Cool Ideas, and the #1 Method I Know of to Come Up With Them
Updated: Jan 19
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I recently finished reading Shorefall (Amazon affiliate link), the second book in Robert Jackson Bennett's Founders Trilogy. The book proves once again that Robert Jackson Bennett is great at creating broad and immensely cool concepts.
He has some of the most satisfying mythologies I have read to date, and his world-building is top-notch—as I wrote about in 5 Reasons to Love the World building in Foundryside. From economic systems to magic systems, RBJ gives us something to strive to.
But how do we come up with an awesome, epic idea in the first place?
That's a tricky question to answer, considering not even all published fantasy authors manage to make worlds half as unique as Bennett, once, let alone twice.
Why is Creativity so Hard?
First, we need to examine why we struggle to come up with unique ideas in the first place.
Humans are built for pattern recognition, and this makes sense. It is a lot of work to use our big brains, and for primitive humans, using up all the day's calories on thinking just wasn't very efficient. So we use mental shortcuts to help save precious energy.
The human animal is lazy. You think 'thinking' is any different?
In his book Think Better (Amazon affiliate link), Tim Hurson describes this problem as it relates to creativity. He explains that, in reality, we use very little of our productive thinking brains, instead opting for patterned and instinctual reactionary thinking. Same goes when coming up with concepts for a new book or story.
Hurson describes the early stages of brainstorming and those ideas generated as not ideas at all but rather conditioned responses based on ingrained patterns. Uniquely and sometimes very creatively recalled but not actually produced.
What happens during these stages, he labels "reproductive thinking." Real productive thinking (new ideas, severed from patterns) does not take place until we have pushed our brain out of its comfort zone enough to be on its own, so to speak.
I have a few tips I can give you. Still, apart from being an exceptionally imaginative individual, I only know of one tried and true method to push the brain far enough into productive thinking mode to create something on par with Robert Jackson Bennett. A technique that is mainly based on Tim Hurson's work:
I get it. It's not a sexy topic. It doesn't make you feel like you have accomplished anything just by reading up on it (that false sense of accomplishment you get when you read how to do something, giving you a smaller version of the same thrill you get when you actually do something).
But by reading and then implementing the techniques in this post, exactly as I have presented them to you, you will have done yourself more good as a writer than with anything else I can think of.
The majority of you are probably pretty disinterested in brainstorming. The general view is that the whole process equates to quickly thinking about want you want, making those ideas coherent, then setting straight off into writing.
Brainstorming is actually much more involved when done correctly. It’s not simply a "mulling over of ideas," and it’s definitely not a quick organization of them.
Brainstorming can be the greatest weapon in your writing arsenal. It makes writer's block a non-issue and can be a 100 lb weight for your creativity muscle.
My writing process involves a lot of brainstorming almost at every step (It has helped me outline entire novels in a matter of days even). And its the first thing I teach to authors when looking for solutions to developmental problems, so I’m gonna teach you how to do it effectively too.
You may not believe this, but some people have dedicated their entire careers to developing brainstorming methods that work. I have read the work of these brainstorming scholars and adopted their processes, and now I can tell you all about them so you can benefit too! And although you may find the topic utterly dry, luckily for you, I don't.
All the research and structure "best practices" in the world won't help you without a great brainstorming strategy.
You may think I am being overly dramatic on the topic, but I am dead serious. Idea generation can be akin to a religious experience if done right.
Ok. So enough lip service. If you’re not convinced, read on, try the methods for yourself and see what happens. If you're still not convinced after that, then...well...I can’t help you. Enjoy continual struggles and writer’s blocks for the rest of your career. I stand by my beliefs.
To begin, I will outline what I mean by productive brainstorming and what it is meant to accomplish.
After, I will tell you how to put it into practice.
What is ‘Real’ Brainstorming?
Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming...(did I just blow your mind? Yes, brainstorming was invented.)...anyway, he developed the 4 key traits of an effective brainstorming session.
Aim for the wild ideas
Quantity over quality
Combine & improve
Let's get into each of these.
According to Osborn, judgment sabotages creativity.
Most of us criticize our own ideas immediately. And, what’s more, we probably think this is a good thing.
We judge the validity and logic of every idea, and if it passes our tests, we write it down, and if it doesn’t, then we discard it and move on to the next one.
That explanation probably seemed reasonable to you, and why wouldn’t it? After all, it’s how we have been taught to think from a very early age. Parents tell us “to think before we talk”—teachers may say “there are no stupid questions,” but we all find out quickly that there are definitely stupid answers!
So I am really asking you to forget everything anyone ever taught you about thinking. The first step is to suspend all self-criticism of ideas.
You are not to even consider the validity of any idea until the entire process is done.
That’s an order.
You’re probably wondering why, huh?
First, suspending judgment clears your head of a certain self-awareness that holds your true creativity back. It makes you conscious of how an idea may be perceived, how it makes you look, how successful it may be in the future, and so on and so forth.
Without this critical gatekeeper, ideas can flow out of you with freedom and newfound confidence, like a Battlestar Galactica fan at ComiCon.
This leads to perhaps the most crucial effect of this rule of thinking: to allow your ideas momentum.
Your brain is like a dam. When a little trickle of water finds its way through a crack in the concrete, it is not long before the entire river comes rushing through.
Ideas breed ideas, but if you’re in a constant state of criticizing those ideas, they will never gain the desired momentum. And you will sabotage your chances of coming up with the best, most unique idea possible.
This brings us to the second rule of brainstorming.
Aim for the Wild Ideas
When judgment no longer enters the equation, you're bound to come up with some silly ideas. But that's ok.
Have you ever noticed that when you're trying to come up with an idea, you can think of some pretty stupid ones?
Der . . . of course you have . . . and you deny them straight away. Discard them as mental garbage. But, have you ever also noticed that these ideas tend to pop up again and again in your mind even after they have been outright rejected?
The tendency for these ideas to stick around is so natural we don’t even really think about it.
However, it is a reality of bad ideas, proven by the good men and women who have bothered to go to universities and research this topic. It has also been shown that by giving these ideas the spotlight (writing them down next to the good ones and considering them as legit possibilities), you declutter your brain and allow room for new/better ideas.
Although many that you might consider ‘dumb’ could actually be ‘wild’ ideas, which are not the same.
Wild ideas are great because they are often good ideas in disguise.
You should aim for wild ideas as you can easily tame them down if need be, but also because they sometimes point to the heart of the solution or reveal patterns you might not realize were there.
And remember. Reining in a crazy idea is much easier than turning a boring idea into something exciting.
In summary, write every idea down no matter how stupid, absurd, simple, or fantastical it may seem.
Quantity Over Quality
We have discussed why quality is a non-issue, but why quantity, you ask?
Once you have a great idea, aren't you done brainstorming? I mean, that's the point, right?
I say thee nay!
Many people believe that once they have a great idea, they are finished; they can move on. This is not true because your first (or second, or third "good"...) idea is, in actuality, probably not as good as you think it is.
Two words for you: Productive thinking.
Remember what we talked about earlier? Unfortunately for you, you're probably still not doing it at this stage of the process.
Real productive thinking does not occur until the third third.
Ok . . . what’s the third third?
Do you know that point in brainstorming where you can’t possibly think of anything else and frustration sets in—you start anxiously tapping your pen and forcing air out of your lungs in sharp “humphs” that make trills with your lips like a frisky horse?
Then you have entered the third third, my friend. The hard part. The point where your brain finally starts to work, expending tremendous amounts of energy to keep you thinking.
Persist, and things are about to get good here!
I think you need an example.
Let’s say that you have a problem with your storyline....Why does X go to Y? ...Or some such.
You start brainstorming, and you come up with a whopping 50 ideas. Because you followed my previous rules, some of them exist in the realm of possible solutions, but others are far from it; either way, you're tapped.
Good, you made it. Here you are!
Only 25 more ideas to go. You’re in productive thinking territory now.
It might take a long time, you may need to leave and take a breather, and you might even end up throwing your computer across the local hipster coffee shop in frustration, but do not give up. It's worth it in the end, I promise.
When you have your breakthrough, you can send me all the thank you emails you like, ok?
Combine & Improve
Soooo, I may have lied.
You’re not quite done.
When you are absolutely finished generating ideas in the third third, it is time to go over your list (without judging, of course) and see which ones can be improved on and combined to make...
You guessed it: Even more ideas!
You might get only a few to add to the list, or you may get a second wind and enter the fourth third (now a quarter. I know. I understand fractions too. No one likes a know-it-all).
The point here is to ensure you have utterly exhausted your brain and that nothing is left. The well has been tapped and cleaned, including all the skeletons of bodies the mob has thrown down there over the years. EVERYTHING.
That is what real brainstorming is. This is how you have to force yourself to think. You will need these skills, from coming up with a concept to developing your world, organizing and outlining your story, and much more.
I realize this was a long post for a topic that most people find utterly dry, but I truly believe that mastering these techniques will give you such an advantage over the competition you would have to be insane to pass them up.
Try it out for yourself and just see what happens. You will fall in love with the process because the results will be so great every time. And they will start coming faster and faster as your brain becomes more practiced.
Just remember the 4 rules of brainstorming: No judging, go for wild, quantity over quality, and combining/improving. And before you know it, you will be coming up with so many incredible concepts for your next fantasy novel, your only problem is going to be choosing one.
Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.