Moving Past the Trope: Creativity Through Lists


At the moment, I’m brainstorming for a new novel, and I thought I might help myself along by writing about the process. (And by “help myself along” I mean make myself stop goofing off on Twitter.)

In the moment that any writer looks at a blank page without a good idea of what to put on it, the possibilities are basically infinite. I could write about anything, really, including a random jumble of geometric shapes and nonsense squiggles.

But I don’t, because I’m a fiction writer. And I like magic and crime. And I’m a white dude living in America 2017.

And each of those things narrow that range of infinite possibility, because there are some things I’m more likely to write than others. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes it helps me to think through obvious things.

Other times, I narrow that range with an easy answer. So the question: “Who will be the main antagonist in this book?” could be answered quite easily with a trope: A vampire. A werewolf. A Voldemort. A Lucifer.

And that’s fine. Some people love those tropes and want to play with them. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the intent. For me, it’s not the intent. I’m hoping to find something on the far side of that trope. Something weird or unusual that readers maybe haven’t seen before.

Some readers don’t like that. That’s fine. But for me, the question is always How do I get there?, and the answer is almost always With a list.

I came across the idea of using lists for creative purposes in a book about writing comedy, especially a standup comedy routine, and it’s served me well in my fantasy/horror books ever since. The first step is always to identify the question. The second is to list the easy answers I won’t use in my book

So, “Who will the the main antagonist in this book?”

Possible answers:

1. Werewolf
2. Vampire
3. Voldemort
4. Lucifer
5. Ghost
6. Genius Serial Killer
7. Shadowy Gov’t Agency

And on and on.

I put them on the list because I want them out of the way. I don’t have to think about them anymore because they’re already on the list.

And let me say once more that I’m not bashing these tropes. I’ve written two novels with werewolves in them, so I recognize that they exist to be used and they persist because of the readers who love them. But sometimes that’s not what I want.

Next, I force myself to keep going. I write down terrible answers, like “ghost horse” or “newborn god of public transit who’s sick of waiting for his human sacrifices”.

Eventually, I get to weird stuff, like maybe “super-intelligent hive-mind of wharf rats”. What do the rats want? How intelligent are they? Will they join the longshoreman’s union?

It’s weird. Twenty years ago, if you told me my most creative work would come from a nearly rote exercise of making lists, I would have been horrified. And yet, here I am, writing a book about a rat colony that share a single mind.

(Obviously, I’m just kidding. No way am I writing a rat book. The research alone would give me the heebie-jeebies.)