- The Process
“I have to come up with something but I don’t have any ideas!”
If you’ve said these words, this process will help you fix that problem. It’s not perfect. But if you feel blocked, or lost, it will get you started. You can use it for characters, plot lines, fictional worlds, and anything else you can describe.
Why is creativity so hard to get right? Because what you create has to spark strong feelings in your audience. It’s easy to say “this work made me feel this way” after you experience it. It’s harder to go the other direction and make a new thing that sparks the feelings you intend it to.
It’s like cooking stew. You choose ingredients, put the best ones in the pot, stir, and serve. A mixture of experience and experimentation yields the best stew.
- Inventory - come up with your raw creative materials
- Split - divide your inventory into usable pieces, called Bits
- Flip, Drift, and Shuffle - create new Bits from old ones
- Remix - turn your new Bits into a draft
- Inspect - see if your draft is ready to release!
The most important part of the process is not to let yourself stall out. Follow these principles to keep going:
- List your options, and listen to your feelings about each one
- If you can’t choose between alternatives, roll dice or pick at random
- If you get to a point that doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, back up to an earlier step and try something else
- No decision is permanent - if you hate something later on, you can change it!
The video game series “Legacy of Kain” is set in a world called “Nosgoth”. How could we arrive at that? Let’s write our premise: “This is a game about moody vampires”. Through Drift, we can restate that as “this is a game about Gothic Nosferatu”. By Splitting and Shuffling, we can get GOTHic NOSferatu, and eventually “Nosgoth”.
Have you noticed that the setting for the “Dragon Age” video game series is Thedas? THE Dragon Age Setting?
Did you know that “Star Trek Beyond” included a character named Jaylah, because the writers’ room kept referring back to Jennifer Lawrence - J-Law?
Experienced, professional writers use methods like this all the time. It’s okay for you to do the same thing.
The start of the process is coming up with your raw materials or ingredients. The goal is to establish a definite starting point.
Depending on what you’re trying to make, you’ll either write a Pitch, or you’ll make a Menu.
Can you write your starting point in a sentence or two? Would it fit into a tweet (280 characters or less)? Try it. Don’t edit it, unless you see some obvious mistakes.
If you want to emulate some existing story or world, your pitch is a short description of that thing.
- “A game about a post-capitalist society on another planet”
- “A war story about good and evil space knights”
- “A landmark that would appear in a comic-book superhero city”
Don’t try to write your ending pitch! The process you’re going through will help you get there. Only write the parts you’re already sure of.
If you are writing the plot of your story, the Pitch is also called a “logline”. There is an excellent Twitter thread on how to write these: https://twitter.com/juliayorks/status/1371872855173050370?s=20&t=OKx9Bj1sRlZrRDD4JU_9Rw
This page lists 101 loglines from famous films, which can be useful starting points: https://screencraft.org/blog/101-best-movie-loglines-screenwriters-can-learn-from/
You can’t always write a pitch. This usually happens in two cases:
- Your pitch would be very generic (“a teenage superhero character”)
- When you want to take parts from more than one inspiration (“Babylon 5 meets Law & Order”)
A good menu will have between two and five items on it. These are the inspirations or examples that are a vital part of your idea.
You might have more items in mind. Instead of adding them to the main menu, think of them as garnish that you add once your idea has taken shape. For example, you might say “I want Babylon 5 meets Law & Order, but with Star Wars lightsabers”. Star Wars doesn’t go on the menu.
Once you have your Pitch or your Menu ready, you’ll reduce it into smaller pieces, called Bits. You’ll work with these Bits to come up with your final creative product.
How you Split depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to name something or someone, you want to Split on language, such as words, syllables, or letters. If you want to describe something or someone, you want to split by properties or words.
Splitting by language
Look for the interesting nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in your inventory. The result are your Bits. Skip over articles such as “a”, “and”, or “the”, and conjunctions such as “and”, “or”, and “but”.
For example, your Pitch was “A war story about good and evil space knights”. Your Bits are “war”, “good”, “evil”, “space”, and “knights”.
It’s okay to include both a noun or verb by itself, and that word plus any modifiers. For example, you might include “space”, “knights”, and “space knights”.
You can create evocative names by Splitting along syllables and individual letters. Many names are anagrams of something else, for example.
Splitting by properties
You can learn the properties of a thing by answering what it is, and what it can do.
For example, ask yourself the sentences “Superman is…” or “Superman can…”. Some example answers:
- Superman is a superhero
- Superman is an alien
- Superman is a reporter
- Superman can fly
- Superman can stop bullets
- Superman can lift almost anything
Do this until you have listed the important properties of your thing. If you’ve got a menu of items to work from, figure out the properties of each of them. The final list of properties are your Bits.
Flipping is replacing a Bit with its opposite. You can reverse a traditional dynamic or relationship, or examine something familiar via contrast.
What does “opposite” mean? It means a word, letter, term, concept, etc. that’s on the other end of a dimension.
What is a dimension? It’s any property or quality of the thing, ideally something that you can invert or reverse. Examples:
- The properties of a person or thing (“rich vs. poor”)
- Morality, ethics, or other principles (“good vs. evil”)
- Antagonistic groups (“cops vs. robbers”) or natural forces (“matter vs. antimatter”)
- Other members of a class or category (“Earth vs. Pluto”)
- Inversions and antonyms (“clean vs. dirty”)
Remember that very few things exist as simple binaries. Topics like gender and morality are not a single A-or-B proposition. Many things are relative, not absolute. The biggest mouse is smaller than the smallest house. If you want your story to be about a complex topic, consider making it an entire Pitch. But you can sometimes inject complexity into a story by Flipping a key assumption.
Choosing a Dimension
You can choose what to Flip based on these questions:
- What do I find most interesting to examine here?
- Is this Bit a cliché, and is it time for a change?
- What serves the needs of my story, character, or plot better?
- “the archaeologist obtains artifacts for a museum” can Flip to “the archaeologist returns artifacts to their homes”
- “the princess needs rescuing by the knight” can Flip to “the princess rescues the knight”
Drifting is replacing a Bit with a “nearby” Bit. The goal is to choose something that sounds or feels similar but comes with a new meaning.
What does “nearby” mean? It means a word, letter, term, concept, etc. that’s closely related along a dimension.
What is a dimension? It’s a property or quality or relationship. Examples:
- The class or category of a Bit (“hockey is a sport”)
- Other members of the same class or category (“crows and ravens”)
- Examples of a Bit that’s already a class or category (“cars, like an Audi”)
- Things the Bit associates with (“doctors work with nurses and patients”)
- Synonyms (“another word for sword is blade”)
- Rhymes (“pray and play”) or soundalikes (“chopper and copper”)
You can use resources like Wikipedia to find interesting dimensions. Look up your subject, then start looking for linked terms on the page. You can use Word Associations Network to find associated terms for any word.
Which dimension should you use to Drift?
Drift “up” (to a category or classification) when you want to be vague, generic, or inclusive. Drift “down” (to something specific) when you want to ground your thing in a specific time, place, or mood.
Drift “sideways” to give yourself a new feeling or aesthetic. For example, suppose you are working with “laser swords”. Synonyms for “sword” include “cutlass”, “rapier”, and “scimitar”. But if you conjure up thoughts of those three weapons, the feeling you get may be very different from each one. You can use resources like thesaurus.com to look up common synonyms.
You can Drift along unusual dimensions, such as puns of a word. For example, perhaps Wizards in your world don’t cast “spells”, but “spills”. You decide this means that Wizards splash enchanted ink onto something, then draw magical effects out of it. You can use resources like punpedia to find interesting word variations like this.
You can Drift to an unusual synonym, or a translation into another language. For example, fantasy wizards often cast lightning spells. The Middle English word “levin” also means lightning, but sounds mystical. Fiction often uses Latin instead of English to mark the presence of magic.
Be cautious using words from languages when you don’t know the definitions and connotations of the word in that language! Native speakers may interpret your meaning differently. This is even the case in English - if you tell someone you are watching “football”, that means two very different sports in different parts of the world.
Paleolexicon is a set of dictionaries for languages that are considered “dead”. Rather than using terms from languages with living speakers, you may want to look here first.
Drifting Letters and Syllables
The most common letters in English: E, T, A, I, N, O, S, H, R, D, L, U, C, M, F, W, Y, G, P, B, V, K, Q, J, X, and Z.
The 200 most used syllables in English: https://medium.com/wugs/high-frequency-syllables-in-english-ab75159618a0
You can create colorful and interesting names by transposing a few letters in a word or name. A key part of this process is to think about the dimension along which you’ll be Drifting. For example, letter order (A B C…) is a dimension. But so is letter frequency (E T A…). The dimension and direction you choose will affect how the outcome feels.
You can inject an element of mystery or strangeness by replacing a more common Bit with a rarer one. You created a mysterious clan of moth assassins who worship a dark god, and named the clan the “Tamba”. By Drifting T to X, a rarer letter, you get “Xamba”. Does that sound creepy enough?
You can randomly replace syllables by rolling 1d100 and looking at the table in the link above. For example, you are creating an underwater realm in a fantasy world. You Split “Atlantis” into “at”, “lan”, and “tis” as syllables. Rolling 1d100 gives you 97, or “gou”. You give your new realm the name “Goulantis”, or just “Goulant”.
You can also create original starting points by searching for anagrams of words, using tools like this: https://wordsmith.org/anagram/
If you’re naming something based on an existing TV or movie character, you can Drift to the name of their actor, and vice versa. For example, World of Warcraft features an archaeologist character named Harrison Jones, taken from “Indiana Jones” (the archaeologist character) and “Harrison Ford” (the actor who played him).
If you want to make your influences obvious, you can stop here. Otherwise, you can use other tools. For example, we want to create a character similar to Honey Lemon, from “Big Hero 6”. Her voice actress is named Genesis Rodriguez. One of Honey Lemon’s teammates is named Gogo Tomago. We drift in two directions (to another character and to an actress) to get Gogo Rodriguez, and finally drift letters. Our final character name is Nono Rodriguez.
Shuffling is changing the order, significance, or relationship of Bits to each other. The goal is to create something original. Imagine creating two different movies using the same actors in different roles.
What to Shuffle
Shuffling Bits with an emotional connection, such as two characters, can yield a very different emotional impact on your story. Decide what emotion(s) you want to evoke, and experiment with Shuffles that yield the desired result.
Consider this summary of the film “The Exorcist”: “When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.” (source)
If you shuffle the Bits in play, such as having the mother be possessed and the daughter needing to seek help from the Church, how does your story change? The center of the story is no longer a parent’s love and fear for their child. Perhaps it’s now about the power a parent has over a child and the pain someone in that position might inflict.
Consider “Beauty and the Beast”: “A prince cursed to spend his days as a hideous monster sets out to regain his humanity by earning a young woman’s love.” (source). Very different stories emerge from “the young woman is the beast” or “there is a beast who was transformed into a prince”.
Shuffles as Twist Endings
A common trope in TV series “The Twilight Zone” was the twist ending. The story would subvert expectations at the last minute, such as having a seemingly alien invasion turn out to be humans from Earth.
If a name doesn’t work for you, you can Shuffle the syllables or letters. For example, if calling your underwater continent “Atlantis” is too obvious, “Attislan” may be a step in the right direction.
A Remix is plugging the Bits you want back into a template, then asking questions about the result. Essentially, you’re recreating your Pitch, or writing a new Pitch, but with updated Bits.
For example, your Pitch started out as “A game about a post-capitalist society on another planet”. “Post-capitalist” and became “solarpunk”. “Another planet” became a specific name: “Alpha Tenet” (“Alpha Tenet Nor” is an anagram of “another planet”, and you dropped “Nor”). It’s a simple matter to substitute these new Bits into the old Bits’ place: “A game about a solarpunk society on Alpha Tenet”.
If your pitch was “Babylon 5 meets Law & Order”, your Bits were “space station”, “alien races”, “galactic politics”, “police procedural”, “law procedural”, and “current affairs”. You can string your eventual Bits into a new Pitch. Using one of the templates below, you get: “In a world of political clashes aboard a space station, an alien cop must navigate complex galactic law to arrest a guilty party”.
- “A [DESCRIPTIVE ADJ] [MAIN CHARACTER(S)’ PROFESSION] must [DO SOMETHING ANTITHETICAL TO THEIR NATURE] in order to [SOLVE A BIG PROBLEM].” (source)
- ““When [A BIG EVENT HAPPENS] in [OUR SETTING], our [DESCRIPTIVE ADJ] [MAIN CHARACTER(S)’ PROFESSION] must [SOLVE THE PROBLEM].”“ (source)
- “In a world where [RULE OF THE WORLD], our [DESCRIPTIVE ADJ] [MAIN CHARACTER(S)’ PROFESSION] has do [DO SOMETHING THAT GOES AGAINST THAT RULE].” (source)
- “Once upon a time there was (Bit). Every day, (Bit). One day (Bit). Because of that, (Bit). Because of that, (Bit). Until finally (Bit).” (source)
Once you’ve rebuilt your Pitch, set it aside from yourself as creator, and come back to it as a reader. Your goal is to read it for what it is, and only read what has actually been written. If you have difficulty doing this, you can ask a friend to help.
Your goal is to ask logical questions about what you’ve just written. “Who is the alien cop here to arrest?” “Why are they difficult to arrest?” “Alpha Tenet sounds like ‘the first tenet’, and a tenet is a principle or belief. Is there anything there?”
Sometimes a question will force you to reconsider what you wrote. This is good! That is the point of the questions. Your goal is to build a solid foundation for what you’ve created.
Once you’ve got a draft prepared, you want to see if it’s ready for public consumption. There are four steps to doing that:
- See if it hurts anyone
- See if it steals from anything
- Hear how it sounds
- See how it lands
If everything passes, you may be done!
Does it hurt anyone?
Does your draft include racist, sexist, or bigoted language? Does it use slurs, ableist terms, or other forms of hate speech? If you don’t know what these are, it’s time to Google “examples of (term)”. If your draft does include such things, it’s time to remove them.
Does it steal from anything?
The goal of the Flip, Drift, and Shuffle processes is to make something your own. If your story is about the evil Lords of the Tith fighting the good Kedi Knights, you won’t fool anybody. So read over your draft, and see if it feels too close to something you know already exists.
How does it sound?
It may sound trivial, but a very easy way to test your draft is to say it out loud to another person. There’s a difference in how we process thoughts versus things we hear. Once your idea leaves your mouth, you will have a perspective on it that you didn’t have before.
How does it land?
When you share your draft with someone else, study their initial emotional reaction. Don’t ask them what they think. Instead, try to understand how they feel. If they are your friend or associate, they will be tempted to praise your idea to protect your feelings. Your eventual audience will not react the same way.