How to Never Run Out of Ideas
Hello and welcome back to Creative Zero. Ideas...they can make or break you before you even start. It’s also my philosophy that there are no bad ideas, only bad execution. We’ve all had occasions where the oil well upstairs runs dry—can’t think of something original so you freak out and feel like an imposter. I’ve had plenty of moments like that. Luckily, there are tricks you can use to combat these inopportune moments. Here are seven of them.
For the rest of the post, I’ll be using screenwriting as our example, but these tips can apply to any craft.
1. Pull inspiration from your medium, then twist it.
Let’s say we’re screenwriting the next great horror movie. A film so good Hitchcock’s bones would glow green with envy. However, you don’t know where to start. What’s more, how do you stand out in a genre that’s been done to death since the 70’s (pun very much intended)? Well, take inspiration from movies outside your genre. Off the top of my head, let’s use Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey. What elements can we possibly gather from these movies?
· Pulp Fiction: The diner robbery scene, the gangster/hitmen theme
· 2001: A Space Odyssey: Interplanetary travel, the psychedelic ending where Dave warps through spacetime
Combine these elements with the horror genre and we might have something half decent. Let’s set the scene. For the sake of brevity, we’ll write out a synopsis of our hypothetical film:
An asteroid-miner by the name of Alice McCarthy is eating in the mess hall with the others. They are headed back to Earth with an enormous haul of precious metals. Gold, silver, etc. Suddenly an alert blares through the PA. A breach in the hull of the ship. As they stand up and follow the safety protocols, a large group of gun-wielding thugs enter the scene and hold the crew hostage. They kill a few people to show they mean business.
During the stick-up, something goes wrong with the navigation system. The lights blackout. Panic. After some time, everything seems to go back to normal. Little do they know the ship had flown into a portal. This is where the horror begins.
2. Pull inspiration from other media
Okay, we got the ball rolling a little bit. And all we did was use a little brainpower and some elements from a couple movies. Now where do we go from here? Well the art world is vast and limitless, so for our movie why not pull from stuff outside the sphere of cinema?
· Music: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen—a song about a man lamenting his murdering of a man to his mother. We can use this as the framework to one of the thugs—give him some character depth.
· Painting: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can—literally just a painting of a soup can. I’ll figure something out.
· Video games: Papers, Please – a ethics/decision-based game where you play a border officer who either allows or denies immigrants (and citizens) access into a country. We can use its decision-making mechanic for a conflict in our story.
This is going to be challenging, but I think we can do it.
As everyone gets their bearings, a Campbell’s soup can materializes into existence. Freaked out, the thugs try to fire at the entity, but none of their guns work. When one of them tries to beat it with his gun, he’s immediately knocked back.
The soup can speaks in a godly voice, and says that they will be stuck in the portal forever unless they chose by majority-vote to sacrifice one person. A few—Alice included—abstain, but the miners who do want to vote far outnumber the amount of thugs. There’s screaming, crying, begging, but at the end of it all one of the thugs gets disintegrated to ash.
They wait for things to go back to normal. They don’t. When they ask why they’re still stuck in the portal, the soup can laughs, saying, “I didn’t say you ‘wouldn’t’ be stuck here if you chose a sacrifice.”...
(This is starting to look like a dark-comedy horror flick. Whatever works I suppose...)
3. Keep a dream journal
Your mind processes data in mysterious ways, dreams being one of them. Not only that, but the surrealness of them can help you come up with idea that you would have never thought of awake. I used to keep one until I grew bored with it about a week in. One of my entries involved grizzly bears sneaking into my home and attacking my mother when her back was turned.
To prevent this story from going completely off the rails, I won’t include a bear in the story. But it does give me an idea...
The hate brewing between the groups is greater than ever before. They’re itching to fight. The most senior ranking official of the ship tries to establish order, but when his back is turned one of the criminals attacks him. All hell breaks lose.
The warcry off all the people fighting reverberates off the walls and loudens. Soon it gets so noisy that no one can hear a thing, yet it only gets louder and louder until everybody’s eardrums pop and they become deaf.
Then the lights go dark again.
4. Think of the goofiest, dumbest idea imaginable.
I said in the beginning that there are no such thing as bad ideas, only bad execution. I still hold true to that statement. However, sometimes it takes a little out-of-the-box thinking to create something unique and that can stand out.
Here’s my dumb idea: Pink elephant swimming in a pool of baby powder. Now...how do I add this in a horror story? We’re about to find out.
Bodies bump into bodies in the darkness. The ship is filled with mouth noises no one can hear. The fear is palpable. Then a white light illuminates where the mess hall used to be. However, there’s a pool full of baby powder where the mess hall used to be. And swimming in it is a pink elephant.
Alice had thought of pink elephants during the whole scuffle, but never believed it would materialize to existence. Don’t think of pink elephants...don’t think of pink elephants, yet she couldn’t help herself. And the more she thought about it, the more the pink elephant’s flesh melted, the more its muscles atrophied. Blood leaked from the rips in its flesh. Its smile was made of human teeth, straighter and whiter than anything anyone else has ever seen. It was bright like a nuclear explosion, and it only got brighter. Everyone wanted to look away but couldn’t, so entrance they were by the pink elephant’s swim.
Their eyes burned red, stung purple, then their sights turned grey. The pink elephant then got out of the pool, walked to the soup can, and fused with it to become a gory abomination of metal and pink. The last thing anyone saw before blindness overcame them was its mouth—the pain it expressed made them feel the nothingness of death as well as the infinite length of an inescapable hell.
No one heard the screams or saw the horror as the monster killed them one by one. Only Alice was left alive, who was curled in fetal position in the corner of the room.
5. Insert a little philosophy
You don’t have to be the next Nietzsche to follow this advice (Lord knows I’m not). But pick a random philosophy and expound on it in your story. Pick apart the idea and use your interpretation to guide the direction where you want your story to go. Because at the end of the day your goal is to write something entertaining, not to write a college thesis.
We’ll continue with the philosophy of classical foundationalism. From my ten minutes of Wikipedia research, the philosophy states there are original “Adam and Eve” ideas which were not influenced from other ideas, but have started an ancestral tree for many others. This knowledge were the fathers, but were never the sons. We can fit this in...somehow.
Blind, deaf and all alone, Alice is sure she’s going to die. She prays to all the gods she can think of for some escape.
Then suddenly, an androgynous voice creeps up her arm and seeps into the pore on her skin. It tells her that she can survive, but first she must do something. In order to survive, she must first become God. She must forger all she ever knew and create all knowledge and life from nothing. Due to its enormity and complexity, it will be extremely mentally and physically exhausting. Or she can stay in the room all alone until she dies.
Alice is wondering if this is just a figment of her imagination. Nonetheless she decides to be god. Then an explosion.
6. Stream of conscious
When all else fails, place down the first thing that comes to mind and work with it. This type of process basically an expression of the subconscious, or what’s as close to it as we can make it. Automatic drawing is an example of this process in action. James Joyce also utilized this practice in his books Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake to recreate as realistically as he could the chaos and spontaneity of our minds.
In our next example, I’ll try my best to show you what I’m talking about. This part of the story is going to be very reminiscent of the ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. What your about to see is also going to be a heavily edited version of my true stream-of-conscious writing. Still, it probably won’t make much sense.
The fabric of the universe blasts itself wide open like the mother vagina for all the gods humanity creates to exist. Big bang. The colors of animals and plants exist and evolve and feed off each other. Her brain tears itself inside out to process the tetrations to minutest detail (think Planck’s constant meticulousness). Hyper-exponentials processed and rendered by her mind at the speed of light. This is the death she feared—infinite suffering for a seemingly infinite time, and to suffer all alone. This is what she chose to endure to survive. From the torturously mundane to the spiritually awe-inspiring, all birthed through the physical bottleneck of her humanity. She felt the pleasures and pains of the trillions upon trillions of organisms, the good and evil, the suffering, the passing of eons. No longer did she know herself as she was, but rather the crew member was a product of everything else but her. How could she go back to the way things were when she has experienced all that there is to experience?
Then she created herself.
7. D.O.T.S (Don’t overthink shit)
D.O.T.S is a neon sign Kenny Beats has in his studio. It’s also one of the main themes of this post. I’ve been a perfectionist for the longest time as a writer. That’s not to say a part of me hasn’t benefited from that care, but it has definitely blocked my creativity when writing. When your niggling over every little detail and mistake, you lose sight of the bigger picture. Yes...you should critique your work, but at the end of the day you have to learn to let go. What helps me is the concept of wabi-sabi, or the elegance of imperfection. Because let’s face it, how can imperfect creatures create a perfect product? Sometimes it’s enough just to be good enough. And as you continue to hone your craft and make mistakes, your skills will naturally improve over time.
There’s a great interview by Rayman Allen where the interviewer describes him as someone who “really really really gives a shit but also doesn’t give a shit”. I believe this is the core of becoming a great artist. To be critical of your art, but not to be bound by it. It’s a balancing act.
Just have fucking fun with it and stop stressing.
I don’t know if this horror movie concept is any good or not...but that wasn’t the point. The point was just to give you an idea on how to not run out of ideas. If I did that then I did my job. Least I think so anyway.
All Alice saw in the next instant was her waking up in her cot. She felt her entire body. She was soaked in sweat and breathed heavily. She didn’t remember the specifics of her nightmare, but it seemed like something unlike she had ever seen before.
She went out and walked to the mess hall and saw the rest of the crew eating there, the view of Earth out of the window. “Are we going back to Earth?” she asked.
What do you think? Any other topics you’d like me to touch on? Comment below. And as always, I’ll see you next week.