Here come some techniques that will be helpful to writers, visual artists, musicians and all other creative types. They also help with collaboration between all of the above.
Recently I watched myself brainstorming for stories. My mind worked to form bridges between the diverse worlds of my senses: the eye, nose, tongue, touch and ear worlds. It’s like drawing analogies between different types of sensory input. (Plenty of examples to come) Sensory information can also correspond with concepts, characters and stories. Sound strange and abstract? Well it is, but if you can handle that kind of thing, read on. Here in this article I’m going to send off a few riffs using this brainstorming orchestra.
So let’s say you have ripples in a pond. This is a visual, radial image.
You could translate that into any number of radial designs. A cartoon explosion, radio waves, a sound pulse, or orbiting planets within a solar system. You could also make something where many radiating circles connect, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
Now let’s say you want to make those ripples into a concept. Perhaps power and influence is spreading from a central leader. Or maybe news of an event is spreading, through word of mouth and/or technology. Or the spread of radiation or heat, or a shock-blast. The ripples could be taken as patterns in the fabric of space-time.
Now let’s put one of these concepts into a story. Let’s translate the ripples in the water as news spreading of an important event. Something happens. People tell people, who tell others. Gradually a huge number of people know.
But what happened? Let’s see… We’ll grab another idea using a similar method and see if we can combine them. Let’s look for another visual pattern.
Here’s something you might see wandering around on a brainstorm walk:
They’re evenly spaced vertical units. What else is like so? Soldiers in a line comes to mind, or a row of planted trees. A musical rhythm in the ear-world, or in the touch-world, someone tapping on your arm. In the realm of concepts we have consecutive regular events, like the daily release of a newspaper? Or a regularly broadcast signal from another planet. How about contractions? They’re regular but coming closer together.
Let’s choose contractions; birth is a very primal, interesting event after all.
So the event is an impending birth, and the contractions are coming regularly, closer and closer together. Soon the baby will be born and news will spread. So we’ve made concepts out of two images, then combined them together.
Who’s the baby?
I don’t know yet!
Moving to the ear-world for a source of inspiration, let’s check out Ali Akbhar Khan, a Sarod master from India.
Here’s a track from his album Garden of Dreams. (It really kicks off at about 1:45)
Now when I first heard this song, the swirling, flowing, progressive qualities of the music brought the following scenario to my mind: I’m on a little raft in a small but powerful river. The river has bored through a mountainside in a pattern like an ant’s nest. I’m going over waterfalls, whipping around corners, going fast and slow. Kind of like this scene from Aladdin, minus the magic carpet and lava.
So back to the idea we’re brainstorming for. The contractions are coming closer. Someone special is about to take birth, and that news will be broadcast. What kind of person is taking birth? They’re on a river? What’s this music all about?
How to connect all this into something cogent?
Let’s take a step into the subtle and bring in the principle of reincarnation. This person’s not just popping into existence; they have a history before this life. That history’s been like a river-ride through a mountainside. Wherever they’re coming from, it’s been an adventure, with ups and down, slows and fasts. We don’t have details yet, but it’s getting interesting, isn’t it?
Let’s learn more about this person who’s going to take birth. There’s a saying that the story of your life is written on your face. Who has the most lines? Old people, of course. I spend quite a bit of time in India, where people’s faces are fantastic and diverse, so I’m drawn to search for people there.
Doing a quick image search for ‘Old person India,’ some great photos come up. We’re not worried about our character’s gender for now, so I chose two men and two women, just so I don’t get in trouble with either side 😉
Now looking at these pictures, I’m going to write some words down about each of them, all in one list. At this point, I’m not choosing physically descriptive words like ‘wrinkly,’ or ‘blue eyed.’ I’m looking for qualities that I perceive in the person. This will be very subjective.
So here goes. For this picture (man with turban), I’ve got defeated, prayerful, peaceful, hopeless, experienced, kind, struggle.
For this one (woman putting on earring) I’ve got wistful, thoughtful, nostalgic, social, shy, determined. What would you come up with?
For this one (woman looking over her glasses) I’ve got funny, clever, naughty, ironic.
And for this last one (balding man with beard) I’ve got stoic, fixed, funny, spiritual, wild.
So if we put all the words together, we get this list:
Defeated, prayerful, peaceful, hopeless, experienced, kind, struggle, wistful, thoughtful, nostalgic, social, shy, determined, funny, clever, naughty, ironic, stoic, fixed, funny, spiritual, wild,
Defeated, experienced, wild, struggle, ironic, naughty, social, prayerful, determined, spiritual, kind, funny, wistful, shy, stoic, clever, hopeless, thoughtful, peaceful, fixed, nostalgic, funny,
What would be some unusual qualities to find together?
How about peaceful and wild? This person could have two contradictory sides of them. Perhaps the peaceful side is dominant and sometimes they’re wild, or they could be mainly wild but sometimes their peaceful side could unexpectedly come out. Spiritual and defeated: perhaps a great defeat in their life led them turn to spirituality. Clever and stoic: these are both qualities that make this person a doer, someone who has the intelligence and determination to get things done. Or perhaps they don’t act much themselves, but just weather what life throws at them while deepening their understanding.
So peaceful, wild, spiritual, defeated, clever and stoic. That’s the kind of person who went through that turbulent ride in their previous life, and who’s about to be born as someone who is important to a great many people.
It’s this quality of person that’s passed through turbulent ups and downs in their previous lives, and who’s journey has brought them to the point where they’re about to be born again. They must be some kind of great personality, because news of their birth will spread like wildfire, far and wide.
From there we could fill out other parts of the story, like who the child’s mother is, whether it’s a boy or a girl, what their country is, what people think they’ll do in this life, and so on. In this way we can develop an entire story out of ideas ‘transposed’ from one sense to another, ranging from subtle/abstract to very physical/sensory. My sense is that there is a structure underlying reality which makes all this cross-pollination possible.
You can also collaborate with others using these methods.
I did this with my friend Keli. We chose a word–a mood: ‘patience.’ He made a song for this mood and I made a video to go along with it.
So to conclude, this isn’t a system per se, but a kind of foray though what may actually be a kind of system of sensory information patterns interplaying with consciousness. It’s a way of crossing over between senses disciplines, finding unexpected threads to connect them.
A last note: hats off to the folks at Writing Excuses: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor. Their podcast has inspired me a great deal. I’d recommend this recent episode about brainstorming. There’s lot of other great stuff there too.
Have you got any thoughts on creativity, idea generation and brainstorming? Please share your ideas about ideas in the comments.
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