Creating Ideas From Nothing
“There’s no one way to be creative.
Any old way will work.” — Ray Bradbury
Trying to find an idea for a short story, or a novel, can be difficult. Each writer captures and cultivates ideas in different ways.
Ray Bradbury used to do word associations: he’d pick a word such as ROCK, or BRICK, and then he’d think of the things he feared the most — whether that be ghouls, goblins, or ending up alone — and then he’d fuse the two together, and build a story from there. Maybe this would lead to a goblin having his brains bashed in with a brick, or maybe the story would be about a ghoul who has a rock for a pet. Either way, he’d use a simple word as his start-off point. His book Fahrenheit 451 came from his fear of people burning books, something he saw as akin to murder. Nothing more, just a small flash of an idea which he then fleshed out.
You can use the technique separately, too. You can use a single word as your starting point, or you can mine your brain for a deep-rooted fear, and go from there. But using them together, both the word and the fear, gives you a strong foundation for your story. Why don’t you try it out? What scares you? What upsets you? What’s your worse nightmare? If the thought of being trapped in a cell full of spiders sends shivers down your spine, then write it, make it happen. Put your protagonist in that situation and show us how terrified she is, just as you would be, drawing from your own emotions.
Remember: your fears are entertainment to your audience.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso
A few years ago my mum (who had moved to France) sent me a set of keys and asked me to stay at her flat in London for a week and babysit the place. She was in the process of transferring the property back to the council, but first wanted me to make sure it was okay.
But when I stepped in the living room I recoiled. The far side of the room was filled with half-dead wasps — hundreds of them: some were on the windowsill, others on the floor, a couple floated up by the curtain and buzzed angrily against the window, bouncing against the glass. I’ve had a fear of wasps ever since being stung as a child, so to see a colony of them made me want to claw my eyes out. But I couldn’t leave; I’d promised my mum I’d stay. And I didn’t know who to call in order to clean them up. In the end I kept my distance from that room, but every time I went to bed I imagined them crawling down the hall, converging outside the room as an army, then creeping under the door to sting me to death in my bed.
Anyway, to keep my sanity in check, I took that fear and spun a story out of it. By using the truth as my starting point (hundreds of dead and half-dead wasps invading the flat), I was able to write a believable and disgusting horror story about an army of murderous wasps and spiders. It’s one of my best and realest stories yet — and it was triggered by fear.
Incidents happen everyday: someone cuts in front of you in a queue, or steps on your trainers, or doesn’t say thank you when you hold the door open for them. At the time you might feel a flash of rage — I wish I could punch you in the face — but most of us are civilised people so we internalise it and then obsess about it, or let the feeling go.
Either way, that’s your fuel.
You need to take that pain, or hurt, or anger, and spin a web. Rewrite that same incident with a new ending. Just because you won’t hit that person, that doesn’t mean your character won’t. He’s a hyper version of you anyway; he’s stronger, bolder, he’ll say the shit you want to but won’t. Next time something happens that bugs you, write the event out from the perspective of someone else and change the outcome. Write what you’d like to happen. Not only will it feel empowering and cathartic, but you might end up with a good story too.
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events.
Small minds discuss people.” ― Henry Thomas Buckle
Back in my early days of writing, I had an idea that was similar to Ray Bradbury’s technique of taking a random word and turning it into a story. This was before I’d even heard of him. I wanted to write a short story collection but didn’t think I had enough ideas in the tank. Then one day I discovered a non-fiction book titled Clichés, which was a comprehensive guide to every cliché known to man (or at least known to the writer). I began to flick through the pages: He’s not my cup of tea, any port in a storm, two heads are better than one, reading through the explanations and origins, fascinated by the information. Some of them were older and more obscure, but they’d all been marked off as clichés, and this helped me on two levels: one was to know what not to put in a story — the other was that I now had inspiration for a short-story book.
I called the collection Twisted Clichés. The idea behind it was to take a common saying, such as Have your cake and eat it too and create a story from it. With some of the titles, I’d twist them to make it sound cuter. For example Have your cake and eat it too would become Have your cake and beat up Stu or something dumb like that. I wouldn’t even know the story at that point: I’d simply twist the cliché around, then write the story from the title.
For others I left the original title but twisted the story instead. In others still, my story veered so far from the initial idea or cliché, that I had to change the title altogether. The cliché would be something like Actions speak louder than words, and then after a paragraph or so, I’d be writing something that didn’t link in with that idea at all. Sometimes having that first line, or that title, was merely a jump off point to get my imagination cooking; a way to fight past the excuses and lies my mind threw up. I could no longer say I didn’t know what to write about. I had a subject and a title. That’s how powerful it is to have a starting point for your stories.
For instance, you take something simple like Two Heads Are Better Than One, and you brainstorm. That could bring up multiple options. Somebody with two heads perhaps? One head is smart, the other is dumb, and the two heads constantly argue? A two-headed monster maybe? A man who likes to collect heads? A two-headed coin that somebody uses to rip off the mafia in a gambling game? The options are endless, and once you’ve picked one to focus on, you’re good to go. You’ve jumped through that initial painful I-don’t-know-what-to-write hurdle. You can no longer lie to yourself. Pick a title and fight with the consequences.
You don’t have to limit yourself either: you can choose anything as your starting word or phrase. It can be a metaphor, a line from a movie, a famous quote, an existing title, the name of a movie, the name of your first pet — whatever you want: just pick something and run with it, see how far it’ll take you. In some cases you’ll only get a few paragraphs in and realise there’s nothing in the idea. But other times the words will flow quicker than you can type them. Writing crap is just as important as writing great stuff — it teaches you what doesn’t work and why. And because building a story out of thin air on the basis of a word is bound to throw up a few disasters, you’re helping yourself learn and grow as a writer.
Try it out. Even if you’re skeptical, just do it once.
What do you have to lose? A bad story is still better than writing nothing.
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” ― Albert Einstein
This technique might not work as well for novels as it does for short stories, and yet in the long run it helps both: not only can you adapt it to suit your needs, but by writing loads of short stories and experimenting with style and plotting, you’ll grow so quickly as a writer that you can filter all of these lessons into your novel and scene-building. The more stories you write, the more you’re able to get the blood flowing and practice different styles and experiment scenes from multiple angles, without losing much. If you spend a day writing a scene from a frog’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if it’s terrible or nonsensical — you’ve learned a new lesson. You haven’t wasted a day, you’ve spent a day learning. But you don’t have that luxury with a novel. The time it takes to write 400 pages kind of kills the propensity for experimentation; most people don’t have the patience to experiment on a six-month project just for it to be thrown away, or deleted from your laptop. But shorts are different.
Force yourself to write something from nothing.
As a writer you should always be growing and learning, otherwise you’re stagnating and repeating patterns from previous work. If you don’t challenge yourself; if you don’t put yourself in a position to create from an unknown viewpoint, you will always be the same writer. You might as well be a monkey at a typewriter, churning out the same shit over and over, until your audience disconnects from you. At some point, loyal or not, they’ll stop halfway through your book and think: I know how this ends. Same as it always does, and they’ll move on to another writer, someone willing to take risks. You need to surprise your fans as well as yourself, and free-association creation is a way to break into different parts of your mind.
If you can’t write love stories, try to write a list of ten romance words and create a story from them. If you’re bad at horror, do a list of horrible words instead.
The more you do this, and the more you challenge your comfort zone, the more you’ll grow. And even if you throw all those stories away, their lessons will be valuable to you.
It’ll show in your other work and you’ll improve as a writer.
So pick a word and just write whatever comes to mind.
In fact, I’ll pick a word for you: rabbits.
And from that, I’ll give you a title: The Rabbit with the Fur Coat.
“Creativity takes courage. ” ― Henri Matisse
Now go and write and don’t return until you’ve finished your story.
It might turn out to be a classic. You’ll never know until you write it.
Post it in the comments if you want, or post a link to the story on your website. Or email it to me. I’m curious to see what you ended up with.
I’ll be waiting.
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