Capturing ideas without suffocating the creative process

Ideas can be slippery things. Powerful, evocative images perish like dreams, intensely felt feelings fade with time, the seeds of immortal stories are forgotten. Writers know they need to capture these things, to store them up, work them into stories, characters, scenes.

But tying an idea down - capturing its essential truth whilst giving it context and believability often kills the idea dead in its tracks. Worse, if your mind works faster than you can write other tangential ideas may be lost. There are practical issues too - when articulating an idea three or four others may occur and where do you put those? In the middle of the sentence you're writing? On the same page? Another index card? Some expensive computer software?

Here's a system that doesn't require anything fancier than a notebook, pencil and your imagination.

There are five categories of ideas - 3 Primary: Characters, Plot, Scenes, and 2 Secondary: Questions and Answers.

The first initial idea is assigned a primary heading - you know how this works, you think of a great character, a wonderful scene, or plot point/idea - give it the heading and start writing it down. If anything else occurs then immediately note that down under the appropriate heading - you can either then go back to the original idea at any time, or continue to pursue the new one. If your primary ideas prompt any questions that you feel need addressing don't try and answer them, but do write them down under the heading Questions. If any potential answers to these questions occur, don't be afraid to jot these down under Answers. Avoid striving for answers at this stage though, they tend to have a blocking effect.

If you adopt this strategy it won't be long before you'll have a notebook full of untamed ideas scribbled under useful headings. I find even when my mind is a vacuum reading over my notes and contemplating the questions I previously wrote down will get the creative juices flowing, and before I know it, I'm scribbling away again.

I've talked about generating ideas and how to push them into material for a novel, and plotting systems previously on this blog – but I'd be keen to hear any useful ideas you may have. I'm always looking for new things to learn.


  1. Capturing the ideas before they wriggle away... that's the secret. Years ago I wanted to find a way to index my ideas in a software package but couldn't think of a good way. Now, though, blogging software presents the ideal format... you can tag ideas, search endlessly, create links... Trouble is, I have such enormous notebooks full of ideas I'd probably have to take a year off to do it.

  2. I am one of those people who puts the idea in a word document. I have like 20 word documents that only have 1-2 sentences in them. If it has to do with the story I'm working on, I skip to the end of the document and put the idea right there. Then I get back to what I was doing. Works for me!

  3. @Roz - yeah, the reason I developed this process was because I was thinking that I needed some idea-mapping software that would let me pursue ideas without losing my original train of thought, then I realised I could nail it by just taking a slightly more structured approach to my note-taking and just use the trusty notebook.

    @Tamara - hey Tamara, great that you stopped by - I've been a keen follower of your blog for some time now. Your comment reminded me of a good idea I once read about that suggested writers should have two documents open when working - one for the WIP, the other for crazy ideas that might come, or just so you can doodle no-pressure blurb just to get the creative juices flowing.

  4. I like the idea of keeping things sorted out under appropriate headings. Writing ideas often come through association with something you're already working on, so they're often related in a way, but can be worked out separately in whatever genre or venue you see fit to put them in.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts