I dislike giving advice almost as much as I dislike receiving it, but as a friend recently asked me if I knew of any easy techniques to generate ‘inspiration’ when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously and just a little ponderously, I’d now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone, even with you out there. This is what I said:
(a) Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.
(b) Don’t chase it too hard.
Some people appear to assume that ideas are difficult to come by, and if we mean very good ideas, then that’s true. But if we concentrate on workable ideas, the fact is that they can be manufactured easily. Strange useful juxtaposition is one reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own? Yes, but a bit overdone.
Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I am sure that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated. After all, water is a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but not just that. It is also something entirely itself, with all its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don’t have. Indeed it would be virtually impossible to anticipate the properties of water by examining the behaviours of the elements that constitute it, no matter how minutely detailed the analysis.
Water is a new thing. You can’t pre-empt thingness. It can’t be modelled before it exists. Only with hindsight can we have understanding. We may work backwards as a consequence and then model it as the necessary outcome of a combination of the two elements that constitute it, but this doesn’t change the fact that water is not obviously contained in embryonic form in hydrogen and oxygen. The empirical truth came first, the chemical formula followed, and only later did we nod at each other with the false wisdom of experience disguised as physics.
I repeat, there is nothing in the attributes of the atoms of elements to give us specific clues about the attributes of the compounds they would generate when they are clashed together. The same may be true for ideas, if we regard archetypes or clichés as the atoms of story elements and decide to combine them unusually. This method is one I might use when I want to come up with an outline for a story from scratch. I’ll take two things that aren’t connected and put them together to see what will happen. The less naturally connected those things already are, the better the process and the nicer the outcome, because you can have more fun trying to connect them, and more surprising ideas will be generated as a result.
These original ideas will come with very little effort, because they have no other choice. The simple act of colliding and fusing a pair of unrelated items will mean that such ideas naturally come into being, the same way that water comes into being when we bash hydrogen and oxygen atoms into each other. And one way of finding pairs of things that aren’t naturally connected is to flip open a dictionary at random and jab a finger down onto the page. The finger chooses a word, the first word, then repeats the process for the second word, and the two consequent words are the magnetic poles of the story. They run right through it just as the magnetic poles of our planet spear our globe like a blue pumpkin on a skewer.
I tried the method recently and here are my combinations:
- Caffeine addiction and macramé.
- Frogs and tangerines.
- The fashion world and tropical diseases.
- Astronomy and crossbows.
- Economic downturn and pickled gherkins.
- Liver salts and scarves.
- Tinted windows and army trousers.
- Bananas and canoes.
- Howler monkeys and world peace.
- Bellybuttons and cacti.
- Castigation and dirigible accidents.
- Zoetropes and cheese.
Almost any two unconnected things will work. Maybe pairing together ‘modulus’ and ‘reciprocal’ would cause difficulties. ‘Oneness’ and ‘duplicity’ too. ‘Contradiction’ and ‘congruence’. I am sure there are many others, and that you can devise pairs that defy my technique. But generally speaking the method is sound. And perhaps a very clever person could work perfectly well with all combinations, even those that cancel themselves out, especially with those, one suspects. It ought to be remembered that if two words are picked that the picker doesn’t especially like, the random page flipping can be done again. The method is a tool, not an order. ‘Tool’ and ‘order’ are two words that can surely be combined productively.
Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies (1970-1982), used the same technique at the script stage. Perhaps that was where I learned it, for I was a devoted follower of the show when I was very little, but it must have happened by a process of mental osmosis, for I never consciously understood that this was how the writers Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor generated their initial scenarios. In one episode, a satire on apartheid, the piano in the South African embassy had the white notes grouped at one end of the keyboard and all the black notes at the other. I am wandering off the point, of course, but the joke still seems especially poignant in its absurdity. Back to the day’s business!
There is absolutely no need to stop with only two unusually juxtaposed elements. More may be used according to taste. For example, three parameters may be selected for the structure of the story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant. I open an atlas at random for the location, which turns out to be Rangoon. Now I need an activity. I turn on the radio, which is broadcasting a cricket match. Very well. Now a participant must be found. I look out the window and see a rabbi walking past. So the story must be set in Burma and involve a religious scholar who is a wicket keeper. The basics of the work are already in existence. But what happens next? Another application of the method will bring forth something for this fellow to do. He won’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Nor will he chase it too hard.
A lot of hydrogen and oxygen has combined in his vicinity. Rangoon is flooded. A canoe is provided for him and a bunch of bananas for sustenance. He paddles down the watery streets seeking his only friend, a tailor who has succumbed to malaria. The search is fruitless, so he moors his canoe next to a stall in the market and buys some tangerines while frogs hop all about him. Yes, he has already eaten the bananas. The day is over, night comes and the stars twinkle above him. He is surprised to observe a constellation previously unknown to him.
The twang of a discharged crossbow alarms him. A soldier on a roof is aiming at the new pattern of stars in the shape of a howler monkey. How might world peace be achieved with people like this about? Suddenly the stars vanish. Has the soldier killed them? No, it is merely an unlit dirigible looming from out of the sky. Let’s shout at it for doing so! There is no need for me to continue. The point has been made. The man in the tale has a fictional fate mapped out. This doesn’t mean that his adventures will be any good. That isn’t up to me, but you.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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