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Lateral Thinking for Writers
by Ahmed A. Khan

Return to Fiction Tips & Techniques · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When Edward de Bono first propounded the principles of lateral thinking, it is quite possible that even he never dreamed of the various fields in which these principles could be and would be applied. Creative writing, and particularly fiction writing, is one off beat field where some techniques of lateral thinking can be usefully applied.

From my personal experience, I can state that there are three most useful lateral thinking techniques from the point of view of a writer. I have named them the hyper jump, the random stimulation, and the reversal.

Of these three techniques, the reversal method is the easiest to use. Take an accepted fact, turn it on its head, then justify the reversed fact.

For example, it is an accepted fact that man descended from apes. Now reverse it. You have the premise that apes descended from man. At this point, there are two ways to develop the story. Either you begin with the above stated premise and use your story to prove its truth, or you forget about proving anything and simply construct your story in such a way that the events in the story lead to the conclusion that apes did descend from man. I used this idea in a short-story called "Ancestor". The story has been published in GateWay S-F.

Writers have been using this writing technique long before the advent of lateral thinking and long before the technique was named. One of the earliest examples of the application of reversal technique in English literature is probably H.G. Wells' famous story, "The Country of the Blind." Here, Wells takes the age old adage that in the land of the blind, even a one-eyed person would be king, upends it and shows us that, on the contrary, a person with sight would be useless in the country of the blind.

It is interesting to note that it was this technique that -- in the middle of the twentieth century -- changed a small publishing concern into a multi-million-dollar empire. Prior to 1961, it was assumed in the comics industry that having super powers is a great thing. Then along came Stan Lee and started producing comics (Fantastic Four, Spider Man, Incredible Hulk) that showed that super powers can bring more trouble than good. People liked this new, unexpected angle, and Marvel Comics shot to fame.

Let me now come to the second lateral thinking technique: the "hyper jump."

In this technique, the writer starts by assuming a totally unbelievable, improbable and almost impossible condition, then proceeds to show that such a condition is after all possible.

For example, ask yourself a question: Why did we stop manned rocket flights to moon? Jump to a wild conclusion: Because the moon, in actual fact, turned into green cheese. Too wild? Well, John Brunner did write a story wherein the moon turned into green cheese -- and it was not a fantasy, but was a science fiction story.

At this point it is fairly obvious that both these techniques are more useful in generation of story ideas than as plot development devices. More suited for use in plot development is the technique of random stimulation.

The idea is to take a topic or theme. Then randomly pick a couple of other words or concepts and strain your imaginative powers in trying to relate these random words or concepts to your theme.

This technique can be used to generate story ideas as well to develop the plot of an ongoing story.

The writing prompts are the most common form of applying this technique but sometimes just the prompts are not enough. Not every writer (with the possible exception of Harlan Ellison) has the facility to write a story at the drop of the proverbial hat. Sometimes the stimulation needs to come from more than one source. A better way of generating stories using random stimulation is described below.

Choose a key word from the story idea or the plot that you want to develop. Take a dictionary, open it at random and make note of the first word that you spot on the page. Repeat the procedure to get a second random word. Now rack your brains to come up with some common plot threads or backgrounds that could link the two random words with your key word. You would be surprised at the number of truly innovative ideas that you can generate this way if you really dig in.

As an illustration of story idea generation using random stimulation, take "success" as your key word, i.e. you plan to write a story that deals with some aspect of success. Let your random words be "butterfly" and "library." See what scheme you can come up with that could link these words with your key word. Try word associations: library - knowledge; butterfly - metamorphosis. There is a girl who works in the library. She is drab and homely and laid back. She decides to change herself but doesn't know how. She thinks of the library where she works. Here is a reservoir of knowledge, an easily accessible resource. She turns to books on self-improvement topics, reads them, follows the instructions and starts to change for the better. So here is your basic story idea, generated out of a theme and two random words.

Let us now move to plot development. You go for random stimulation again. You open the dictionary at random and the first word you see is "elephant." Now what has elephant got to do with a girl who is working in a library? Let us try word associations: elephant - elephantiasis - disease. Yes, it may be possible to relate disease to your heroine. Does she fall ill? Let us say she fakes illness. Now why would she do that? Maybe to test someone. Who? Well, with her improved personality, she was able to make friends with a few people. Two of them -- boys -- have come quite close to her. Both have proposed to her and she cannot decide between them. Well, why not test their mettle, the truth of their feelings for her, by faking some nerve wracking sickness and waiting to see who provided her with support and solace in such a condition?

Thus progresses the plot.

Three cheers for lateral thinking.

Find Out More...

Mindplay - Peggy Bechko

Visualization Exercises for Writers - Holly Lisle

Copyright © 2009 Ahmed Khan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Ahmed A. Khan is an IT professional who is infected with the writing bug. He was born in India but now lives in Canada and has had nonfiction articles and short stories published in magazines across the world. His work has appeared in Science Today and Femina in India, Kuwait Times, Arab Times, Murderous Intent, Realms, Imelod, Anotherealm, AlienQ, Pif, Cyber Oasis, GateWay S-F, Jackhammer, Millennium SF, Strange Horizons, The Phone Book etc. Visit his blog and get more information about his works at http://www.angelfire.com/zine2/fictiononline/.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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