How to Hack the Habit of Creativity

creative mindWriting a good novel demands a number of skills from an author.  You need to have a strong writing voice.  You have to be able to read people and get inside a person’s head.  You should be able to let your characters provide commentary on life and the book’s themes, whether consciously or not.  And you’ve got to be well read, well researched, and reflective so that you will be equipped to think things through.

But sometimes those skills, which require experience and thoughtfulness, can feel at odds with another skill that we need as writers: creativity.

There are thousands of ideas in a novel, buried in every paragraph on every page.  But we approach the process of creating those ideas as if it were mystical, and we have a tendency to discount their importance behind a veil of execution.  We treat creativity as wild and unpredictable, while execution is straightforward and deliberate.  But can we really separate the two when we’re trying to figure out the best way to spice up and surprise a reader in the dialogue of chapter seventeen?  Executing a good novel demands a constant flow of good ideas.

Creativity is a Skill and a Habit

We’ve all heard that ideas are a dime a dozen, and it’s true.  But they’re like those card game booster packs.  The ideas you get can appear random, most of them you’ve seen before, very few of them work with what you’re doing, and the ones that are truly great might not look that way until you’ve reconsidered how to include them.  But readers want a novel that surprises them, so as writers, we have to find some way to crack into this creative process.  Can we get control of what’s in our idea booster packs?

Yes, it’s possible.  Creativity isn’t mystical or wild.  It’s a skill and a habit we can develop like any other.  The ideas we think of are the connections we make from a starting point, the “triggers.”  Dungeon?  Dragon.  Wizard?  Staff.  Our creativity is a measure of how numerous and different our connections are, the breadth and depth of those ideas.

The Obvious Choice vs. the Creative Choice

When we focus, the brain draws out connections that are close together.  But when we’re relaxed, and the mind takes its creative downtime, it uses the extra energy to wander into connections that are farther apart.  Dungeon?  High School.  Wizard?  Stephen King.  The difference between the obvious choice and the creative choice represents creative depth.  The farther we reach to find useful ideas, the more our readers will be surprised and the stronger they should react.  Isn’t that what writing’s all about?

So we need to push, and dig, and question our ideas, fearing that we might not find anything.  We need to practice our creativity so that it comes on demand, when we need it, so that we can plow through that chapter 17 dialogue and still make it as compelling as the chapter driven by that random creative spark from the grocery store.

What’s your emotional response to a dungeon?  Trapped.  Hostile.  Lonely.  For a wizard?  Capable.  Impressive.  Impossible.  What else triggers those responses?  High School.  Stephen King.  That’s all the brain does when it’s on its own.  That’s all the “mystery” is.  Knowing that, what else can we do to play with our ideas?

Surprising the Reader

First, there’s another piece at play.  The reader.  At any point in a book a reader might stop and think, “Based on what I’ve read so far, what happens next?”  On every page we’re giving our readers triggers.  If we’re not careful, we may end up giving our readers the same triggers from which we got our ideas.  Dungeon?  Wizard?  Their minds work, too.  “This book’s about a wizard that’s been sent to the dungeon.  I bet it’ll be like a geek in High School, only with more cruelty.”

But if we know where we’re getting our ideas, and we’re in control of the ideas our reader gets, then we can trick our readers.

Never mind trapped, hostile, and lonely.  What if we made our dungeon playful, rude and busy?  We might think of a daycare center, birthday party, April Fool’s day, or a speed dating session.  Those ideas look different and weird, but take those concepts and bundle them back into the dungeon in our book.  We now have a slew of creative ideas for how inmates might treat a new prisoner, engaging him or her with useless activities, throwing a party, pulling pranks, and pushing the new person into meeting lots of new people.  The first day in a dungeon might feel playful.  Rude.  Busy.  Not the trapped, hostile and lonely place readers might expect.

And for the wizard?  Forget capable, impressive, and impossible.  Let’s try shy, subtle, and endearing.  Now we might think of children, naivety, awkward first kisses, the kind of innocence you drastically want to keep out of a trapped and hostile dungeon.  But this is a main character and I want more ideas than that, so I’ll do it again.  Let’s take it to the other direction and try mean, subtle, and deceptive.  Now we might think of con men, lies, evil older siblings, and the crooked uncle nobody talks about – the kind of person you expect might belongs in prison.  Two ideas that look at odds, but we can make them work.  Roll them back into the wizard, and we have a character using magic to deceive the other inmates, and for a moment the reader, into believing he or she is someone quite different from the truth.

But is our wizard a con man pretending to be naive and innocent, or a naive and innocent person pretending to be a con man to fit in better in a dungeon?  That’s a choice for the creative judgment, and there are no gimmicks to help making it.

Defying Expectations

From dungeon and wizard, the reader would expect none of this – unless they’ve read the back of the book blurb.  The opening concept of your book should be the best example of your creativity, but not its full extent.  An impossible wizard trapped in a hostile dungeon can make a great book if you can figure out how to still make it compelling on every page, even the dialogue buried in chapter 17.  Creativity doesn’t stop with the concept.  A writer can’t rely solely on the grocery store spark or the big ideas that percolate for years.  You need to develop a habit of thinking creatively in order to get through the muddle in the middle.

So for the would-be boring dialogue of chapter 17, what are you expecting, why are you expecting it, and how can you play with the triggers creating that expectation?

What are some examples of books and stories that have found creative ways to surprise you?

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Amy Masreliez
Amy Masreliez
5 years ago

I enjoyed reading your article. My thought is that one is able to easily defy expectations when they cultivate the habit of tapping the soul voice. Creativity never lacks genius at that point. Also, every individual is unique and may offer various creative talents that he / she can grow a deep awareness of, such as talking unlimited connections, emotion and meaning in life. This all comes from finding ones soul voice, not just consistently and habitually performing mental gymnastics.

Shah Wharton
8 years ago

Defying expectations… love that. Very thought provoking post. Thanks. Bookmarked!

8 years ago

Great article, contained some really practical tips that will definitely help me in my writing in future! “The Obvious Choice vs The Creative Choice” – much easier said than done, especially when your brain pressures you into choosing whatever seems most logical/rational at the time (which is fatal when your aim is to inspire fantasy and creativity!).

Annie Marie Peters
Annie Marie Peters
8 years ago

Interesting article! I like your concept of defying expectations. This is something to make use of as a writer and to appreciate as a reader. Creativity is what keeps us all coming back for more!

Dany Rae Miller
8 years ago

The predictable choices are typically the first that come to mind in practically every type of brainstorming session, business or pleasure. It’s when you stretch past the quickly blurted out answers that you strike fresh thoughts.

For instance, that Dr. Crowe was dead all along in The Sixth Sense didn’t occur to M. Night Shyamalan until he was working on the fifth draft of the story.

Michael Cairns
8 years ago

Hi Brian
Really interesting post, thanks.
I think creativity is often bundled up with the undefinable parts of life. Something like writer’s block is far easier to explain when we see creativity as something mystical and unmeasurable. But you’re absolutely right when you say it is a habit.
I like your links idea, of tracking where your brain takes a certain idea and subverting that. I heard a fantastic podcast a while ago in which Austin Kleon spoke compellingly about the need to acknowledge your influences and make them as broad and plentiful as possible. I think the links you speak of are more likely to be original and varied if your influences are such. So creativity is a habit, that is made stronger and more powerful through practice and attention to the process. Influences are the fuel that drive those ideas and make the habit easier to build. I think 🙂
Great post, cheers

Ashana Lian
8 years ago

I really enjoyed this article!!
I’ve started a routine of ensuring I read one fantasy book a week s that I can get through more. The one I reviewed on my blog for last week was very interesting, because although it was very creative and had turn the reader didn’t expect, I personally found that the route the plot went down wasn’t satisfying at all and actually left me feeling like something was missing.

That makes me wonder if, although we appreciate twists and get excited when they happen, we do expect a least a small degree of familiarity or comfort when the story comes to a close. (That thought makes me feel concerned about the way I wanted to end my book. =/ ) My sister said that she thinks the author “tried too hard to NOT make it a happy ending.” It starts to get confusing, because then I start to wonder what to think about how a good/satisfying plot should be.

ANYHOW, thank you for sharing this post, I loved the analogy of the wizard in the dungeon. Even that made me perk up with a idea! Too bad I’m already writing half a dozen short fics and a book on top of that. Haha, I’ll be back for your next post! c:

Reply to  Ashana Lian
8 years ago

I’m glad you enjoyed it Ashana!

It’s definitely true that we need a level of familiarity with our reading. There’s a good reason that J.K. Rowling and Tolkein share a lot of common tropes, while ultimately being nothing alike.

Creativity doesn’t defy the familiar. If anything, I think you get farther by using the two together. A story about a hero, who has to create his own army of orcs to defeat the dark lord, and then face the consequences, would gain most of its power from those familiar elements.

Reply to  Ashana Lian
8 years ago

As for whether we need a happy ending, I’ve always felt that the ending should feel “surprising and inevitable.” The twists should come from somewhere, even if it defies the reader’s expectations. And even if the end is bittersweet, in all of the successful works I can think of, the final note has been hopeful. The last few pages tilted upward, even after the character’s world was devastated.

Nobody wants to put a book to end while they’re still crying.

8 years ago

Another great article! The unexpected twists in tales are what keep me reading. I’m working on incorporating them into my current fantasy novel and the tale is getting twisted into something even I did not expect.

Antonio del Drago
8 years ago

The ending of Breaking Bad surprised me.


Yes, Walt got the fate that he deserved. But he also managed to find some small measure of redemption in his last minute decision to save Jesse. I didn’t see that coming.

So on one hand, the ending of Breaking Bad was predictable. We all knew that things would not work out for Walt.

But this predictable ending was made fresh and creative by Walt’s surprising choice.

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