Any writer who has ever stared at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to come up with a story idea, knows the feeling of being creatively comatose. Try as you may, nothing comes to mind.
If that is ever you, don’t blow your brains out in frustration. Instead, feed in new ideas and have some laughs along the way. Here is an idea from childhood that will help you put the creativity back into creative writing.
As a youngster, you may have had a fold-over book that was divided into three sections. For example, the first scene shows a normal-looking man. Then you flip over a new top third section, and the man is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch and has a parrot on his shoulder. You then flip over a new bottom third; and the man is dressed in policeman’s trousers with handcuffs, a billy club, and a pistol hanging from his belt.
Creative writers can play a mental version of this game. Imagine a business executive in a suit and holding a briefcase. Now, flip a new bottom section on him, and suddenly he’s wearing jogging shorts. Why? Well, maybe it’s because he’s actually a model on his way to a photo shoot for men’s sports gear. Or he’s an avid jogger who runs every day during lunch hour. Or he’s a bachelor and is so far behind on his laundry, he wore jogging shorts under his suit. Jot down all those ideas.
Now flip over the top section. Suddenly he’s wearing the upturned collar of a clergyman, has a neatly trimmed gray beard, and is wearing conservative wire-rimmed glasses. Why? Well, maybe he’s a reservist with the Army and serves part-time as a chaplain, or he’s a seminary professor who teaches ancient languages. Or perhaps he’s a con artist who travels from city to city posing as an evangelist. Write down all those ideas.
Now flip the middle section. Whoa! Look! Now he has on a brightly colored vest with a watch chain extended from one side pocket to the other. Why? Maybe he’s a riverboat gambler or a circus sideshow barker. Or perhaps he sings in a barbershop quartet. Add these new options to your list of notes.
Pause a moment; and in your mind’s eye, look at this silly person your mental flip-book has created. How could one person ever combine such diverse appearances and occupations? Ridiculous! Funny! Silly! Unbelievable! Or is it?
Start to play detective. How might all these elements be combined to form a dossier on this man? Hmmm. Perhaps he’s a youth minister (upturned collar) who works at a church camp (jogging shorts) and whose hobby is singing in an old-fashioned gospel music group (vest). Or perhaps he’s a hospital chaplain (upturned collar) who assists disabled children with their physical therapy regimens (gym shorts) but who is also ready to help raise funds for the new hospital wing by being part of a vaudeville night benefit show (fancy vest).
Let your imagination run wild. Have fun. Come up with several different profiles for this character. (Note: If it is hard for you to do this exercise in your imagination, create a real flip-book. Open magazines and catalogs, and use the photos of chefs, pilots, mechanics, parachutists, barbers, cowboys, and firefighters to stimulate your thinking.)
Once you’ve developed one set of profiles for your lead character, run through the process two or three more times—for a villain, a sweetheart, and maybe even a sidekick. Then start imaging how the various characters might come head to head in a conflict strong enough to evolve into a plot.
For example, could the aforementioned chaplain face an ethical challenge when, in privileged communication, the director of the hospital fundraiser tells him he has stolen some of the show’s earnings? Uh-oh, what does the chaplain do now?
All sorts of mix-‘n’-match scenarios are possible. Keep on “playing” with the flip-book until you’ve matched the right characters with the right plot conflict.
When that happens . . . you’ll just “flip”!
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University (Upland, IN). He is a columnist for Christian Communicator and a board member of the Midwest Writers Workshop. He was featured in a cover story profile in Havok magazine in January, 2015, along with one of his newest new short stories. He is represented by MacGregor Literary.