Creating Better Ideas

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In this post we examine techniques for creating ideas in more detail, with the intent of using them to create even better ideas. These practices will help when dreaming up new stories and characters, visual artwork, game designs and other engaging content.

Tell yourself, “I don’t know how I’ll think of the idea, but I know that I will”. This affirmation frees up your conscious mind, which is mainly concerned with everyday mundane functions like the five senses and memory, making way for the wealth of imagination that belongs to the unconscious mind. Put yourself in a quiet, comfortable environment and close your eyes. Keep them closed and gently look up without tilting your head. Concentrate on the known facts surrounding the idea, such as the setting for the story, the type of hero you are designing, or the desired outcome. Breath deeply, and wait without expectation. This will bring your mind’s eye to the horizon where dreams meet reality, a zone of limitless, infinite potential. There are no judgements or mistakes here, only what is useful and interesting.

When the ideas come, expect the unexpected and be ready to write down, draw or record whatever comes. Do not question the worths of these ideas at this point, as revision engages a very different part of the mind and will shut off the flow of imagination. Just record enough so that you will remember the concept later during the Revision phase. Dr Elmer Gates practiced this ‘Sitting for ideas’ at first for his own inventions (which numbered some 200),  eventually being paid to sit for ideas for large corporations, so refined did his imagination practice become (Think and Grow Rich pp. 158-161). Nikola Tesla also created his inventions this way, adding the technique of holding a ball bearing in his palm which rested in a metal pie tin. If he went too far across the border of consciousness and fell asleep, his hand would go slack and let go of the ball bearing, causing it to fall into the pie tin and make a noise that would wake him up. He would then start the visualizing  process again and pick up where he left off.

The practice of recognizing patterns can lead to new discoveries and insights. For example, it is fascinating how the appearance of a cancer cell is similar to that of the first microsecond of a nuclear detonation (see illustration). And how the structure of lightning resembles that of a river when it meets the ocean. Seeing significant likeness in events or phenomenon can also help to avoid predictability. cancer-cell-nuke
For instance, if your story idea is similar to another established story, study it in order to put a surprise plot twist in your idea. In this way your story will benefit from the familiarity with the existing story, while rewarding readers with a welcome violation of expectation. The television series Once Upon a Time did this with the character Ruby, who is both Little Red Riding hood and the Big Bad Wolf in the storyline.

Seeing the ordinary in new ways is another way to strengthen your creativity. Looking at a drawing in progress in a mirror flips the image, allowing you to see it with fresh eyes. Or imagine the familiar is the strange; next time you go to a convenience store pretend to be a time traveller from the 1600’s and notice how different everything seems. Harnessing the power of make believe we all used as children is stimulating and very useful. Pablo Picasso looked at a bicycle seat and handlebars in 1942 and created the sculptural piece “Bulls Head“.

Making connections between unrelated ideas and phenomenon can bring them together so they produce a new idea. The use of mutants, demons and magic in the distant future setting of both the anime Vampire Hunter D and the graphic novel Ronin make gripping examples of the benefits of connecting unrelated material.

Taking advantage of chance is yet another tactic to use when creating better ideas. Happy accidents are one example, like a misspelling that leads to a more interesting name for a character. Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered the medicine penicillin by accident. Going with the flow when the unexpected happens often leads to ideas that delight the imagination. Being open to gifts hidden in the form of mistakes will increase the creativity of your ideas.

Constructing networks by forming friendships and associations between other like-minded people yields helpful feedback for new ideas. Just being in the same space as other creative minds can cause new ideas to emerge. The exchange of responses and encouragement from your “Mastermind group“, (another quote from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich) is very valuable to the life and growth of your creative content.

“But I don’t have a creative bone in my body”. Nonsense. Stop telling yourself that cliche, and never look back at such a useless attitude. Challenge assumptions about everything, both your own and those of others. For example, telling yourself, “no one will like this” is probably not true. Dare to question given facts and truths before dismissing the new idea. If you like it, many other will also.

 

 

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Creating Ideas

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In this article we will look at the process of creating ideas and offer some techniques to employ when creating your own. There is a mystique around creative people fueled by many cliched stereotypes, but all ideas are the result of hard work. When thinking up a story idea, character design or any other imaginative content, there is a basic structure to the process with some pitfalls and best practices to consider.

Where to start? With yourself. Find something you care about; if you truly care about it, chances are someone else does also. Lance Henson, one of my creative writing teachers, pointed out that the most personal subjects are also the most universal. Then gather information in the form of references similar to the content idea you want to create. For instance, if you wish to come up with an idea for a sci fi short story, read a few collections of sci fi short stories in order to immerse yourself in the genre. Or if you are thinking up a new fantasy character design, start by researching other designs with a Google Image search. Save the appealing search results in a folder and surround yourself with those visual influences. If you are excited about this collection of information, it will compel you to take a first pass at creating your own unique idea.

One definition of an idea is using the imagination to produce a novel combination of previously unconnected elements in a way that adds value, making the idea more than the sum of the parts. This definition sounds a lot like Synthetic Imagination as described in the book Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill (pp. 70-73). By studying pre-existing ideas and cross referencing them with your own experience and memories, new ideas are synthesized and brought into being. Synthetic imagination is the process of surrounding the mind with influential ideas, like a word map around the main subject in hopes of finding connections that will produce a new idea.

Another form of imagination Hill describes as Creative Imagination. A kind of waking dreamstate, this faculty is used think up unprecedented ideas which seem to come from “elsewhere”. Ideas from the creative imagination are often surprising and odd at first, but gradually become acceptable once the shock of the new fades. Surrounding yourself with nature or priming your work environment with quiet, soft lighting and things you find beautiful are all conducive to the creative imagination mindset. When engaging either the synthetic or creative imagination, it helps to be aware of the two frames of mind we use in the process of making ideas; Generation mode and Revision mode. Because these two are so different, it is important to keep them separate at the risk of compromising the process and never getting anything done.

First is generation mode; fast and intuitive, only focused on what is possible, and choosing freely from these possibilities. The field of positive psychology refers to this as the ‘flow state’, where we temporarily forget our identity while lost in the enjoyment of an activity. Psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts that activities which put us in this flow state are a key component of happiness. When in this state, our hands often struggle to keep up with the outpour of inspiration. Right or wrong, good or bad are value judgements that belong to the revision mode of idea making. When you start to criticize your own work, like saying “this is wrong” etc., tell yourself “later”. Go back immediately into generation mode and complete the thought, even if it comes out rough or awkward. Creating a basic outline of the idea and getting it ‘on paper’ is the main concern of this mode of imagination. Then take a break and focus on something totally different for a few minutes, like sweeping the floor or taking a brief walk. The imagination is like a muscle in the sense that it becomes stronger with sustained use, but is subject to strain from overexertion.

Next, come back to the content idea in slow, deliberate Revision mode. This frame of mind’s concerns are quality and clarity. Here is that ‘later’ time to revisit the critical thoughts that arose while generating your idea. Take another look at word choices with a thesaurus; erase and redraw parts that aren’t working; add detail to the outline of your idea. Don’t fall in love with every idea, and step away when the process becomes strained or forced. When the revision phase is complete, the process of idea creation has run it’s course. Share your idea with others and listen to their opinions, accepting the fact that these opinions are legitimate in their own right, but nevertheless still only opinions rather than facts. Ultimately you are the final judge of the value of your efforts. If your creation pleases you, that is all that matters regardless if others like it or not.

By starting with your own passion, gathering information about it, generating an idea based on the informations influence, and then revising it, you will have begin creating ideas. Practicing this process is more important than the results of the process; I will always remember Lance Henson’s homework assignment to go home and write 10 bad poems.

Storytelling Fulfills Emotional Needs

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What makes a graphic novel, game or book so good you can’t put it down? What do we get from our favorite film that makes us want to watch it over and over? In this article we will look at why good storytelling is important in successful sci fi and fantasy content.

Audiences are drawn to fictional content because of deep emotional needs to fantasize and disengage from the relentless grind of modern life.  How well the story fulfills these needs depends on four aspects described in Dona Coopers Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV, pp. 15-18.  First, audiences want new information. Concepts such as the dystopian simulation-based slavery of humankind presented in the Matrix films are fascinating, pushing the limits of imagination as the heroes go up against impossible odds. Or the idea of the Force presented in the Star Wars films, which introduces magic to the streamline realm of science fiction. New information in the form of situations and environments allow us to take part in previously unknown adventures through the characters in the story. Fictional new information can also inspire us, boosting our own imagination not to copy but instead to think in new ways. Audiences need for new information can also be met by content with an original style or form, such as the film Transcendence which told its story from the end back to the beginning, or The Lake House which features a magic mailbox, allowing the main characters to fall in love while separated by two years time.

Fictional content also meets the audience’s need for conflict resolution. Life seems riddled with problems beyond our control; paying taxes, homelessness, the obesity epidemic are just a few troubling examples. The struggles of fictional characters resonate with the struggles of its audience, allowing us to become our heroes as they overcome conflict in the context of the story. We overlay the conflicts of our own lives on those of our heroes for the release it provides at the conclusion. While only temporary fantasy, the complex nature of the human mind allows this process to work, providing some relief from the problems of existence. This conflict resolution aspect of the emotional need met by stories is mingled with that of the need for bonding.

Characters vary in nature, from heroic to tragically flawed, but interesting characters always inspire the audience to care about what happens to them. Heroes of all forms of fictional content generally are of four types; the powerful Idol, the regular Everyman, the misunderstood Underdog and the antiheroic Lost Soul. This range of hero types aligns with the wide variety of personalities of the audience, explaining why some readers identify with Captain America (Idol hero) and others with Elric (Lost Soul hero). In an isolated society where the words, “I love you” are almost taboo, audiences crave emotional connection and find it in the eyes of their favorite characters. Movie goers and gamers also bond with each other during the experience of the film or playing the game.

In the case of video games, the plot is not as important to users as the experience of an engaging session of gameplay. Users create their own stories in realtime using the game, writing the story as it happens for retelling later or even recording and posting on the Twitch video share platform. The popular MMO first-person shooter Counter Strike franchise has no storyline, only the basic theme of player versus player in a variety of settings. Counter Strike users get emotionally involved creating their own stories of epic gameplay, using their skill on the content as an authoring tool.

Just as every video game has a ‘game over’, books and movies have conclusions which fulfill audiences emotional need for completion. Based upon uncertainty about the future, this need is met by the beginning-middle-end structure of fictional content. Though emotional involvement with the characters, we lose ourselves in the tension and release cycle of the story as it builds to conclusion, experiencing a kind of resolution in our own lives. We are largely unaware of this ‘fantasy therapy’, in part because emotional processes work subconsciously.

Humans have an eternal need for story. Where once long ago told by firelight, these myths eventually became to be told by typewriter and printed page. The page grew, the story becoming the wide gaze of the film camera, and now by the virtual light of CG imaging technology. Interesting to note that the CG ‘tool’ is similar in essence to the ‘tool’ of literature; the keyboard. The many forms of fictional content now at our fingertips are emotional systems that empower us to bond, overcome conflict, get closure, and learn new information.

Weapons of Sci Fi-Fantasy Part 3 : Projectiles

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Machine guns, throwing stars, blasters and crossbows are some interesting examples of projectile weapons seen in sci fi and fantasy content. The earliest projectile weapon was most likely the rock, followed eventually in prehistoric terms by the invention of the bow and arrow. Arrowheads found in Sibudu Cave in South Africa dating back some 64,000 years. These arrows are among the very first weapons made by humans, fired with the leverage-based atlatl. The bow was invented by at least 20,000 BC, according to radio carbon dating of cave paintings that show our ancestors using them to hunt.

Arrowheads were made from stone until the invention of bronze around 3,500 BC. Advancements in metallurgy made arrows easier to produce, but still ineffective against metal armor and shields. Medieval combatants were at an impasse with metal arrows and swords unable to pierce metal armor, leading to the invention of the lance. Used by horseback, the lance was very efficient at going through plate armor, but only after a charge of some distance. In effect, the long ‘reload’ time between lance charges made it a poor overall weapon on the battlefield.

Less effective at killing than the sword or bow, throwing implements such as knives, spikes and shuriken were used to distract and wound, also serving as melee weapons in close combat. The earliest record of throwing knives comes from Libya around 1,300 BC. Due in part to the secretive nature of the shinobi, or ‘shadow warriors’ who employed them, the origin date of the shuriken or ‘sword thrown from the hand’ is unknown. A common myth is that only ninjas used shuriken, in reality they were employed in combat by both samurai and ninja.

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In the 9th century gunpowder was invented in China, followed by the firearm in the 13th century in the form of the ‘fire lance‘, a precursor to the musket. This weapon used gunpowder only as a primitive flame thrower. Firearms were adopted in Europe during the 15th century by the Ottoman Empire as standard issue for infantry, replacing the pike.

The rifle followed three centuries later, featuring a grooved inner barrel (rifling) to impart spin on bullets for deadlier accuracy. The first handheld automatic weapon was invented in Germany by Hugo Schmeisser, called the ‘Kugelspritz’ or ‘bullet squirter’ around 1910. This 9mm full-auto machine gun was the blueprint for modern day projectile weapons such as the Scorpion, Uzi and Mac-10,  and it’s compact, short barrel design inspired the AK-47 and M-14.

In the sci fi, lead and steel bullets are replaced by directed energy weapons including lasers, plasma and repulsor beams as used by Iron Man and Dr. Doom. Some other popular sci fi projectile weapons include Chewbacca’s Bowcaster from Star Wars, the over and under double trigger hand cannon wielded by Dekker in Blade Runner, and Captain Harlock’s combination projectile/melee weapon the Gravity Sabre. Also notable are the shurikenlike Glaive from Krull and Yondu’s whistle-controlled Yaka arrow from Guardians of the Galaxy, the latter bringing the projectile weapon around full circle to it’s ancient origin.
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