how to think more creatively and come up with better ideas




There’s a show I like to watch when I’m on the treadmill called A WORK OF ART. In the same vein as TOP CHEF or PROJECT RUNWAY, it’s about a group of artists who complete an assignment each week. Their works are put on display and critiqued by the judges. One of them is pronounced that week’s winner and one of them is eliminated.

My favorite is Miles, a talented twentysomething who is puppy-cute and has OCD (as soon as I learned he had OCD I figured he’d be one of the top contenders, because no one else in the group is likely to be as obsessed as he is, which means they probably haven’t put in the same kind of intense and deliberate practice). Miles, overstimulated by his new environment and the abrupt change in routine, is having trouble sleeping. In two out of the first five episodes, after the artists are presented with their assignment and given a half hour or so to think up an idea, Miles finds a place to curl up and take a nap. His peers can only shake their heads and question his judgment.

The irony is that Miles is probably doing one of the best things he can do to shift into creative thinking. Sure enough, he wakes up with an idea, gets to work, produces a successful piece and places near the top of that week’s competition.

A nap is a powerful thing. Studies have linked napping to an increased boost in creativity (when Einstein was troubled by a problem, he would lie down and take a long nap). Although the most effective nap seems to be at least 90 minutes and containing REM sleep (dream sleep), even a quick doze will relax your body and alter your brain rhythms and allow you to access the more creative, freewheeling part of your mind.

If you can’t nap, zone out and daydream. Mental wandering might not seem like a productive use of time, but that’s when creative thinking is actually taking place. Your mind is free to roam through all its memory banks, including places that your conscious mind can’t get to, and to pick up odd snippets and fragments. This is when you’re likely to make those unexpected connections or insights that will solve that problem you’ve been mulling over all week. A recent study at the University of British Columbia has demonstrated that, when daydreaming, the brain is actually recruiting complex regions of itself including the “executive network”, the command-and-control center of your mind that gathers all the streams of information coming in from various sources and evaluates and interprets them.


What is an idea, anyway?

James Webb Young says “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”.

Jack Foster, in his book HOW TO GET IDEAS agrees: “everything I’ve ever read about ideas talks about combining or linkage or juxtaposition of synthesis or association”.

In her book THE CREATIVE BRAIN, Nancy C Andreasen presents studies that demonstrate how the myth of the tormented artist might not be just a myth. A significantly higher percentage of artists and writers have close relatives with schizophrenia than does the rest of the population. (Quick note: I’m a writer and one of my own uncles had schizophrenia.) It’s been suggested that the brain of an unusually creative person doesn’t filter incoming stimuli in quite the same manner as a more “normal” brain: instead, information jostles around in a way that encourages freewheeling and associative thinking, linking disparate elements in unexpected relationships. When this process is coherent, what might result is a new play or symphony or artistic technique or scientific theory. When this process breaks down, what might result is mental illness. So perhaps unusually creative people do live a little closer to the edge of sanity than the rest of us, and some might even cross it now and again (John Nash, the subject of Ron Howard’s film A BEAUTIFUL MIND, is one example).

Which doesn’t mean that you need to go insane to come up with good ideas.

But it’s important to recognize that in order to be creative you need to train your mind to go beyond the patterns of everyday routine. As Tim Hurson puts it in his book THINK BETTER, “Human beings are far more skilled at following old patterns than at thinking new thoughts.” Although it’s almost impossible to escape from our patterns of living and thinking – which influence us in ways we’re not always aware of – it’s possible to think through them.

One way to do this is by brainstorming…but Hurson makes the point that most people brainstorm badly. Most people will list some ideas, say “yes” or “no” to each idea as it gets jotted down, and then stop at the first idea that seems “right”.

Good brainstorming gets rid of the binary. Each idea isn’t met with a “yes” or a “no”…but a maybe.

Good brainstorming separates critical thinking from creative thinking. The two cannot co-exist; you’re either thinking one way or the other. So to immediately judge your ideas is to limit the quality and quantity of the ideas that you can come up with in the first place.

Good brainstorming lets the creative side of your mind have full reign. No criticism is allowed. The crazier and wilder the idea, the better; as Hurson says, it’s always easier to tame down an idea than it is to wild one up.

Good brainstorming also makes it a point to generate a long, long list of ideas. Hurson talks about “the miracle of the third third”: the best ideas, the most innovative and interesting and gamechanging ideas, come in the final third of the brainstorming session.

Studies have shown that…the first third of the session tends to produce mundane, every-one-has-thought-of-them-before ideas. These are the early thoughts that lie very close to the surface of our consciousness. They tend not to be new ideas at all but recollections of old ideas we’ve heard elsewhere….

…the second third of a good brainstorming session produces ideas that begin to stretch boundaries. These are the ideas that are often still constrained by what we know but are more than simple regurgitations of what we’ve heard or thought before.

The third third is where the diamonds lie…These are the unexpected connections…In bad brainstorming, we never get to the third third. In good brainstorming, getting to the third third is the point.

(The more ideas you come up with, the more good and useful ideas will be among them. Then you can sift through the ideas, refine and develop the ones you like best, or combine some of them into still other ideas.)

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, wrote: “The problem is never how to get new innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Ever mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”

The Greeks have a word called kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” You must empty yourself before you can fill yourself again.

Remember this the next time you brainstorm. Think up ideas until you get to the point where you don’t think there are any ideas left in you.

Then go on and think up some more.

Hitting that point of frustration – that “there are no more ideas in the world” point – is a good sign. It means you’re empty. The real fun can begin. You’ve entered the “third third”, and it’s a place where not a lot of people know to go.


Hollywood is known for the “high concept idea”. High concept means that the idea has mass appeal, is familiar yet new, and can be communicated in a few words – “snakes on a plane” – that nonetheless conveys the sense of the entire movie on an immediate, visceral level.

Putting aside the fact that these films tend to suck – note to Hollywood: a good movie requires a skill, depth and flair of execution as well as an idea – it’s worth taking a look at how the concept of high concept might be of use to novelists. You might or might not be writing for the masses, but high-concept forces you to know what your story is in a way that can be easily communicated to people…which means that they can turn around and easily communicate it to others. Your novel doesn’t just get pitched once…it gets pitched over and over again. Editors have to pitch their colleagues on your project in order to drum up enough in-house enthusiasm to buy the manuscript. Sales people then have to sell it to the bookstore buyers. If you’re lucky, bloggers will want to pitch it to their readers, who will like it so much they’ll want to pitch it to their friends.

And what is a high-concept idea but, like any other idea, “a new combination of old elements”?

At his blog STORYFIX, Larry Brooks defines high-concept as

a story idea that delivers more originality — and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that story’s genre.

High concept is not character focused or driven, it suggests a dramatic scenario or device – be it clever, unexpected, unseen, frightening or just plain brilliant – that becomes the landscape upon which characters will reveal themselves.

Story is not character, story is conflict. And high concept implies that conflict.

(Quick note: I would add that conflict is character and character is conflict, because conflict reveals character and character drives conflict. It can be big conflict, or little conflict, blatant conflict or subtle conflict, but there’s gotta be conflict. Do we get insight into your character’s true nature when he’s whistling on his happy walk to Starbucks? Not so much. But what about when he starts arguing with the barista because she doesn’t make his drink fast enough [and refused to sleep with him last Friday]? Conflict fascinates us because it shows us who people are, pushes them past their limits and forces them to change. But I digress.)

Let’s go back to that first bit: a story idea that delivers more originality – and thus, inherent appeal – than what is usually found in that genre…

So what is originality? In my previous post I compare originality with soul and quote Donald Maass:

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. They enact the author’s concept of what their novel should feel like to read rather than what their inner storyteller urgently needs to say.

Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak. Embrace the importance of what you have to share with the rest of us and you have the beginning of what makes novels great.

Finding a high-concept idea, then, means coming up with an idea that is a distinct and unique reflection of you. It lives at the crossroads of your own interests, life experience, passions, obsessions. It fleshes out your personal philosophy, your worldview. It is a combination of the elements of you. Which means that even if someone else stole it, they wouldn’t be able to execute it the way that only you can.

James Bonnet breaks down the “high concept idea” into four parts: fascinating subject matter, great title, awesome inciting incident, sweet hook.

What are the subjects that fascinate you? Make a list. Identify the two or three that compel you the most. How could you combine them into one story? New genres knit themselves into being through the combination of old genres: chick lit + vampires + noir, for example. My own novel-in-progress combines my interests in true crime, abnormal psychology and reincarnation (and of course the love and the sex).

The inciting incident is the story event that sets up the central story problem that needs to be resolved. Everything that happens after the inciting incident happens in some way because of that incident, in one long chain of cause-and-effect.

The ‘hook’ is what makes your story problem unique, fresh, you. It takes a familiar plot (boy meets girl, coming of age, search for a serial killer, vampires in love) and gives it a twist, an unexpected reversal, special circumstances. It raises the stakes and increases interest (perhaps the serial killer is the detective’s brother. Or ex-lover. Or father. Perhaps the coming-of-age is of a brilliant young bisexual artist in Paris during the French Revolution.)

Think about your subject matter, your story problem, your ‘hook’. Try some proper brainstorming for each and all of them. How can you create a story problem out of your combined subject matter? What could be your hook?

Push yourself to find an idea that resonates, that not only seems “original” but sparks a slow-burning fire in the pit of your writer-core and makes a person’s eyes light up when you tell it to them.


Most of all, don’t stress out. Don’t get frustrated. Push yourself, but don’t get down on yourself. Keep it light and enjoyable. Negativity is death to creativity.

Creative thinking is fun and playful thinking.

Paul Valery once said, “Serious people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.”

For as Arthur Koestler and Jack Foster point out, “the basis of humor is also the basis of creativity – the unexpected joining of dissimilar elements to form a new whole that actually makes sense.” It’s that sudden left turn when you were expecting to go straight. And takes us to all kinds of cool places.

Jul 20, 2010

25 comments · Add Yours

Justine, once again your column hits home with me! Your remarks about brainstorming, napping, and mental wandering jump-starting creativity particularly spoke to me, as I’ve gotten some of my best ideas for my fiction from dreams or what my dear late mom used to playfully call “woolgathering.” It just goes to show that letting your mind and/or body rest and recoup can be a boon to us writers. Thanks for another excellent column!


Thanks Dorian!

I believe in “dreamtime”, or mental wandering, or whatever you want to call it…I do a fair bit of it. Possibly too much. :)


thanks, Justine. I will use this with my creative writing students!


Awesome! :: is happy ::


Hi Justine,
As someone who used to love writing as a child, and is just slowly getting back into it almost 20 years later, I loved finding your blog (via Blog Catalogue).
I’ve subscribed – looking forward to having a good look later.


Hi Justine,
Great blog here — I am a new visitor and will certainly be back.
I also follow Larry Brooks over at StoryFix — thanks for mentioning him here.

I’m a scientist by trade who has recently started writing again (creative writing as opposed to scientific manuscripts), your article came at just the right time for me. I’m am well versed regarding neuroplasticity and how easy it is for us to stay locked into patterns. You’ve provided solid tips about how break free from our patterns and find a well of creativity– thank you!



so day-dreaming and napping are signs of creativity? I was more creative than I thought!

now to get my boss to let me nap in the conference room!


Ben, awesome, glad to have you here.

(And that’s the thing about writing — seems that if you’ve got the itch, you’ve got it for the rest of your life, even if you try to put it aside for a while.)


I’ve been reading about patterns and thinking a bit about how I’ve been locked into a few of my own.

Thanks for your comment, hope you come around again!


Hello Justine,

As I was reading your description of three-part brainstorming, it occurred to me that reaching the last level of unique creativity is what happens in serious writing. Isn’t a first draft mostly about getting our initial ideas down? And then we must rewrite and rewrite…and rewrite, hopefully going deeper and deeper…and even deeper into our material until it starts writing itself, and new ideas spring forth effortlessly as if we were channeling them. (Or maybe we are.)

Oh yes, the “HIGH CONCEPT.” I wonder how many boring movies come out each year that started out as a great pitch. Too many I suppose.

Thanks again for gathering wisdom and gifting it to us.



At times, I become naracleptic when I’m working on my book. When the intense drowsiness takes over I bring along a notebook and pen and without fail, just as I fall asleep, ideas jump forward. They don’t all make it to the typed page, but it’s a relief knowing my imagination is a treasure trove when I am not fully conscious.
Thanks for putting so many ideas into words.


Great post, and really helpful for teachings those who have trouble with getting ideas out.

Creativity isn’t my problem, getting paid for it is. I managed to make a living as a performing artist. I make very little from my incarnation as a visual artist and I’ve just begun on the tread mill of the writer. Masses of creativity is pouring out of me, but no financial returns yet.

Still, I’m doing all the things you say we should do and I have an agent, so you never know, I might be able to contribute to the family budget before hubby forces back into ‘paid’ work. OMG we don’t write for money, do we? But we need it like everyone else.



This is a really terrific post. I agree with a lot of what you say but especially about writers infusing their work with their experiences and personalities.

I’ve talked to fellow writers and read the comments on some of my posts on this subject and I get the impression that writers don’t do this for a few reasons.

– They distrust the self centered aesthetics (of plot, sentence etc.) common to literary fiction of the last generation.
– They don’t think their lives are exciting enough to provide fodder for a story
– They don’t think stories need this infusion of personality because they’ve read many published novels without it.

Thanks for sharing.


Hi Irving!

That’s a good point about the multiple drafts…Which is also why I’ve learned to keep my outline loose and flexible, because I know better ideas will start to surface as I move deeper into the process and so I need to pay attention. (I also realize now that I should have pushed for deeper ideas to create that outline to begin with.)

Writing may indeed be in the rewriting, but so is better *thinking*…


There’s a line I took from a book about improv: “there’s always something in the box”. You just have to trust your mind to show it to you.


Good points.

I would say also — and I’ve blogged a bit about this before, because I’ve witnessed it in myself and in members of my writing group — that it requires a willingness to “go there”, to expose yourself and make yourself vulnerable, that runs counter-intuitive to all the messages we absorb growing up about what it means to be “strong”. You have to write down through the layers of your own defenses, and this requires (among other things) a level of self-awareness that not everybody has (or is willing to develop).


Does Jaclyn Smith mind you using her Charlie’s Angels-era pic? ;)

Jeff P.


Is *that* who I was reminding myself of? :)


Hi Justine,

I just discovered your blog via Twitter. This post resonated with me because I have to “go there,” (and want to) for a synopsis for my agent. The problem lies in the fact that going there is much easier when you write the novel first. I wonder how you would tackle a synopsis in this case, knowing that later, once you began the novel, stronger ideas would likely surface?

In any case, I’m subscribing! :)



Aloha Justine~ If you haven’t already, go see the movie ‘Inception’ because Nolan does a FAB job of conveying a lot of what you’ve discussed here. One of my fave reviews of the movie presented it as simply Nolan’s way of describing his own creative process (i.e., the DiCaprio character is the filmmaker, the architect is the screenwriter, etc.). Fascinating stuff! LOVE your blog, btw. You rock! ;-) ~Mia

I wrote a similar article on creativity and getting ideas. We must have been doing some of the same research!
Aloha- Toby


Hello Justine,

I found your post to be interesting and decided to share it on my blog.

Good job!


Congratulations! That is right on the money! Very well researched and well written article. However, the idea of how to become more creative can be served up in a three step plan:



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