Ask "What If?" to Boost Your Creativity
Science shows creativity emerges from combinations.
Posted Dec 15, 2017
This post is part of my blog series called "The Writer's Laboratory." See my introductory post for more information.
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on how creativity emerges from combinations.
Successful authors often get their ideas for a new story because they automatically ask, “What if?” throughout their day. On his website, Stephen King states this in regards to the all-important “Where do you get your ideas” question:
What all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it's seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question "What if?" "What if" is always the key question.
To see this “What if?” process in action in King’s work, here are a few examples:
- What if a political assassin was psychic and in actuality, he was trying to save the world from evil? Hello, The Dead Zone
- What if a dog got rabies and terrorized a family? Come join the party, Cujo.
- What if a writer was kidnapped by his number one fan? Nice to meet you, Misery.
Why do “what-if” questions work so well? The answer is that, as King noted above, they often combine two ideas or concepts in a unique way. And scientists are in general agreement with this idea that creativity comes from combinations. In fact, such combinations are thought to occur on a neural level, with patterns of neuron activation combining in novel ways. Neuroscientists call this combination “convolution”, but an easier way to think of it is to use the metaphor of braiding (you know from my earlier post that I love me some metaphors!). Braiding takes individual strands and twists them together to produce a single plait, which can then be twisted with other plaits to form even stronger ropes and cables. Similarly, creative thinking involves taking neural activity in the brain related to one concept (the family dog) and twisting it with activity related to another concept (rabies).
The nice thing about thinking of creativity as combinations is that it takes the pressure off. As a writer, you don’t need to come up with a completely new idea. As Mark Twain famously stated:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
So stop pressuring yourself to come up with a totally new story idea. Instead, think about how you can combine already known things in unique and non-obvious ways.
Of course, not all combinations are good. Peanut butter and jelly is tasty, but peanut butter and sardines? Not so much. So asking the what-if question doesn’t guarantee the answer will be good every time. Neil Gaiman once joked in an interview about the idea, “Everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf…There’s that moment when you’re sitting and thinking, ‘So what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?’” Chances are, there is a good reason Gaiman has never actually written that story.
In the end, you’ll have to judge which answers make it through the sifter and which deserve to fall through. But the more times you ask “What if," the more creative ore you’ll have to sort through.
To institute this technique, train yourself to as what-if questions throughout the day. Better yet, consider combing this with the other tips mentioned in my earlier posts this week. Ask “what-if” while you’re outside taking a walk or just before you fall asleep. But keep in mind, when your unconscious mind begins answering this question, it will likely come as a whisper (especially for writing novices). So be ready and listen carefully once your inner mule starts talking.