How do you come up with new ideas for stories, plots, characters, blog posts?
I use the Design Thinking process. And if you haven’t used it, it’s sure to help you come up with more ideas faster. I’m still trying it out with my writing, but don’t let the name fool you. I’ve found it works just as well for writers as it does for designers.
The first step of Design Thinking is to empathise. So I have an audience sketch I maintain in Swiftpad, where I write. This covers the empathy step of the process. Before I start writing I spend some time trying to internet stalk my readers and figure out things like age, preferred reading devices, a day in the life, time constraints, favourite author, favourite books, motivations etc.
I know we have a fair idea of this as writers, because we think our readers are like us, which is the same mistake inexperienced designers tend to make. DING-DING-DING, your readers are not like you!
Once I know my reader, I begin with the next step of the design thinking process.
Telling any story is effectively a problem solving process. At the core of every great novel is the problem the protagonist is facing in achieving their goal.
So I start there. With three questions:
Who is the protagonist?
What is their goal and why it matters?
How is the problem keeping them from reaching the goal?
This leaves me with a short synopsis that runs a paragraph or two.
A template I use for my synopsis is
______________ is ___________ so _______________
Protagonist Problem Goal
I then repeat this for every chapter and scene using Swiftpad’s outline scene outline. That’s my plot.
I use this same template to write my blog posts and emails. For this type of writing, the protagonist is my reader.
Works pretty well.
Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.
― John Steinbeck
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Now design thinking…
How it approaches ideation, is what makes Design Thinking awesome. Here are my rules for ideation:
Set a time limit: Usually 20 mins. Sometimes more depending on size and complexity of the project. I’ve never gone over an hour.
Start with the problem: come up with as many ideas as possible for obstacles, characters, setting, sub problems and possible resolution.
Encourage weird, wacky and wild ideas: This is a creative activity. Free thinking is bound to produce unusable ideas. But it makes up immensely in how it aids discovery and creativity.
More ideas are better: Let the imagination run wild. At this stage, it’s quantity over quality.
Build upon ideas: How could this be a better idea? Can I complicate things even more for the protagonist? What are the kind of questions will my reader need answered when she becomes a part of my protagonists journey?
Be visual: Physically writing and sketching helps in thinking up new ideas or viewing the same ideas in a different way. I’m extremely jealous of writers who can also sketch and draw like pros. I manage with my little stick figures, but it still helps tremendously.
Defer judgement and criticism including non-verbal: The most important thing I learnt from design thinking when ideating, is to defer judgement. This is not the time to judge any idea. I would struggle to come up with ideas because I wanted every detail, or at least a reasonably good idea of how it would fit into the bigger picture before I considered it. I would often get lost tying up loose ends or judging certain ideas as bad and as a result give up on good ideas way too early in the process. Now I write the idea down and move on.
That’s it. You’re now ready to start using Design Thinking to start coming up with writing ideas.
I’ve tried this a few times now, and it really works well for my writing.
Do you follow a process? Or is it all inspiration and flow? Maybe research?
I’d love to hear about your ideation process.