Creative Thinking for Writers - Lateral Thinking
Lateral Thinking is a term first coined by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1967. It involves thinking 'sideways' (laterally) rather than straight ahead. When we are mentally solving a problem, we are trying to get from one point to another in our minds and we normally try to take the most direct route. But sometimes it may be more productive to take a few sideways steps and approach the problem from a different angle. Possibly an angle that we hadn't considered earlier.
Let's look at an example. Supposing the characters in your story are trapped in an elevator. You need them to escape, but you don't want them to go through the hatch in the ceiling because that is rather boring and uninspired. You want a clever alternative, but you just can't think of one. You've tried brainstorming the question How do my characters escape from the elevator? but you're still not satisfied with any of the ideas you've come up with. You're just about ready to give up. Major writers' block!
Now let's try some sideways thinking. So far we've focused on how our characters can escape from the elevator. But what if we asked ourselves Why do they need to escape? Maybe they discover that the elevator is really a spacecraft, or a time machine. Maybe it takes them to a secret place that hasn't been discovered before. Or perhaps a bomb goes off outside and the elevator saves them. Or maybe we could ask ourselves What else could they be trapped in besides an elevator? Does it have to be an elevator or can it be a closet, or a public toilet, or an ice-cream van?
This common technique is known as Question the Question. That is, to answer questions with further questions rather than possible solutions.
All this time you've been presuming that escape is the best alternative, but perhaps it is not. Lateral thinking is about looking beyond the obvious – a bit off to the side. As de Bono says: You cannot dig another hole by digging the same hole deeper. In other words, if you are writing or planning and you get a bit stuck, then perhaps instead of trying to push through you should simply change directions. Think of some alternatives that you hadn't considered before, even if they seem ridiculous at first. Dig your hole in another spot.
Let’s consider our previous question regarding moon missions. If we were to question this question, a couple of possible responses might be:
- Have there been any secret moon missions that the public didn't know about, and if so why?
- How do we know the moon landing ever happened in the first place?
From the Lateral Thinking list we are beginning to consider whether there might have been a conspiracy regarding the moon landing. Maybe NASA faked it in order to win bragging rights over the Russians, their space travel rivals at the time. That would be a fascinating story in itself, or perhaps it could inspire a similar story set in the future about a Space Race to Mars, or Pluto. Or maybe your story could take place in a galaxy we don't even know about. A race to find the fabled planet called Earth? As we can see, there are many great stories that could be written around one simple topic. Use these creative thinking techniques to give yourself a wide pallet to paint with – the wider the better.
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