March 18, 2013

10 Ways to Come up with Better Ideas

If there's one thing a career in product design prepared me for, it's generating boat loads of ideas. So much so that I love brainstorming, and will often do so even when I'm not asked to--resulting in my friends saying, Jeez, Mel, will you just let me tell you about getting my finger stuck in the so-and-so without telling me how to fix it? (My husband would warn you never, ever to go shopping with me either, unless you want to learn more about the plastic junk on Target's shelves than you ever wished to know.)

Brainstorming sheets outside a project room, circa 2005.

But anyway, back to what you do want to learn from me: how to come up with better ideas. As a designer, and now as a writer, I use concrete methods to generate alternatives. Because, honestly, alternatives are what you're really after. Anyone can dump their hero into the ocean and then come up with a solution as to how he's rescued. But is your solution original? Intriguing? Funny? Astounding?

In order to come up with alternative ideas, and find solutions that have the zing of originality, here are ten things you can do to get your brain thinking along a new track:

1. Dictionary Hop: Flip to a random page in the dictionary (or any book), and stab at a word. Use that word to inform your scene. How does the word flutter change your plan for rescuing the hero? What about the word brocolli? This might seem silly, but encouraging your brain to take a lateral leap can get you off the boring linear track of thinking, and lead you to a fresh new idea.

2. Change your Goal: You're focused on rescuing the hero. How about you shift your focus to a different plot point--like introducing a new love interest. How does that change how he gets rescued?

3. Combine Goals: Similarly, you can take your current goal and pair it with an opposing goal: saving the hero + having him get caught by the bad guy = a rescue that turns out to be a worse fate than drowning.

4. Manipulate Your Setting: How does your setting feed into potential rescue scenarios? How is your setting unique--what surprises lie within?

5. Reveal a Secret: What do we NOT know about your character that might change the way he handles his predicament? Is there a secret you've been building towards that can reveal itself, flipping the scenario on it's head so that the situation we thought was a disadvantage is now an advantage?

6. Introduce a Mystery: Can something bizarre happen within your scene? Is there an element that goes against nature or the expected, that introduces a new layer of mystery (or ties into an existing mystery), giving our hero new options?

7. Read Nonfiction: Seriously, the weirdest stuff happens in the real world. Sometimes it's super helpful to step away from your fictional world and flip through a non-fiction book (or watch an hour of NatGeo. Did you know that a blue whale's heart weighs a thousand pounds?).

8. Check your Themes: What are the themes running through your story? Is there a way that your themes inform the solution? Even an abstract theme can feed into the way you address your setting and characters to reach the outcome.

9. Expect the Impossible: Ask yourself what the most impossible solution might be for your problem. Then explore what your world requires to make this a possibility--you might be closer to a solution than you think.

10. Take the Simplest Path: Sometimes, a simple solution is the answer. Note: not a boring solution, but not a ten-stage rescue that takes three chapters to unfold. Is the rescue even the point of your scene? Or is there something else you want the reader to focus on? If so, the rescue itself should be simple and intuitive. Don't resist the practical just because it makes sense. Sometimes, even writers have to make sense.


  1. Great list, Mel. Sometimes the way I come up with a better idea (besides all the ones you mentioned) is to step away from the project and take a few days off. It's usually then that I get that "a-ha!" moment. :-)

  2. As an over-writer, I especially need to embrace #10. Not every door has to be locked, and not every tidbit of information needs to be a drawn-out mystery to uncover. I learned this the hard way! ;)

    1. YES! We all have those lessons, right? I tend to write in skeletal mode and then flesh things out a bit. Somehow, my OCD fears of wasting translate to words on the screen as well.

  3. Very helpful. Thanks for this. I'll be posting the link on my blog.

  4. Those are very good tips. I'll keep them in mind next time I get stuck.

    1. Nice to see you, Annie. I need to go swing by Dutchhill News :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...