Monday, 19 July 2010

Writing Advice

I hate giving advice almost as much as I hate receiving it, but a friend recently asked me if I knew of any techniques to generate "inspiration" when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously, I'd now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone. This is what I said:

(a) don't sit around waiting for inspiration, (b) don't chase it too hard.

Some people seem to think that ideas are hard to come by. The truth is that they can be manufactured fairly easily. Juxtaposition is a reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own, eh? Yes, but a bit overdone. Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I bet that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated, for the simple reason that water is not just a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but something entirely on its own, with its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don't have...

This is one technique I use when I want to come up with an outline from scratch... I take two things that aren't connected and put them together to see what will happen... The less connected those things are, the better the process and result, because then you can have more fun trying to connect them... and more ideas will be generated this way.

For example...

* Heroin addiction and macrame...
* Birdwatching and zombies.
* The fashion world and tropical diseases.
* Astronomy and crossbows.
* The Great Crash of 1929 and pickled gherkins.
* Frogs and tangerines.
* Liver salts and scarves.
* Tinted windows and army trousers.
* Bellybuttons and cacti.
* Castigation and dirigible accidents.
* Zoetropes and cheese.

Almost ANY two unconnected things will work!

Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies, used this technique at the script stage. I'm sure it influenced me as I was a devoted follower of the show when I was a little 'un, but I never guessed that random juxtaposition was the main way the writers (Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor) generated their initial ideas!

I note that Wikipedia has a "Random Article" function (look on the left hand side of any page near the top). This function is perfect for generating two or more things that aren't necessarily connected but which can be forced together in a story. The approach can be formalised. For instance, you might consider choosing a letter from the alphabet, perhaps the first letter of your first name. Then click on "Random Article" until you get three pages beginning with that letter. Maybe you can give yourself three parameters for your story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant.

Here's my own demonstration of this technique... The first letter of my first name is "R". So I'll click on "Random Article" until I get a location beginning with that letter. Let's try it now:

Rangoon (literally: "End of Strife") is a former capital of Burma and the capital of Yangon Division.

Now I need an activity:

Rugby union is a full contact team sport, a form of football which originated in England in the early 19th century.

And now a participant:

In Judaism, a rabbi is a religious teacher.

There's no need to be too strict in the application of those variables. But they do give me the basis for a story -- it will be set in Burma, involve contact sport and feature a religious figure.


  1. it's rather dead. the opposite of inspiration.

  2. No, it's alive. Very much alive!
    Consider John Cage, Raymond Queneau, William Burroughs, Villa Lobos, Georges Perec, etc, etc.
    They all used artificial methods to generate inspiration. Sitting around waiting for inspiration is a Neo-Romantic confidence-trick.
    You have to make inspiration yourself!

  3. Nice one! And I thought I was the only loon who used the Wikipedia random button for generating plot ideas. Apparently it can also be used as a form of bibliomancy.