Defeating Writer's Block: Creative techniques beyond freewriting

So we’ve all been stuck before. Staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor, sapped of inspiration. There are common techniques to breaking this, one of the most well known is freewriting, in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time with limited no concern for rhetoric, conventions, mechanics, or the laws of man nor nature.

And that can work, but there are other ways. I wanted to share a couple I use myself as well as open the floor to anyone who has techniques of their own to share.

Method 1: Excel Punnet Squares

Open an excel sheet.
Open your browser history.

Have them side by side, either sharing the same screen or on multiple screens if you have them.

On the first column, skip the first box, and then either copy and paste each history listing into each box, or type in a few words that express what it was. Your choice.

I usually fill out at least a dozen or more entries.
Sometimes I’ll skip over repeats or boring entries.

Then, I’ll copy the column and paste it as a row on the first row, skipping the first box.

Now each box relates two unrelated items from my browser history.

Start filling in the boxes. They all involve existing interests of yours.

The juxtaposition of these ideas against each other will cause unexpected new ideas.

If you grabbed only the 12 most interesting items from your browser history, you have 144 boxes, minus 12 where the ideas intersect themselves. So, out of 132 matchups, you’re bound to have some interesting ideas.

If you want to mix things up more, jump a few months back in your search history and grab a different set to match across the top.

I’ve also done this with medium specific things. Like, maybe I want a game idea? I go to IFDB and make a list of maybe 10 or so of my favorite games. Make that one of the datasets. Pull the other set from some random date range of my browser history.

Method 2: Wikipedia Madlibs

Pull up wikipedia in a foreign language. It doesn’t matter which, Korean, Portuguese, whichever. What matters is your complete lack of fluency.

That’s important, don’t pick a language you understand.

The images are all creative commons and all out of context to you as you don’t read the language. Feel free to burrow through the links for awhile so you truly have no idea where you are.

What still might vaguely mean something to you are the images. But, as the images are out of context already, your job is to headcanon them. What this means is you are fictionally recontextualizing out of context sources to form a narrative that makes sense to you. Our brains are pattern seeking, even when there’s no discernable pattern to find; we just make up the sinew and tissue needed to hold it together. A trait as old as drinking too much wine and making up bullshit stories about the stars.

So, use this to your advantage.

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“Jeong Park, Korea’s first door to door slipper salesman, driven into bankruptcy and madness by his customer’s refusal to consider indoor footwear. Last known clothed photograph before retiring to live nude in the wilderness.”

“And so the Crunchwrap Supreme Ruler decreed, and all those who called him leige lord ate only Taco Bell from that day onward. This sadly led to the Great Stink of 1437.”

I’ll switch up the language every time, which is easy, because I don’t speak any of them. Even if the images are largely creative commons, maybe don’t use the actual images in your final project, distilling out the inspired text, as you might make someone like King Leopold II the protagonist of your story not knowing better. If the image is that important to your story, at least look into its actual context first.

Conclusion:

You’re skipping the blank page syndrome where you’re trying to provide output. Instead, you’re responding to input.

Responding to stimulus is what our brains are designed for. Doing it the opposite direction is unnatural and hard, quite frankly.

Remember, the trick is volume. You’ll produce 10 bad ideas for every good one. Easing the process for mass generation is the key.

No matter what I do, I never ever start with a blank page or a blank document. That is depressing as hell and will shut you down fast.

We work in a creative medium, but spend a comparatively smaller amount of time discussing the creative process compared to other creative mediums. So please feel free to discuss that here.

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I love this. I am now using this.

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They’re shared in hopes of being of use, so definitely glad it’s of use to you.

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When I saw the title of this thread, I got “writer’s block” confused with “internal criticism,” and it reminded me of this tweet that CHANGED MY LIFE.

lifehack-monologue

(My experiences with writer’s block are generally less about coming up with ideas and more about giving myself permission to develop ideas further.)

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Honest to goodness, I use Tarot cards to get past writers block. You can do a full spread, or you can just pull random cards and look up the meanings (upright and reversed) and think about how that applies to whatever you’re stuck on. It’s the same principle you’ve identified, just another source of easy bite-size concepts to synthesize.

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Dixit cards can work in the same way.


A child is sitting on the pages of a giant opened book. On the pages is an image of bluish rounded hills with flowers. The book is lying on the tops of sharp-pointed brown-yellow dunes or waves. Even my choice of words can be misleading for the reader, because Dixit is all about the personal choice of words, the details one picks out,…

Dixit is originally a card game. The players draw cards from the deck and invent stories about them. Then the other players guess/deduce which player had which card.

Dixit (card game) - Wikipedia

It’s often used in therapy as a roundabout way for hurt and withdrawn people to open up about their emotions/trauma/state of mind through their choice of cards and the associations they make about them. The images on the cards are very evocative and polyinterpretable. (Not a word?)

Great way to jumpstart the narrative-engine parts of the brain.

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TIL!

Was not aware they were even a thing! Thanks for sharing that!

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Does this remind you of Emily Short’s San Tilapian Studies where you have to make up a story related to the San Tilapian region, given only three random words? A very good idea for a new jam, I suppose?

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I prefer random tables, either premade or ones I made myself. I like James Kato’s various Codexes.

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Yesterday I tried a new approach. New for me at least.

I was in class, with my students having to draw something in Illustrator. I have a fair confidence with them, so I asked, giving them no context:
“There’s this place blah blah blah,” I said. I am stranded in the making of a game and can’t figure out what’s in a location. “There’s this (vaguely described environment). What’s in the middle of it?”
A brief brainstorming started.

They obviously came up with nothing useful… but amidst their ramblings something popped up in my brain.

“Yes!” I shouted. “Of course, a (location I was looking for)!”

Share your project with people around you. Don’t give too much detail as they will probably invent something you don’t really need (like: a new story entirely), but wait for the waterfall of ideas to come up. The simple fact of believing you are better than them at inventing stories will put your brain in motion. With the added feature of having them feel they are part of something in your life, thus creating new bonds.

Stephen King says: “write with your door closed, rewrite opening it wide”. I may add “brainstorm in the city’s central square”.

(That, or ChatGPT, but the first will feel less like cheating).

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I LOVE Dixit. I want that for Christmas.

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Multivalent (sense 3), perhaps?

But yeah, at least half the fun of playing Dixit is just looking at the cards. They’re lovely.

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Perhaps the adjective you are looking for is polysemic?

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I thought of “polysemous” as well, but “multivalent” is the word I’ve more often heard used to describe symbolism across a range of art forms, text-based and not, while “polysemous” is more of a linguistic concept that I haven’t typically seen used to refer to textless visual art. But literally speaking it does just refer to a signifier that could signify multiple possible things, so probably either one works just as well.

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Tangent: Why is it that some adjectives in English language can have two different forms (polysemic-polysemous, polymorphic-polymorphous) but not others (polycentric-polycentrous)?

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It’s a complicated question, but I’ll take a stab at it, trying to be as concise as possible and not get into any linguistics-specific terminology:

We’ve borrowed (or had foisted off on us) a lot of words from a lot of different languages, with various different languages intervening in between the original language and us, so we’ve ended up with a lot of prefixes and suffixes that have different derivations but basically indicate the same thing. This is confusing, and as a result we tend to mix and match, pairing beginnings and endings with words they didn’t originally go with. This especially happens often when there are words that take different endings but otherwise have significant similarities, like “polycentric” (from the Greek kentrikos) vs. “polysemous” (semos) and “polymorphous” (morphos).

If enough people make the same matchup enough times, it becomes an accepted alternate form. (This is called linguistic descriptivism, and it makes a lot of people very angry, but the thing is that steadfastly refusing to put a common usage in the dictionary doesn’t actually stop people using it—just look at the unsuccessful efforts of the Académie Française. But I digress.)

So, to massively oversimplify, while there’s no “ic” sound in the root words of “polysemous” and “polymorphous”, because of the existence of words like “polycentric”, enough people felt like they should end in “-ic” that they wrote them that way for a few centuries and now we’re pretty much okay with it. It’s hard to say for certain why we haven’t done the same thing to “-centric” in the opposite direction, but if enough people did, eventually it would become accepted too.

(Edit: It occurs to me that semos being related to semantikos, which in English becomes “semantic”, probably also contributes to people feeling like it should be “-semic”.)

Shorter answer: As I used to tell my EFL students when they got more into the weeds about this than the length of the class period would allow, “English is full of mysteries.”

(Sorry for the derail—if we want to discuss this further I think we should split it out into its own thread.)

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For ‘mysteries’, read ‘animated corpses stitched together Frankenstein-style’. :relieved:

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In my experience, it’s not that writer’s block causes you to feel you can’t write at all. It’s that you feel you can’t write anything good.

So what? Why does everything you write have to be good? Write something bad or boring. Write room descriptions. Write a florid, embarrassing love letter to your secret crush. Write lists of items for a game world and describe them in minute detail. It doesn’t matter what, or if it’s any good. Don’t let the perfect get in the way. Writing is work. You don’t get to go to work and say you have worker’s block. You have to do it anyway, even if it’s subpar.

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A technique I’ve used in the past is to start with a description of a scene, either something you already have or just the blood-from-a-stone bare minimum you can scrape together. It’s okay if it’s boring.

The lecture hall is brightly lit and full of students. There is a desk up the front under a screen. There is a fire extinguisher and two doors.

Then take a random detail and turn it into its opposite. For example,

  • The room is dark and full of students.
  • There was no fire extinguisher in the room.

Any one of these is simply stated but punches a hole in the description for story to fill in. Why would someone give a lecture in the dark? Or for the second one, if there’s no fire extinguisher, what has gone wrong?

It doesn’t always work, but if you punch enough holes and examine the scene anew, usually something comes out or you want to fill the holes back in with something else.

It’s also a decent way to take a boring character and perhaps add a twist. Rather than grafting an interesting detail onto them, remove a boring detail and replace it with something different.

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I like that. It also adds a sense of… what are we thinking? How should we think? And can help players think in a way that is possibly important later.

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