Taking Your Mind By Surprise with Story Grids

Edward de Bono of ‘lateral thinking’ fame suggested that introducing randomness and chance into the creative process produced better ideas than relying on what he called ‘routine thinking skills’ or simply trying hard to have ideas. I like to think of this as taking your mind by surprise. Here are some activities for doing this that I use for myself, such as story grids, when teaching creative writing to adults, and when working with children in schools.

Simple Linking

Gather some pictures of everyday objects. Give each object a number. Write the numbers on scraps of paper and drop them into a bag. Now draw out two of the numbers. Firstly, think of as many links as you can between the two items – this is a kind of mini-brainstorm that helps to get the mind into the creative mood. Next, especially if you’re looking for a kickstarter idea for a story, again choose two objects at random and ask yourself the question, ‘If these two things were to feature in my story, what would the story basically be about?’ Summarise your idea in a sentence or two and work from there. Simple linking also works well if you get ‘stuck’ while writing. If you need some inspiration for a character, draw one or two numbers at random from the bag and ask yourself how the corresponding objects link to that person.

A useful tip in all activities of this kind is to let the ideas come to you, rather than you struggling hard to force ideas. It’s like trying to remember a name: the harder you try, the more the name slips away. Instead, let go of all effort and the name will usually soon pop into mind as the outcome of subconscious mental activity.

You can develop the linking game by incorporating different concepts that form the basis of the theme or themes on which your story is based, and also give direction and a rationale for your characters’ motivations. Concepts I’ve found useful include justice, loyalty, freedom, identity, happiness, belief, truth, power and love. Tag each of these with a letter, write the letters on scraps of paper and drop them in the bag. Now draw out three or four of the scraps, which may be a combination of objects and concepts. Again, how do they connect and inform your story?

Names at Random

Some years ago I was commissioned to write three adult Horror novels. Up until then I’d written only children’s fiction. I planned the first adult novel in detail and was all fired up to write it, but realised that something was stopping me. At first I had no clue, but then it dawned on me that I wouldn’t want readers of my children’s books to come across stories of mine containing ‘adult content’.

I decided that the solution to this problem would be to write under a pseudonym. I was working in a school at the time and had a pile of unmarked exercise books on my desk. I told myself that I’d lift off some of the books and the first male name I came to, and then lifting off more books the first surname I saw, would be my pseudonym. It worked like a dream and Ben Leech had no hangups writing sex and violence in those three books.

The same trick of randomising works just as well for character names. Go to a library and pick two authors at random, one to select a first name and the second to select a surname. It doesn’t work every time, but you’ll generate more realistic sounding names more quickly than if you just sat and tried to make them up.

While on the subject of characters, do a spot of people watching. While walking around town, randomly collect details you observe from the people who pass by. Write these up on scraps of paper and draw some out at random to create a character you might otherwise never have thought of.

Coin Flip

Finally – and this is in no way frivolous – flip a coin to generate yes / no answers to closed questions. The technique is powerful and leads to a wealth of ‘unanticipated thoughts’. So you might ask, ‘will my next minor character be female?’ The coin will give you a yes or no answer. You may have been thinking beforehand of a male character, but the coin could now come up yes, female. This opens the door to other questions that flesh out your newly-created character.

Story Grids

This is another technique for generating stories using the random factor, except in this case we use dice rather than coins. Once you know how to make and use story grids, you’ll probably never be stuck for plot ideas again.

I’ll be running a workshop on this on Monday October 3rd, 2.00pm at The Dock.

Spaces are limited to 32 to sign up now to secure your place.

Join the workshop here


Steve-BowkettSteve Bowkett began writing for pleasure when he was twelve. He taught secondary English for twenty years. His first book, published in 1985, was a Fantasy novel for pre-teen readers.

He has since diversified into adult and teen horror, teen romance, mainstream fiction for pre-teens, fiction and non-fiction for younger readers and poetry for all ages. More recently Steve has published a number of teacher resource books on literacy, creativity, thinking skills and emotional resourcefulness.

To date he has published seventy-six titles and numerous short stories and poems. Over the years he has visited hundreds of schools to do storytelling sessions, run creative writing and thinking workshops, give talks about writing and run CPD training sessions.


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