There Are No Bad Ideas: Ideation for Storytellers

“There is no such thing as a bad idea.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before—you might have even seen it on another creative advice website. It’s the sort of entry level advice that is both incredibly valuable and infuriatingly reductive. The truth is a bit more complex. There are bad ideas, but that does not mean that they are without merit or value.

When Luke and I resolved to author a fantasy story together, we didn’t have any particular plot in mind. In the interests of simplicity, we wouldn’t shy away from genre conventions, but there was no real structure to begin with. There were, however, three conditions we wanted in place to influence the direction of our story. First, our protagonist would explicitly follow the stages of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Second, we wanted our protagonist to be a woman. Third, we wanted her to be stuck with a sword she could not wield. Simple enough.

20160407_113805To make the most of our conditions, I challenged Luke to do something I knew he would find difficult. Instead of running with the first idea that came to mind, I asked him to write three separate and distinct story treatments. In the interests of fairness, I would do the same.

This is a strategy used during the process of ideation. Ideation is the process of generating, developing and communicating your ideas. Obvious enough – it is something we have all done before. There are some useful strategies out there to help you with the process. Communicating your ideas is up to you. That is, in point of fact, the act of storytelling itself. Generating and developing ideas, though, that may not be as simple.

A few summers ago I was lucky enough to work with Actua, a national charity that runs STEM-based programs for youth across Canada. They had partnered with Rotman school of Management to develop and run the Big Ideas summer camp. In a nutshell, Big Ideas taught business design theory to school-aged children. Rotman really likes ideation (even in the face of criticisms that the word ‘ideation’ is meaningless jargon), and I am absolutely a convert. The aspect of Big Ideas that I found most valuable was the focus on innovation and, in particular, the strategies we used to help the children solve real-world design problems.

Generating ideas was easy. We gave the kids a big blank piece of paper, markers, and a simple problem (that is actually not-so-simple after all), something like “how do you make a can opener easier to use for someone who suffers from arthritis?” We would then encouraged our students to write down anything and everything that crossed their minds. The constant refrain here was – you guessed it – there is no such thing as a bad idea.

Developing those ideas is tougher. An average group of four students would have close to fifty ideas on one piece of paper. Some were Rube Goldberg contraptions, some were insane and scientifically impossible like “genetically engineer a Yeti to open the cans for people.” Others were maybe too direct – my personal favourite, “cure arthritis.”

American actor Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm in a scene from the film 'Jurassic Park', 1993. (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)
(Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)

The trick is learning not to put too much faith (or ego!) in any one of these prototype solutions. We’re predisposed to sticking with the idea we came up with first – this is psychology 101 stuff, cognitive bias. We want to overcome our biases and recognise the value in each of the ideas. We want to see what each idea can tells us about a more developed solution to the problem. Having a personal Yeti to open you cans is incredibly awesome, but it is impractical, scientifically unlikely, and is definitely not economical, which doesn’t even touch on the questions of Human-Yeti relations and Yeti rights (and indeed the whole ‘ethics of Jurassic Park’ question). In short, Ian Malcolm is right and the Yeti solution is actually a very bad idea. But in that bad idea, there is something of merit – perhaps the solution does not lie with the can opener, but rather with the person who is opening the can?

The next step is to take the valuable part of the Yeti idea and see how it interacts with the 49 other ideas the group has on their paper. Look for patterns, look for points of interest, look for where ideas agree with each other, and places where they are at odds. By taking a wealth of ideas, putting them all in front of us, and really looking at how those ideas interact, we can come up with the best possible solution to the problem we are faced with. By using this ideation strategy (along side some other valuable processes with jargony names like ‘needs-finding’) more than half of the student groups I worked with came up with an elegant solution that just so happened to match the one used in the real world: ergonomic grips on the can openers.

Now, let me hit you with the whammy: telling a story is solving a problem.  The problem, in our case, was simply this: what is the best version of the story we want to tell? By asking Luke to write three outlines, I was trying to force him to overcome his cognitive bias just as I would try to overcome mine. Although we have no illusions about the nature of Charlotte’s Journey (its a by-the-numbers fantasy story), we wanted it to be the very best it could be; we wanted to challenge ourselves to do something simple very well.

Luke’s original idea, The tale of Prota the First, would have been a story of a headstrong girl learning an important lesson: sometimes you need help from others to save the world. My first idea, the tale of Suzy A., would have been an adequate story of escaping from an evil enemy’s land, even if it was a bit heavy on the goats. Neither one, however, would have been the best version of Charlotte’s Journey. Each provided us with a few nuggets of gold, small parts of a tapestry of ideas that would coalesce into something that became more than the sum of its parts. We’re still working on communicating the ideas we’ve had (that’s Charlotte’s Journey on the whole!), so we’re still in the process of ideating, but we’ve reached the point where our ideas are well and thoroughly developed. You see, after Luke and I made a giant idea map out of our six story treatments, after we pulled out the best parts and combined the best stuff we had and talked about what we wanted to use going forward, I made him do it again. Three more story treatments each, using the gold from the first round and whatever else we could come up with.

Luke's initial reaction to my story treatments.
Luke’s initial reaction to my story treatments.

I think Luke hated me a little that day, but by now I hope he sees the value in having twelve separate story treatments to draw from when building Charlotte’s Journey.

All twelve story outlines are available in the Left Pillar, spread across eight documents. They may be worth reading as an under-the-hood look at ideation and the origins of Charlotte’s Journey, but the second round story treatments in particular are entertaining reads all on their own (That’d be Suzy D., E., and F. and Prota 4, 5, and 6). I have taken the liberty of drawing out some examples below that will help demonstrate how ideation worked for Luke and I.

Suzy A., B., and C.Prota 1, 2, and 3
Suzy D. (AKA Suzy vs. Count Villainous McBadguyProta 4 The Ambassador's Daughter
Suzy E. (AKA SUZY: FIRST BLOOD)Prota 5 - Prota the Bride: Enter the Wedding
Suzy F. (AKA Suzy: Scorpion Queen)Prota 6 This Time it Gets Personal

Enter our “hero.” Let’s call her Prota [of that “—gonist” kind]. She is desperate to be more than she is. You know, a hero.

Our hero became Charlotte Hargrave, and she is considerably more complex than Prota the First, but the tension between the life she lives (dull) and the life she wants (desperately wanting to be a hero) was so tempting and interesting that we had to carry it forward.

At the top, we finally learn the sword is the key… it needs to be ‘charged up’ and taken back to the town… except, at this point, Prota is starting to realise that she’s not going to be able to do it… so she lets Gaston have it.

Raul de Madera, the character that grew from the “loveable jerk” type we nicknamed ‘Gaston’ in planning stages, gets the credit for the big win in Charlotte’s Journey (uh, spoiler alert, I guess). The fact that Charlotte lets Raul have the credit is a hugely important moment for her character, and is in fact the culmination of the tension between the two lives she wants to live. Here Luke planted the seed of that idea.

I still like the idea of a small animal, maybe a monkey­bird thing, where it’s ‘legs’ are wings, and it stands on its hands when perched on her shoulder. Probably it doesn’t talk.

There are no monkeybirds in Charlotte’s Journey. There is however an ever-present but always silent character that rests on Charlotte’s shoulder – the sword! Without knowing it at the time, we would have to learn to treat the sword less like an inanimate object and more like a character. The monkeybird helped us come to that important realisation.

Suzy B. is in a large company of brightly dressed and happy people. They travel in the Rivenwood; they are headed home. An accord has finally be reached between Totallyawe-somebourg and Skullcity.

In looking for a source of conflict, I accidentally came up with the basis for the political backdrop of Charlotte’s Journey. Simple enough to be easy to work with, but complex enough to drive a plot, the conflict between Fort City and the Cottonwood was born here. Part of me wishes we had stuck with the name Totallyawesomebourg, but I recognise it isn’t the best version of the city’s name.

Suzy B.’s guardian is a diplomat

Suzy B. was always a bit of a Batman clone, looking to find justice for her murdered parents, but the idea of her guardian being a diplomat really stuck. This simple statement, part of setting the scene, would become an integral part of Charlotte’s history, her character, and her emotional arc. It became essential to her entire character, and you’ll see it repeated often in the second-round story treatments.

Goats, day in and day out … he gave up the sword for goats… goat talker … giant land crab … they’re gonna kill the goats … goat farm … for now, goats … more goats. And in the future, goats … Blood Goat Clan… Blood Goat Chieftain …

If nothing else, my entirely healthy and not-over-the-top-at-all appreciation for goats lives on in the expression “screaming goats,” which the characters of Charlotte’s Journey use as a curse. You may think I’m being glib, but this is actually an excellent example of how ideation works. Given that I’d put so many goats on the table, we saw the value they had in adding a small element to our story. The simple phrase “screaming goats” does a lot of work in Charlotte’s Journey, and significantly aids in the construction of a cohesive and comprehensible world where our story can take place. Even when being silly, we find things of value.


Like goats.

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