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The Idea Factory: Writing Techniques

Pick a Word, Any Word

Carl Cravens
July 6, 2000
We all find ourselves there. You need to come up with something for the game this weekend, but you're drawing a blank. You want to make a character a little more interesting, but you can't come up with anything that catches your interest. You need to get something put together quick, but you've got a creative block half-a-mile wide. And I think I can help you with that. This column is devoted to exploring techniques for generating ideas, breaking through creative blocks, and adding spice to your games with ideas from outside sources.

My first technique is rather simple but I've found it to be very powerful. Use the dictionary. Just like when we reach for the phone book or a baby name book when we want modern-day names, you can also reach for the dictionary or thesaurus when you want random input into your creative process. Just open it up to a random page and pick a word. Let's examine this concept in the context of a problem I once faced.

The PC's were bumping up against a criminal organization in a city-based fantasy campaign of mine. I knew the details of a couple of important activities the organization was involved in, but I wanted to add a few more to give them a little more life. It wouldn't do to have the PC's start delving into the organization's activities and find that they aren't doing much of anything.

So I grabbed the dictionary and randomly picked a few words. Ten or so is usually a good start. Skip any that are obviously not going to be helpful, but don't be too picky. Just because a word doesn't immediately fit doesn't mean you can't use it. Figuring out what to hold on to and what to skip over is half the challenge, but once you've tried it a few times you'll get the hang of recognizing things you can use. You can always drop words and add new ones to your list as you go.

Once you have a good handful of words, look them over to see how they might fit together. Find about three to five words that seem to be going somewhere. You're just looking for ideas, asking yourself how words might fit together and how they might fit into the ideas you already have. You're looking for sparks, flashes of insight, not to piece together random puzzle parts that might not even be from the same puzzle. This is supposed to help you come up with new ideas, not become an exercise in futility. Sometimes you can get some really great ideas from forcing yourself to explore apparently disassociated words, so that's always worth trying, but don't end up beating your head against a wall because you can't make "popcorn" and "alar" work together.

So out of my first try, these four seemed to mesh for me, "contraband, drugs, flower, shaven." Not a bad list, because we can make ready connections among the first three. Flowers are used to make drugs, and drugs are often contraband. What can be shaven, though? Looking back to my campaign, I was considering shaking up the local religious scene with a controversial new cult. Ah-ha!

Drugs (made from a flower) are contraband in the kingdom. Monks of a new religion, with heads shaven as a sign of obedience, are using this drug in their rituals.

So the crime ring is selling large bundles of flowers that are used to make a powerful drug to the priests of that new cult in town. And that's just he start of it, because it brings up lots of interesting questions. What are the priests doing with the drug that they're willing to deal with notorious criminals to get the flowers? Where are the priests getting the money? Where's their "drug lab?" What's the criminal's supply source for the flower? So many questions, so many possible ideas, just out of one interpretation of four random words.

Some of those questions might be easy to answer, others might leave you in the same state as before. If so, hit the dictionary again. In my case, the next word was "oracle." Ah... so maybe the priests are using the drug to induce oracular dreams? Very fitting, as one of the PC's is searching for the gods, who have left the earth and no longer communicate with mortals. Anything that looks like it might be communication with the gods is going to attract his attention. I found this rather satisfactory and put my dictionary away, ready to flesh out the details of the cult and their relationship with the crime ring.

Want to try another? Let's look at the first ten to pop up... "pot, sprue, sightseer, secular, satin, baron, rawhide, adjust, hackmatack, brazen." This is a good place to point out that this tool works best when you're trying to apply it to something specific. Sometimes you might just randomly pick words without anything in mind until something jumps out at you, but most of the time knowing the context you're trying to work in helps focus the activity. But let's say that we're creating a character and are looking for ideas to flesh him out.

Hmmm... "baron, rawhide, brazen," jump out at me. How about the baron across the way is "rawhide and brazen?" He's rough, bold, says his mind and damn the consequences. There's no particular path of reasoning I took to get there, it's just what those words suggested to me. Remember that there aren't any rules here; whatever a word or combination of words suggests that you find useful, use it! That's the purpose of the exercise after all. But I'm creating a PC and I don't think a baron will get to go on adventures, so why don't we decide our PC is a knight sworn to this baron?

Is there anything else in that list that we could use to learn more about our knight? "Secular" makes me think of religion... is the knight a religious person? "Secular" implies "of the world" but I don't think our knight is. He's a man after our baron, strong and bold himself, willing to work with his hands and make his own way without leaning on anyone, but I think he has a strong faith in God and King. Notice that the word implied one thing and I considered its opposite. The words you've drawn can be used negatively as well as positively, helping define what something isn't as well as what it is.

What about "sprue?" A sprue is the little tree thingy that holds together the parts of a plastic model, where the plastic gets injected into the mold... "mold" makes me think of the baron's son; is he made from the same mold as his father? "Satin" makes me think maybe he isn't. I bet he's a fop, dressing in satin finery and getting upset when his dad sweats on his boots. Some potential for real tension there, the rough-and-tumble lord with a useless wastrel of a son who isn't fit to inherit the title of baron. And being a favorite of the baron, the baron's son hates our knight's guts. Ooh, what fun we can have with that.

I bet I can run with this idea for quite awhile before I run out of my own ideas. When I get stuck on the details again, I'll draw a few more words and we'll be off again. But let's look at one more idea.

So far, we've been taking our words literally. Another aspect to consider is symbolism. When is a rose not a rose? When it's a symbol of love. A sword is more than a weapon, it's a symbol of power, of war, of oaths sworn to a liege lord, of a military starship, of a king that stands straight and true. When you examine the words you draw, consider their symbolic meaning as well as their literal meaning. In our last list above, we find "hackmatack," which is a type of spruce tree. The idea of a tree makes me think of something that stands tall and strong, withstanding the ravages of weather and time. An old tree has seen many things and has grown wise. Maybe the tree represents the king. Do our thoughts of the tree represent the kind of person we want the king to be? Maybe he was once tall, strong and wise, but like the tree might, has become rotten on the inside with sickness and it's only a matter of time before he falls. Symbolism is powerful; don't neglect the possibility when using this tool.

And it's that simple. Randomly pull words out of the dictionary to give your imagination a boost. Follow the ideas produced by useful words, ignore those words that don't spark any ideas or seem counter to the ideas you're pursuing.

Now I'll have to admit, I don't reach for a paper dictionary anymore. It's difficult to be really random with it and it's a bit tedious to use. So I grabbed an electronic dictionary list and wrote a script around it to randomly pick words. You can find the word list and Perl script here.

The handy thing about moving away from the paper dictionary and to digital lists is we're no longer bound to pre-printed works. We can build our own lists. As an example, the above site also has a list of events that can be used to spark imagination.

In closing, in every column I'll recommend a book that I've found useful in my quest for ideas. This month's book is Building Believable Characters, by Marc McCutcheon, published by Writer's Digest Books. This book is rather useful in the context of the dictionary idea, because it's primarily a bunch of word lists describing character traits, appearance, dress, and so on. Very helpful when you or one of your players are stuck on the details of a character.

Carl D. Cravens

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