Ever find yourself in a creative log jam? Try the following technique excerpted from my StoryWeaver story development software to help regain your inspiration:
Inspiration can come from many sources: a conversation overheard at a coffee shop, a newspaper article, or a personal experience to name a few. And, inspiration can also take many forms: a snippet of dialogue, a bit of action, a clever concept, and so on. One thing most inspiration has in common is that it is not a story, just the beginnings of a story. To develop a complete story, you’ll need a cast of characters, a detailed plot, a thematic argument, and the trappings of genre.
But how do you come up with the extra pieces you need?
In the questions that follow StoryWeaver will help inspire you, even if you can’t come up with an idea to save your life! If you don’t yet know what your story is going to be about, StoryWeaver will help you find out. And if you do have something already worked out, these questions will help you fill in the details.
2. What do you have to start with?
If you already have an idea of what your story is about, describe it briefly in your word processor. Don’t go into great detail at this time, just the key concepts, people, and events. If you don’t yet have a story idea, advance to the next question and StoryWeaver will help you come up with one.
If you are stuck for ideas, it’s probably because you are trying to force yourself to be creative – a situation often referred to as “Writer’s Block.” Fortunately, there is a trick you can use to break through Writer’s Block and get your creativity flowing again! First, write down three nonsense words. Don’t stop to think it over, just jot down the first words that come to mind, as in a word-association test.
Now, imagine that all of your nonsense words are part of the same phrase. How many different stories can you think of that incorporate that phrase? Briefly describe each story idea.
We all try to find meaning in what we see. That is why we identify pictures in inkblots, see faces in wood grain, and animal shapes in clouds. So even when no meaning is intended, our minds can’t help but impose it. By picking words at random, stringing them together and then looking for meaning, we move our minds out of creative block and into analysis mode. In other words, we temporarily shift from creation to interpretation. In so doing, our subconscious automatically creates alternative meanings that fit what we see. Use the Reference button to look at the meanings you just described and what you originally said your story was about (if you answered that question).
5. Combining Meanings
Now, try to incorporate into a single story idea as much as you find interesting from all the different story ideas and your original idea combined.
Of course, some of the meanings you came up with may be completely ridiculous and not useful at all. And, there may be no way to work them all in, yet several ways to include some of your inspirations. If you have several ways to combine these various ideas, list them all. But if you can’t think of any way to bring these ideas together, don’t worry!
The purpose of this exercise is break free of Writer’s Block, and the very process of shifting out of forced creative mode and into analysis mode usually does the trick. So, even if none of the nonsense interpretations are usable in and of themselves, when you return to your original ideas, you’ll probably find whole new inspirations easily come to mind. Whenever you find yourself stuck, return to this method and (more times than not) the ideas will flow again.
You sit in your favorite writing chair, by the window, on the porch, or in the study. You wear your favorite tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches, or your blue jeans, or your “creative shoes.” You look around at the carefully crafted environment you spent months arranging to trigger your inspiration. Reaching eagerly forward you place your hands on the keyboard or grasp the pen or pencil, and… Nothing happens.
You look around the room again, out the window, sip your coffee, cross or uncross your legs, finger your lucky charm, reach forward and… Still nothing
What in blazes is wrong? You know you are full of inspiration; you can feel it! Why the ideas were flowing like a deluge just this morning, last night, or yesterday. Frustrated, yet determined, you try several more times to get the words to flow, but to no avail. “Good pen name, ” you think,” Noah Vale.”
So what’s the problem? How can you feel all primed to write, sit in your favorite environment with everything just perfect and still nothing comes?
Perhaps the problem is not where you are trying to write, but when!
Each of us has a creative time of day and a logistic time of day. Never heard of this? I didn’t discover it until quite recently myself. As a writer, I always thought creativity came and went with the Muse, sometimes bringing inspiration, sometimes spiriting it away. Like most writers, I had found that creating a quiet refuge, a creative sanctuary, increased the frequency and intensity of visits from the Muse. What I didn’t know was that the Muse keeps a schedule: she comes and goes like clockwork.
Here’s my scenario and see how it might apply to you… I’ve always felt guilty when I write – guilty that I’m not out cleaning something, building something, visiting someone, or even just getting out in the real world and living a little. But writing always draws me back. I find it therapeutic, cathartic, invigorating, stimulating, and, well, just plain fun. Sometimes… no, make that ALL the time, it’s as good as… no, make that BETTER THAN sex! And food! And earning a living! I often feel (when writing) like that rat with the wire connected to his pleasure center who kept pushing the stimulation button until it starved to death because it forgot to eat!
Well, the urge to write is there all the time. But, because I feel guilty I try to get all of my chores done I the morning, clearing the way to spend the afternoon or evening writing guilt free. But then I sit there watching the sun go down, full of the desire to write but completely unable to do so.
Recently, however, I had the good fortune of actually finishing all my chores the night before. I found myself with the whole morning free and guilt-free as well! At first, I was just going to goof off, do some reading, watch some TV, but then that old Writing Bug took a nip of my soul and off I was to my study to pound the keys. And you know what? The words just spilled out like secrets from the town gossip! This was wonderful! What an experience! I was pelting out the thoughts without the least guilt and without the slightest hesitation. I was flying through my own mind and playing it out on the keys! It felt very much like when I play music.
But why was this happening? I was truly afraid the feeling would go as quickly as it came and I would be lost in the creative doldrums again. In fact, it did fade with time – not abruptly, but gradually… slipping away until it was no more. But it did not leave a vacuum. In its place was a rising motivation to clean something, build something, visit someone, or get out in the real world and live!
Then, it hit me… Perhaps my creativity does not spring from where I write, but when! Perhaps the morning is my creative time and the afternoon, my practical time! I experimented. Try to write in the afternoon, the evening, at night, the morning. Quickly I discovered that if I felt free from the guilt of non-practical activity, I could write in the morning as if I were designed to do nothing else! But no matter how many chores I might accomplish in the morning, by the time the sun dropped below the horizon, my inspiration dropped away as well.
In fact, my creative time seems tied to the sun. For me, it brightens in the morning, peaks around noon, and fades away to nothing at dusk. Interestingly, I recently moved to the mountains and dusk comes early here in the canyon this time of year – far earlier than when I lived down in the flat lands of the city.
Looking back over the years, I could see that my daily creative cycle depended upon the direct rays of the sun, not the time of day. And all those years I tried to get the practical stuff done in the morning to avoid guilt didn’t help my creativity but hindered it!
Lately, I just know that when the sun goes down it’s time to get practical. As a result, I know in the morning that I’ll accomplish real world logistic things later in the day. That eliminates guilt because the work part is already scheduled. And, that frees my mind to play with words all morning long.
When is your creative time? Just being a “morning person” or a “night person” isn’t enough because that only determines when you have your most energy. But what KIND of energy? Perhaps you are more energetic when you are working on the practical, so you think that just because you get your greatest energy at night you are a night person. This is not necessarily so! Suppose your creative side is NEVER the most energetic part of you, but is strongest in the morning. Then you are a Practical night person and a Creative morning person.
Your Creative Time might be any span of hours in the day. Or, it might even be more than one time. For example, you might be most inspired from mid-morning until noon and again from mid-afternoon to dusk. Everyone is a bit different. The key is to find your Creative Time and then adjust your daily schedule to fit it. It is important to remember to avoid guilt feelings while trying to determine your Creative Time. To do this, don’t just focus on when you are going to try writing, but make sure to also schedule other time to concentrate on chores. This way your “reading” of the level of your creativity will not be tainted by negative feelings of guilt, and you should arrive at more accurate appraisals.
After a week or so of trying different combinations, you should be able to determine the best creative and most practical times of the day. From that point forward, you will almost certainly find inspiration is present more than it is absent, and writing becomes far more joyful a process and less like work.
But there is a little bit more… Our lives are not just creative or practical. In fact, there are four principal emotionally driven aspects to our days: Creative, Practical, Reflective, and Social.
We need our Reflective time to be alone, to mull the events of our life over our minds eye, to let our thoughts wander where they will: to daydream. We need our Social time to recharge our batteries in the company of others, to express ourselves to our friends, to de-focus from our own subjective view by standing in the shoes of those around us.
I’ve found for myself that Saturday is a Social day for me, and that Sunday a Reflective day. I don’t do much of either on the weekdays at all. Whether this is nurture, nature, or something else altogether I can’t say, and to be truthful, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I have come to recognize it.
When is your Reflective time? Do you have some every day, just on weekdays, only on weekends, or some combination of these? How about your Social time? Do you ever feel guilty wanting to be alone? Do you ever feel deprived because you ARE alone? Part of these feelings may come from trying to do each of these activities in times that (for your) are actually geared toward the other.
Once you have mapped our your Creative, Practical, Reflective, and Social cycles, you’ll find that you get so much more accomplished, and with so much more fulfillment. All four aspects of your life will improve, and the improvement in each will remove emotional burdens and therefore increase the energy in each of the other three!
In short, you can be in phase with your emotional cycles, or out of phase. The more you schedule your activities to match the flow of your feelings, the more your life experience will buoy itself higher and higher with less and less effort. And best of all, the more inspiration you will find when you sit in your tweed jacket and reach for the keyboard.
The concept behind this method of finding inspiration is quite simple, really: It is easier to come up with many ideas than it is to come up with one idea.
Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but consider this… When you are working on a particular story and you run into a specific structural problem, you are looking for a creative inspiration in a very narrow area. But creativity isn’t something you can control like a power tool or channel onto a task. Rather, it is random, and applies itself to whatever it wants.
Yet creative inspiration is always running at full tilt within us, coming up with new ideas, thinking new thoughts – just not the thoughts we are looking for. So if we sit and wait for the Muse to shine its light on the exact structural problem we’re stuck on, it might be days before lightning strikes that very spot.
Fortunately, we can trick Creativity into working on our problem by making it think it is being random. As an example, consider this log line for a story: A Marshall in an Old West border town struggles with a cutthroat gang that is bleeding the town dry.
Step One: Asking Questions
Now if you had the assignment to sit down and turn this into a full-blown, interesting, one-of-a-kind story, you might be a bit stuck for what to do next. So, try this. First ask some questions:
1. How old is the Marshall?
2. How much experience does he have?
3. Is he a good shot?
4. How many men has he killed (if any)
5. How many people are in the gang?
6. Does it have a single leader?
7. Is the gang tight-knit?
8. What are they taking from the town?
9. How long have they been doing this?
You could probably go on and on and easily come up with a hundred questions based on that single log line. It might not seem at first that this will help you expand your story, but look at what’s really happened. You have tricked your Muse into coming up with a detailed list of what needs to be developed! And it didn’t even hurt. In fact, it was actually fun.
Step Two: Answering Questions
But that’s just the first step. Next, take each of these questions and come up with as many different answers as you can think of. Let your Muse run wild through your mind. You’ll probably find you get some ordinary answers and some really outlandish ones, but you’ll absolutely get a load of them!
a) How old is the Marshall?
Some of these potential ages are ridiculous – or are they? Every ordinary story based on such a log line would have the Marshall be 28 or 35. Just another dull story, grinding through the mill.
Step One Revisited
But what if your Marshall was 86 or 7 years old? Let’s switch back to Step One and ask some questions about his age.
1. How would an 86 year old become a Marshall?
2. Can he still see okay?
3. What physical maladies plague him?
4. Is he married?
5. What kind of gun does he use?
6. Does he have the respect of the town?
And on and on…
Return to Step Two
As you might expect, now we switch back to Step Two again and answer each question as many different ways as you can.
5. What kind of gun does he use?
a) He uses an ancient musket, can barely lift it, but is a crack shot and miraculously hits whatever he aims at.
b) He uses an ancient musket and can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But somehow, his oddball shots ricochet off so many things, he gets the job done anyway, just not as he planned.
c) He uses a Gattling gun attached to his walker.
d) He doesn’t use a gun at all. In 63 years with the Texas Rangers, he never needed one and doesn’t need one now.
e) He uses a sawed off shotgun, but needs his deputy to pull the trigger for him as he aims.
f) He uses a whip.
g) He uses a knife, but can’t throw it past 5 feet anymore.
And on and on again…
Methinks you begin to get the idea. First you ask questions, which trick the Muse into finding fault with your work – an easy thing to do that your Creative Spirit already does on its own – often to your dismay.
Next, you turn the Muse loose to come up with as many answers for each question as you possibly can.
Then, you switch back to question mode and ask as many as you can about each of your answers.
And then you come up with as many answers as possible for those questions.
You can carry this process out for as many generations as you like, but the bulk of story material you develop will grow so quickly, you’ll likely not want to go much further than we went in our example.
Imagine, if you just asked 10 questions about the original log line and responded to each of them with 10 potential answers, you’d have 100 story points to consider.
Then, if you went as far as we just did for each one, you’d ask 10 questions of each answer and end up with 1,000 potential story points. And the final step of 10 answers for each of these would yield 10,000 story points!
Now in the real world, you probably won’t bother answering each question – just those that intrigue you. And, you won’t trouble yourself to ask questions about every answer – just the ones that suggest they have more development to offer and seem to lead in a direction you might like to go with your story.
The key point is that rather than staring at a blank page trying to find that one structural solution that will fill a gap or connect two points, use the Creativity Two-Step to trick your Muse into spewing out the wealth of ideas it naturally wants to provide.