Carolyn Kaufman Psy.D.

Psychology for Writers

Growing Ideas is a Process, Not a Lightning Bolt

The idea process involves multiple stages...and some work.

Posted Jul 12, 2012

A lot of the research suggests that most writers use a complex, multi-stage process when they create.  Different researchers have named different stages, so the discussion that follows merges several theories to give you an overall picture. You’ll notice that the bolt of lightning doesn’t happen until Stage 5.

Stage 1: Problem Finding/Formulation

Even before you identify an initial idea—even before you start asking “what if” questions—you may need to explore the elements of the problem. In other words, you need to recognize or identify that an opportunity for an idea exists.

One thing I see frequently when I edit others’ writing is untapped opportunities for conflict. These include situations when writers let their characters have what they want too easily, and situations when two characters who don’t see eye-to-eye manage to deal with a problem without any blowup. Remember, conflict drives the story!

Stage 2: Preparation

Preparation involves analyzing the context of the problem, defining what’s needed, and then drawing on one’s existing education and ability to solve problems to do research and otherwise establish an environment for the idea to develop.

This is the stage where you turn the idea over and over in your head, trying out different possibilities and doing research to try to expand on them. This stage relies a lot on what’s worked for you in the past. If you feel like you don’t have a very big repertoire of ways to play with ideas, check out a book that explains how creative geniuses do it. Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko is a good one, though like many books on creative thinking, it presents the ideas as if they will be used in a corporate workplace, so you need to be flexible enough to apply the techniques to your writing.

Stage 3: Frustration

Some stage theories include a frustration stage in which the individual reaches a limit on her ability to deal with the problem/idea. Most of us can probably name plenty of times that we’ve hit this stage. You’ve got the beginnings of a story, but now something interesting and unique needs to happen, and you can’t figure out what it is. You may wrestle with the idea for days or weeks before you finally get exasperated with it and push it onto the back burner of your mind. According to researchers, this frustration may lead to the crucial next stage.

Stage 4: Incubation

During the incubation stage, you’re not consciously working on the idea, but your unconscious is, trying out different associations or idea combinations. Your unconscious deems most of these combinations useless, but once in a while it will happen on something promising.

The trick with the incubation stage is to keep your unconscious working. It will give up if you do. You can feed your creative unconscious by reading books of authors you admire, keeping an idea notebook, and occasionally by checking in on the idea to see if you have anything new to consciously add to it (which may require re-visiting the preparation stage). The 6 stages are rarely as linear as they look here.

Stage 5: Illumination

Once the unconscious happens upon something good, it pushes the idea out to the conscious mind. Interestingly, some people experience a feeling beforehand—an “intimation” at the edge of consciousness—that an idea is coming.

Of course, the illumination phase is the most delicate stage of the process, and it may be interrupted by trying to force the idea before it’s ready, or by outside distractions.

Stage 6: Verification

Once you get the idea, it’s still just a seed—it needs to be evaluated, developed, and refined…which may again push you back to the Preparation stage.

Remember, creativity is fluid; it requires flexibility and a willingness to try things others might not. It also requires you to be an active part of the development of the idea…even when you’re feeling frustrated!

© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.