That old creative process adage “think outside the box” seems appropriate when we struggle to generate new ideas. Creative writers face this challenge routinely. The problem with creativity in book writing has less to do with creating “out of the box” ideas, than it does with creating relevant ideas inside the box. The box, in this case, is the purpose and storyline of the book. If you are not clear about the key facets that shape your book, then you find yourself creating as you go with no boundaries on what works and what does not.
That is where quandary kicks in and you feel stymied, not by lack of creativity, but by unbounded creativity and lack of clarity. To begin, you must define the context and expectations in which the book operates. Without that context, you will discard many good ideas as not relevant. Many other ideas never even surface because they seem too small or too big. In other words, identify the characteristics of your book’s box.
Imagine you are standing inside a large box. Notice that the box has six sides, a floor, a ceiling, and four walls. Now let’s assign characteristics to each side of the box. This essentially provides the basic framework to map out the key facets of your work. The ceiling is the purpose, the floor is the storyline, and the four walls are the characters involved and the environment in which the story occurs.
The six sides of the book box can be described as follows:
1. Purpose. As the ceiling, the purpose is above all other aspects of the book and guides decisions on the appropriateness of all of the content. Any time there is a question, just look back to the purpose and use it as a filter to guide the decision.
2. Storyline. As the floor, a good storylines have a defined beginning, end and middle, with plenty of conflict in every section. With your feet on the ground, this is where all of the action occurs and it is where you will spend your time writing. Even a simple, high-level outline can be a good start. Keep working on the outline while you work on the story until you have it well defined and understood.
3. Protagonist. This wall of the box defines the main character both physically and psychologically. Define behavior traits, origins of certain traits, strengths, weaknesses, desires, and fears.
4. Antagonist. This wall of the box defines the primary enemy of the main character using the same physical and psychological elements listed previously. Also include factors leading to this person becoming the primary antagonist in the story from earlier events or conflicting goals, as it may be
5. Support Cast. This wall describes some of the key players in the story that support the protagonist, or the antagonist, or both. The list includes counselors, advisers, supporters, interferers, experts, and authorities like police or government. Some characters play a larger role than others do and the level of definition of each will vary accordingly.
6. Environment. This wall provides the context in which the story and the characters are written. The two primary aspects of this wall that clarify context are the geographic location, and the historical period when the story occurs. The story itself will dictate environmental facets too. For example, a military story will include military language, technology, uniforms, and so on. As the story progresses, this wall also includes situational environment descriptions as characters move in and out of buildings and travel to different places. These situational environments do not need to be described on the box wall, unless you are aware of some of them at the beginning.
Your natural critical thinking style determines how useful this box concept is to you. If you are a literal thinker, then you prefer to have structure to help define the context in which you operate. You will want to know the specific dimensions and characteristics of each side of the box. Then you will be empowered to develop a plan to write. For you, the method for managing the thinking and the creative processes is paramount. Be careful not to discard ideas too quickly as hare-brained or off-the wall ideas. Write them down and let them brew against the elements you have defined in your box. Literal thinkers help to validate new concepts against current realities.
If you are more of a conceptual or abstract thinker, then you will start by ignoring the current state and jump forward to your vision of the future. You have a vision of the end state and the route to get there, and you are quite comfortable with creating on the fly. Be careful to avoid going too far down new creative paths that may distract the reader from the essence of your story. Conceptual thinkers help to stretch ideas far away from the existing box to enable meaningful innovation.
Characterizing your book box in this way empowers you to produce meaningful and creative ideas and solutions directly relevant to the purpose and structure of your work. This perspective enables you to avoid frustration by your apparent inability to "think outside the box".