Beating Writer’s Block, Part 2: Generating Ideas

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about strategies for overcoming writer’s block. The post was written with the assumption that the writer has already conceived of an idea for a story, but is experiencing some sort of creative impedimenta that prevents them from engaging with that idea. This is the type of writer’s block that afflicts me – I’ll often have a great idea, but can’t find the right beginning. Sometimes a single paragraph will take days to get right, but I can write the rest of the chapter in one sitting. Such is the nature of creativity – it is an inconsistent and capricious companion. But now I’d like to focus on another type of writer’s block, one which prevents the writer from having ideas in the first place, and suggest strategies that may encourage the sparking of ideas.

Ideas come from the strangest and most unexpected places. Sometimes a single word or image will trigger an avalanche of thoughts. Other ideas simmer in the subconscious for a long time before they make themselves known. One of the most frustrating experiences as a writer is when you’re looking for an idea, but inspiration has run dry.

The solution to writer’s block is often changing the way you approach the problem. The strategies listed below should allow you to approach the process from a different angle, hopefully igniting that creative spark…

“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” - Kurt Vonnegut
“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”
– Kurt Vonnegut

1. Word association games

Word association games are a quick way of expanding upon a concept and discovering related ideas.

Choose a word or phrase that you might be interested in exploring in your writing, then list as many words as possible that come to mind as you think of that word. In the example below, I begin with climate change and brainstorm about what other words come to mind:

Climate change, global warming, ocean levels, coral bleaching, pollution, apocalypse, disaster, climate refugees, superstorm, Gaia, renewable energy…

The aim of the activity is to build a map of concepts surrounding that initial word or phrase. If one of the concepts grabs your attention, begin the activity again using that word as your starting point. The further you get from the original word, the more potential connections exist between ideas. This may seem like a basic activity, but it’s surprisingly effective at identifying potential areas of interest.

A lesser known type of word association game ignores the meaning of the word and focuses solely with the sound that it makes as it forms in the mouth. In the following example, I start with the word black and begin listing others that are inspired by its sound:

Black, lack, sack, slack, back, lark, blunt, blue, badge, bludge…

You’ll notice that I’m not just choosing words which rhyme with blue, but exploring the full palette of its sound. This exercise encourages you to create connections between words that may not otherwise exist.

2. Creative Writing Prompts

There’s an important distinction between a creative writing prompt (which will give you a fragment of an idea that you can expand into a story) and a plot generator (which will give you the outline of a complete story, including climax and resolution). There are plenty of sites on the internet which generate random plots based on minimal input. Occasionally these produce good results, but most are limited by awful algorithms that create nonsensical absurdities. Engaging with creative writing prompts can be much more useful; it provides a starting point that usually encourages you to imagine what would happen next. There’s a particularly good one over at Bookfox.

However, the old-fashioned way is still just as fun…

Cut up some little squares of paper and, on each one, write a word or short phrase that might feature in a story. Don’t hesitate to draw on generic tropes. For example, I’m interested in science fiction, so I might choose words such as: space, rocket, alien, robot, time machine, planet, supernova, wormhole, apocalypse, etc. But it’s also fun to include tropes of other genres (such as crime fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc.) just to make it interesting. This step is best done with some friends, to ensure some variety in the ideas.

Put the squares of paper into a hat or a bag and shuffle them around. Draw out three pieces at random and, without hesitating, think of a scenario that could somehow connect all three words. This can be quite a fun game to play with friends – it forces you to think quickly, forging connections between otherwise random ideas. Some scenarios are bound to be utterly terrible, but keep going until you find a good one.

My writing group did this exercise a few months ago and we produced some great pieces. It encouraged us to explore topics that were outside our usual interests.

Creative writing prompts from my writing group earlier in the year.
Creative writing prompts from my writing group earlier in the year.

3. Forget About Genre

When utilised correctly, genre can enhance a story by providing a framework to engage with ideas. It invites the author to employ a number of generic conventions that assist in this engagement, as well as opening a dialogue with other texts in that genre. But genres can sometimes be restrictive; writers feel pressured to engage with popular tropes or match the tone of other authors.

If you peel away the framework of genre, stories can be reduced to their most basic components. Frankenstein is the story of a father abandoning a child. The War of the Worlds is a critique of colonialism. The Shining is about child abuse and the cycle of violence. Although these are simplistic interpretations, it does demonstrate that the core idea is still engaging even without the generic framework.

Writers can often struggle for ideas when they choose their genre before choosing their plot – they focus too much on which tropes to include or how to construct their fictional world. They may feel weighed down by the genre’s extensive back catalogue of titles. But these are concerns that can come later, once the idea has been formed.

Rather than choosing your genre before you choose the story, try it the other way around. Define an idea in its most basic terms. This is a story of revenge. This is a story about forbidden love. This is a story about a quest to destroy evil. The framework in which you’ll explore that idea – the genre – can come later. Focus on what type of story you want, before working out how you’ll tell that story.

4. Start with Characters, Rather than Plot

Let’s take the last point one step further. Many writers find a plot first, then create characters who fit within that plot. But why not do it the other way round?

Stories with interesting characters are far more engaging than stories where characters exist solely to advance the plot. Readers connect with real human motivations and human emotions.

When you’re struggling for ideas, try focusing on creating characters instead. Imagine the young girl who has just lost her parents. The old man who reveals a terrible secret on his deathbed. The mother who must flee a war zone. The boy who has discovered he is a wizard… Strong characters will generate their own plots.

5. Stimulate Your Mind

A creative impediment may indicate that your mind is not getting enough stimulation. Writing can often be a lonely, introverted process – writers search inside themselves for ideas, but this is a wellspring that can often run dry. Creativity can be stimulated by active engagement with the rest of the world.

There’s no one place or one activity that is guaranteed to stimulate your creativity. It is different for each person, and often dependent on our mood and our receptivity to inspiration. Go outside! Go to new places, try new experiences. Visit a museum. Visit an art gallery. Talk to new people.

You don’t even have to leave your house to engage with ideas. Read a book, do some research on the internet. Watch a documentary or a film. As long as you are engaging your brain, filling it with new information or experiences, your subconscious will make the connections that will spark ideas.

6. Find a Creative Space

Although ideas can be triggered in the most chaotic of environments, writers often need a calm space where those ideas can evolve into stories. Finding a space where you feel comfortable writing is important. It doesn’t matter if that space isn’t in your own home: many writers work best in a public library or sitting on the beach with the water lapping at their feet. The key is to find an environment that is conducive to your unique mode of working.

In my house, I am incredibly fortunate to have both a reading room and a study. My reading room has a comfortable chaise lounge that is surrounded by bookcases. It’s the perfect place for reading on cold winter nights. My study is where I go to write. There’s plenty of desk space to spread my notes. The computer is disconnected from the internet, to help avoid procrastination. It’s an environment which makes it easy for me to write.

My reading room
My reading room

7. Don’t stress – let your subconscious do the work

Writer’s block can often be the result of a nasty feedback loop. You can’t think of an idea, so you begin to stress about your lack of inspiration. The stress compounds the problem, making it harder and harder to think of an idea. Sometimes, forgetting about a problem is the way to find a solution. Take a break from writing and focus on other things. Keep your mind engaged elsewhere. While your mind is distracted, your subconscious will still work on the problem. And when you come back to it, in a few days or a few weeks, you might see things differently. A colleague once referred to this process as a cognitive shift – it’s a term that’s stuck with me ever since.

And now that I’ve exhausted my strategies for dealing with writer’s block, I’d love to hear from some of my readers – what strategies do you use to overcome writer’s block?

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