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11:43am on Wednesday, 12th September, 2007:

You Can't Cage a Tree


So, last month I talked a bit about word disassociation as a mechanism for exercising the imagination. I've finally remembered that I promised to write something describing a more advanced exercise which is useful for designers and writers.

So, here it is.

Tennis racquets as T-shirt stencils.
Unviable flavours for soft drinks.
Birds on a telephone wire arranged in the Fibonacci sequence.
Lack-of-space Invaders.
Triangular coins, sponsored by the trouser pocket industry.

OK, what I've done here is taken the random words I thought of and made each one into a premise. So that you can see what I started with, I put it in bold (the fourth one doesn't use the word itself, which was extra-terrestrial). The aim here is to take the random word and turn it into something that you could use as the basis of ... well, anything creative, really. It's rather harder than merely thinking up random words, but more enjoyable.

If we have question marks, why not answer marks?
Rugby balls carved from solid wood to trick newbies.
The verisimilitude of the definition of "verisimilitude".
People who paste poster-sized photos of themselves on their neighbours' windows when they're not in, because all publicity is good publicity.
In the future, everyone will eat meals instead of take pills.

The fourth one there just came to me out of nowhere, although I did manage to track back and get the sense that the word poster was somehow the seed.

So, as I said, this isn't as easy as the random word thing. If you were to waylay me and demand I told you five random, disconnected words, I could do that pretty well any time (OK, so maybe not if you'd just woken me up to ask me). However, if you insisted I told you five of this kind of premise, I could give you anything from one to five straight off, with any remainder coming more slowly.

Snowballs that melt through your fingers and re-form underneath.
Tiny people who live inside grapes.
How do you read the small print before signing up for an eye test?
If wavy things undulate, how come unwavy things don't dulate?
Penguins ostracised for walking instead of waddling.

The third one there came from consequences.

See what I mean by a "premise" here? It's an idea that you could take further. As with simple random words, you're the judge of whether something constitutes a valid premise or not — you're the one who knows when something clicks for you. It doesn't matter whether other people find the line interesting or amusing in any way, it's whether you feel it's right. It may be that none of these lines I'm producing right now do anything at all for you: that's because they're created for me. Try creating some yourself, for you.

Do whales blow out air while upside down? All those bubbles  — that's got to be fun.
If soldiers get medals for bravery, that's good news for the ones that cross-dress.
A digital globe that updates itself when real-world country borders change.
Intransigence as an art form.
Punctuation marks in the shape of animals.

The third one there was from map and the last one from catastrophe.

This exercise isn't a substitute for inspiration. If you're a designer, writer or other generally creative person, you have absolutely no need for inspiration — you get more ideas as a matter of course than you can possibly ever hope to deal with. You may need inspiration for something specific — a metaphor, say, or an example — and in that case the random words thing can help. This random premise thing doesn't help with that at all, though.

So what does it do? Two things.

Books with more pages than they have words.
When does an empty milk carton become just an empty carton?
Your baby teeth preserved in jelly, for if your own baby doesn't grow any.
The French for "English" is "French".
If chocolate is bad for me, why does it taste good? Evolution is lying!

Firstly, it gives you a challenge, should you want one. If you're a good game designer, you should be able to design a game on any topic, right? OK, so try it! That's where my web games Spunky Princess, Spymaster, Thugs in Tutus, Teenage Daughter's Bedroom and Eggs with Legs came from. If you can do it, you know your confidence isn't misplaced.

Rancid toothpaste, for when you don't want to be kissed.
Mice trained to follow squirrels and bring you the nuts they just buried.
What a cat sits on, it owns.
Adulthood: the flawed fate of fanciful, fabulous fantasy.
The more linear the plot, the more linear the plotter.

The cat one came from percussion.

Secondly, it really it's an exercise in the normal sense of the word: it builds up your imagination muscles. OK, so it doesn't actually make you more imaginative, but it does mean you can imagine things perhaps a little quicker than you could if you didn't do it, which has to be no bad thing. It's fun, too!

Try it? It can't hurt...

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).