; then finally use blue to summarise what you intend to do.
- Random word – Pick a word, any word, and use word association to generate ideas that can solve the problem (note, if one word doesn’t work for you try another). For example, I’d like to figure out how to get my character out of a hairy predicament in a fight with the villain. I choose the random word “school”. OK, so some things that happen at school are: learning, discipline, fun, best friends. How could I use this? Well my character could learn something new that helps him to evade capture. Or, he could take a certain amount of a beating before escape. Or he might have a fantastic gadget in his back pocket that blows enormous bubbles that help him get away. Or an old friend who works for the villain, and has suddenly appeared in the background, knocks the villain out allowing them both to escape. The alternative is to use the random word within the solution, e.g. fight the villain in a school and use the play equipment to get away.
- Mindmap – This is a fun and visual technique to generate and connect ideas while you draw. You could start by brainstorming a quantity of ideas first on post-it notes, categorising them and then drawing the mind map. But you can just get started straight away and doodle your way to a solution. Start with the problem in the centre of a clean sheet of paper and draw a picture that represents the issue. Now draw a coloured line off the centre and state one of your key solutions on that line (again it can be shown as a picture). Draw your other key solutions also off the main central picture using different colours. You should only have one idea per line. Now, off your key solutions draw additional lines that connect to the idea itself. They may be sub-plots, new characters, character traits, methods of escape… whatever you want them to be. What you’ll end up with is a picture that visualises your train of thought and each branch of thought, as you think of more ideas. The colours and pictures make it more interesting and easier to follow. You might also think of something for a branch of an idea on one side of the map and then come back to the other. There are no rules – don’t hold back on creativity with self-imposed constraints. Let it grow organically.
- Idea box – This is an extension of the random word technique and can be re-used over and over again. What you do is create a table or grid for generating ideas for a specific problem. So let’s say I want an “ingenious escape” idea box. First I’ll create headings for each column of the grid, so the first might be “weapons”, the next could be “machines”, the next “routes of escape”, the next “location”, etc. Under each of these headings list types of weapons, machines, routes of escape, locations, and so on that are relevant to your story. Then to generate ideas take one item randomly from each column. Let’s say I take ‘knife’, ‘car’, ‘bridge’ and ‘chasm’. I may cut the rope at the end of the bridge as I speed over the dropping bridge in my car, landing safely just in time on the other side… What you’re trying to do is use those interconnected words to establish a credible idea. It may start off a bit rough, but you can then buff the idea to the required shine.
- SCAMPER – This technique relies on the concept that new ideas can be created from what you already know by asking questions about the problem in a way you might not normally do to generate new ideas or solutions. ‘S’ – Substitute – What can I substitute from the problem to create a new solution? ‘C’ – Combine – What can I combine? ‘A’ – Adapt – Could I adapt the solution from another problem to assist with my problem? ‘M’ – Modify/Manipulate/Magnify – What part of the problem could I modify or distort? ‘P’ – Purpose – What part of the problem could I give a different purpose or use differently? ‘E’ – Eliminate – What part of the problem could I eliminate? ‘R’ – Rearrange/Reverse – What part of the problem could I rearrange or reverse? Note, you can also draw your SCAMPER ideas as a Mindmap and then expand upon each branch in the acronym. You can also use the technique to ask questions that help generate ideas about a character, plot, locations, etc.
- Edison – Thomas Edison was a creative marvel. But apart from the fact that he was an extraordinarily focussed individual when it came to establishing new inventions, there are some lessons to take away from how he generated creative ideas. Firstly, he re-used other people’s ideas. Now I don’t mean plagiarism here, rather he expanded on someone else’s idea to make it new and something that worked when it may have failed for others. Secondly, he kept copious notes. Keep a notebook (paper or electronic) nearby and write down your ideas when they come to you. You never know when you might need them. Thirdly, he forced himself to produce an ideas quota. Edison’s was 1 minor invention every 10 days, and 1 major invention every 6 months. What he found was that by having a quota it focussed his mind and trained it to generate new ideas.
- Sleep on it – A well known fantasy writer once told me that the best way she could find for getting out of a bind with her writing was to simply sleep on it. The subconscious is a very powerful thing and its ability to think around a problem without the constraints of your waking mind imposing on it can often lead to a solution you hadn’t previously considered. If you then wake up in the middle of the night with a “eureka” moment, having solved the problem, make sure you write it down in a journal or notepad beside the bed. That will allow you to go back to sleep in comfort and resist the urge to dash for the computer straight away. This was also a technique that Edison used and he purposefully had power naps during the day to give his brain a chance to use the subconscious creatively.
I’ve set up a Pinterest page about this topic so that you can read further about these techniques.