One of the most valuable writing skills is the ability to generate novel ideas.
Last year, I stumbled into a technique to achieve this at will.
I was watching a documentary on songwriter Ed Sheeran. In it, he described his songwriting process. It struck me as identical to the process that author Neil Gaiman detailed in his Masterclass.
Here's the thing.
Ed Sheeran and Neil Gaiman are in the top 0.000001% of their fields. They're among, say, 25 people in the world who repeatedly generate blockbusters.
If two world-class creators share the exact same creative process, I get curious. Also, while writing this, I found a video of John Mayer doing the same thing.
I call their approach the Creativity Faucet:
Visualize your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.
Because your pipe only has one faucet, there's no shortcut to achieving clarity other than first emptying the wastewater.
Let's apply this to creativity: At the beginning of a creative session, see through every bad idea that comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting bad ideas, recognize that you must see them to completion.
Bad ideas, by the way, are often the clichés your brain has been overexposed to.
Once bad ideas are emptied, a surprising thing happens: better ideas begin to arrive. Here's my guess as to why: Once you've generated enough bad output, your mind reflexively identifies which elements caused the badness. Then it becomes better at avoiding them. You start pattern-matching interesting ideas with greater intuition.
This works because it is easier to look at something bad and intuit how to make it better than to make something good from scratch. The human brain isn't wired for spontaneous ingenuity, but it is wired to detect what's wrong with the world. Is the song too high-pitched? Lower the pitch. Does the story have too many lead characters? Remove a few.
Neil Gaiman and Ed Sheeran know they're not superhuman. In every creative session, they simply have the discipline to allot time for emptying wastewater so that their brain can contrast the good with the bad. Neil and Ed don't worry about whether clear water will arrive. It always does:
Most creators resist their bad ideas then never reach clear water. If you've opened a blank document, scribbled a few thoughts, then walked away because you weren't struck with gold, then you too never got past it. Ed and Neil have trained themselves to overcome this fear and laziness.
Mozart had 600 musical compositions and Edison had 1093 patents. Only a few are remembered today, and that's the point. Embrace the bad to reach the good.
The Creativity Faucet encourages us to be relentlessly generative. But it doesn’t tell us what actually makes a great idea.
That’s where a second technique comes in: Relentless Juxtaposition. This is my term for repeatedly combining unrelated elements from different approaches to see if they fit together into something spectacular.
For example, if you’re writing a song, mix solos from different genres or mix samples from eras you’d never think would fit together. If you’re writing a book, mix fantasy tropes with sci-fi tropes.
Why? When an unexpected combo satisfyingly fits together, the result is something people haven’t seen before. This makes audiences lean in because there's an unexpected contrast, and that throws off their pattern-matching and delights them.
Here's an example of juxtaposition in action, in which musician Paul Simon writes one of the most popular songs of all time:
Relentless Juxtaposition teaches us a lesson about creativity: Don't recreate what you love. Instead, pursue what you wish others would have made by now. That's where there's originality.
It's a subtle but critical distinction. Why? Recreating what you love is often a recipe for bland content. Consider how most TV shows are boring because writers copy-paste characters and scenes they loved from childhood. They create a patchwork of what came before. This leaves viewers feeling unchallenged and jaded.
Instead, pursue what you wish your genre would finally attempt. Where could it go that you've never seen?
Here's a technique for thinking through this: Watch a film you love then stop halfway to ask, “What’s the most mind-blowing second half that this film could have?” The answer you most enjoy will be what you haven't seen others do.
Whereas many creators wait around for inspiration to strike, the Creativity Faucet and Relentless Juxtaposition hold you accountable to continually progressing through a creative process.
A word of caution, however: Don't let the pursuit of originality freeze this process. Because there’s another goal that's more important than originality anyway: resonance.
Resonance is relatable storytelling that takes over the viewer's mind. They're forced to grapple with the idea. It's expressing an idea so raw and honestly in today’s sensibilities that people fixate on it.
Consider how films like Gladiator and The Shawshank Redemption tell clichéd stories as old as time. But they've resonated more than most other films for decades.
Because high-resonance storytelling takes precedence over originality. After all, you’ll rarely change someone’s life by telling them something new, but you can deeply affect them by saying something they know to be true so well that it compels them to finally confront it.
And here's where it all ties together: novelty and resonance together are phenomenally powerful. They're what lead to breakthrough stories that capture everyone's attention.
So I look at it like this:
Storytelling engagement = Novelty x Resonance
The more novelty and resonance, the more people can't shake the experience. And that's what we're all here for.
This year, I got tired of overlong books and bad book summaries. So I made a newsletter that just shares the most interesting highlights from famous books. I distill each book's key lessons into short paragraphs. 50,000 people read it. Subscribe to see the first issue.
Check your inbox and respond to the email with "Yes." If you don't get an email, tell me on Twitter: @Julian