Ideation: A Guide To Making Good Ideas Out Of Nothing
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First, some axioms.

Do not start writing until you have finished conceptual development.
Do not assume that your idea is finished.

There is no such thing as a finished idea.
To pursue the total completion and perfection of ideas is madness.
(This would take forever, and you don't have that long.)
We must settle instead for good ideas.
Bad ideas are unacceptable.
This essay will teach you how to turn bad ideas into good ideas.

It is very easy to make bad ideas out of nothing.
This essay will explain how to make good ideas out of bad ideas.
This means you can make good ideas out of nothing.
(Which tends to be very useful.)
Once you understand the process, you will never run out of ideas.

This essay is written all zen-like, because it is amusing.
It also helps to make it out of easy to understand chunks.
(There are no hidden koans, I promise.)
It makes sense anyway, since thinking of ideas is a kind of meditation.
(Maybe assume the lotus position while reading, if you want.)

What is a bad idea?
What is a good idea?
We need to know before we start.

A bad idea can be too simple or too complex.
A bad idea can be too derivative.
A bad idea can be conceptually incoherent.
A bad idea is always at least one of these things.
The worst ideas are all of these things.

A good idea is as complex as it needs to be.
A good idea can be original or derivative, but original is better.
A good idea is conceptually cohesive.
A good idea is always at least one of these things.
The best ideas are all of these things.

How do we construct a good idea?
From the ground up.
(Do not build a roof before you have walls.)

First, start with some simple ideas.
A simple idea can be entirely defined by one word.
(Or maybe two.)
It is very easy to find simple ideas.
If you are having trouble, open a dictionary.
Pick a word at random.

Here are some examples of simple ideas.

The first three of these ideas are physical.
Physical ideas are more specific.
They correspond to particular things.
The last three of these ideas are abstract.
Abstract ideas are less specific.
They correspond to general things.
(There is a continuum here - but try to categorise anyway.)

Now, combine one abstract and one physical idea.
This constructs a compound idea.

Here are some combinations of our simple ideas.
Spin birds.
Happiness carpentry.
Pain trees.

Here are some other compound ideas.
Computer decay.
Medical worms.
Cleaning dog.

Some compound ideas might seem very silly.
Don't worry about it.
(Deep down inside, all ideas are very silly.)

Once you have a compound idea, you must create a concrete idea.
A concrete idea turns your compound idea into exactly one sentence.
This sentence is a description of a particular thing.
It should be very short.

Here are some concrete ideas developed from our compound ideas.
Birds which fly by spinning.
A type of carpentry which makes people happy.
Trees which cause people pain.
A computer which causes decay.
Worms which serve a purpose in medical treatment.
A dog which cleans things.

There are many possible concrete ideas from each compound idea.
Here are some alternatives to what we came up with before.
Birds which provide political spin.
Trees which experience pain themselves.
Worms that are trained medical professionals.

Pick the one that seems the most interesting!

Once you have a concrete idea, you must develop the idea.
The concrete idea acts as a seed for further thinking.
Your concrete idea should not change too much from now on.
(Unless your conceptual development finds a better one.)

A well-developed concrete idea becomes a cohesive idea.
A cohesive idea contains more detail than a concrete idea.

A concrete idea is a summary in a sentence.
A cohesive idea is a summary in a paragraph.
(Or maybe more.)

A cohesive idea must contain detail which flows from the concrete idea.
To do this, we perform conceptual expansion.
A cohesive idea should contain no needless detail.
To do this, we perform conceptual contraction.

Think of your idea as being a blob of clay.
You are trying to make that clay into a nice shape.

You might not know what shape it should be at the start.
You might only discover the shape it should be while playing with the conceptual clay.
You might have a shape in your head, but think of a better one while playing.
This is good!
Exploration and discovery are what make coming up with ideas fun.

What can you do to shape your clay?
You can add clay.
(This is conceptual expansion.)
Or you can carve it away.
(This is conceptual contraction.)
To shape your clay well, you will need to know how to do both.

There are two paths for conceptual expansion:
Expand based on the abstract intentions of the idea.
Expand based on the physical form of the idea.

There are two paths for conceptual contraction:
Remove weaker concepts which are obscuring the stronger concepts.
Remove concepts which do not match the abstract intentions of the work.

These are the only things you should be doing for conceptual development.

How do we expand based on the abstract intentions of an idea?
We will want to think of new things that serve our objectives.
This is especially important, so I will say it again.
You must add new things that serve your objectives.

To do this, we must identify our objectives.
Fortunately, as authors, we get to define our own objectives.
So you might already know what your objectives are.

Consider as an example: Trees which experience pain.
How should a reader react to this?
A reader might be uncomfortable with the idea.
But why?

The tree can experience pain, but trees cannot move.
If a person is injured and in pain, they can treat their wounds or see a doctor.
A tree cannot treat its wounds.
A tree cannot see a doctor.
A tree cannot cry for help.

These relate to universal human characteristics and emotions.
These are things which are generally true of any human being.
People enjoy the power to control their own bodies.
People enjoy the security of guaranteed help.
People dislike experiencing or witnessing pain.
People dislike graphic images of human injuries.

These are general facts about human beings.
(They might not be true for all people, but certainly true for most.)
They elicit stronger responses by their combination.
People fear not having the autonomy to alleviate their own pain.
People fear insecurity and uncertainty in their future.
People are unnerved by thinking about these things.
We can therefore pick as our objective: unnerve the reader.
We know how we must do this: base our direction around universal human characteristics.

We should think of some particular ways we can unnerve the reader.

We know that people dislike being unable to control their own bodies.
This is because they currently are able to do so.
At its core, this is a fear of disempowerment.
To effectively play off this, the tree should have been able to move in the past.
This initially empowers the tree, and then removes its abilities.
Perhaps young trees can move their limbs around.
Perhaps older trees have their bark stiffen and can no longer move.

This is also effective because it is analogous to human ageing.
Young humans are able to move around freely and quickly.
Older humans become frail and infirm.
The fear of ageing is primarily due to disempowerment in this fashion as well.

For humans, ageing is terminated by death.
Trees can live for hundreds of years.
Perhaps the trees can move for ten years, and are then trapped for the rest of their life.
Immobile and stuck within dry, solid bark.
Unable to move at all.
Blind to the world around them.
Driven mad by boredom and loneliness.
Incapable of screaming.

This effectively inverts the fear of death into a fear of a perpetual life in discomfort.
It can be effective to take a universal human fear and find how the inverse can also be scary.
It is scary to be alone at night.
Can we elicit fear from being trapped in pressing crowds of people under the blistering sun?
Of course we can.

Another example.

We know that people dislike graphic images of human injuries.
We might want the reader to feel empathy towards an image of a mangled tree.
If they understand the tree to be experiencing pain, this is horrifying.
The tree is in immense pain and cannot do anything to help itself.
By analogy, the mangled tree is like a mangled human body.
But looking at a smashed up tree, a reader does not feel empathy towards the tree.
To make this effective, you must act to establish empathy in the reader.

This is how to expand based on the abstract intentions of an idea.
Use human universals.

How do we expand based on the physical form of an idea?
We will want to interrogate the concrete idea.
This is especially important, so I will say it again.
You must interrogate your idea.

Consider as an example: Worms which serve a purpose in medical treatment.
How is medicine connected to worms?
There are many kinds of parasitic worms in the natural world.
Tapeworms are a parasite which reside in the digestive tract.
They have historically been used to induce weight loss.
Another species of worm, leeches, were historically used for bloodletting.
Their saliva contains anticoagulants, vasodilators, and anaesthetics.

More broadly, what relations do other worm-like things have in medicine?
Let's think about other animals with no arms or legs.
Snakes are related from being on the Rod of Asclepius.
Maggots can be used to remove necrotic tissue in a wound.

What if we had a worm that could do all of these things?
It can be used for weight loss if inserted in the digestive tract.
It can be used for bloodletting, anaesthesia, and sedation if pressed against the skin.
It can be used for removing necrotic tissue around a wound.
And it wasn't a snake on the Rod of Asclepius - it was this worm!
We now have a worm which would be very useful to ancient medical doctors.

All of these expansions came from interrogating the idea.
All of our answers were conceptually related to the original idea.
This means that every part of the idea is related.
This makes the idea more complex while staying conceptually coherent.

We will continue our interrogation.

Why does the Foundation hide the existence of this worm from the world?
The worm serves a medical purpose but is being kept secret.
Again, we will look to related questions to find possible answers:
Why are real world medical tools kept restricted?

Sometimes they are potentially dangerous.
Maybe the worm's sedative is powerful enough to knock people out.
Maybe this is how it hunts its prey in the wild?

Sometimes they are extremely addictive.
Maybe those exposed to the worm will later suffer extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Maybe this keeps its host dependent on it?

Sometimes there are unusual side effects.
Maybe the worm lays its eggs inside the host after eating dead flesh.
Maybe this is how it reproduces?

The answers to our questions lead to more questions.
The more questions you answer, the more complex your idea will get.
By asking relevant questions, you will get relevant answers.
Because of this, the concept as a whole will be very coherent.
Interrogating a bad idea can help to turn it into a good idea.
You just need to know the right questions to ask, and give good answers.

This is how to expand based on the physical form of an idea.

These two techniques are how you expand an idea.
It is more important to expand an idea than to contract it.
These techniques show how to expand in the right way.
Our contraction techniques fix problems from expanding in the wrong way.

The wrong way is adding things at random.
This is what a lot of people do.
Don't do this!

We will very briefly go over the contraction techniques.

How do we remove weaker concepts which are obscuring the stronger concepts?
We will want to identify the difference between weak and strong concepts.
This is pretty important, so I will say it again.
You must know what makes a concept strong or weak.

A strong concept is conceptually linked to many other parts of your idea.
A weak concept is conceptually disconnected from the other parts of your idea.

Consider as an example:
A computer which can magically levitate that has an aggressive AI on it.
This idea is actually two component ideas:
A computer which can magically levitate, and
A computer that has an aggressive AI on it.
The second idea is better than the first, since it is more strongly conceptually connected.
As such, the idea would probably be improved by not having the computer levitate.

Another example:
A man that can teleport and fly and read minds and can see through walls.
This idea has too many constituent concepts.
It would be better to include just one or two of them.
This lets us better focus on expanding those concepts in particular.
(This is why most superheroes only have one or two superpowers.)

This is how to stop weaker concepts from obscuring stronger concepts.
Remove or improve disconnected ideas.

How do we remove concepts which do not match the abstract intentions of the work?
We will want to identify the abstract intentions of our work.
This is especially important, but you already know how to do it from before.
So I don't think I need to say it again.

Consider as an example: A purple dog which kills people that it sees.
Why does the dog need to be purple?
Does this help improve the idea at all?
It does not.
Do not make your dogs purple for no reason.
(And killing people it sees is quite boring, too.)

Another example: A box which gives people hallucinations when they touch it.
Why does the object need to be a box?
If we replaced the box with something more specific, would the idea be better?
It would.
Do not use generic objects when you can use particular ones.

You might keep some detail which does not build towards the intentions of the work.
This should not be done for no reason at all:
It should help to ground the idea.
Detail is what anchors abstract ideas.
The important thing is to only include relevant detail.

This is how to remove concepts not matching your abstract intentions.
Discard details which are irrelevant to your goals.

Play off universal human emotions.
Interrogate your ideas.
Remove or improve disconnected ideas.
Discard irrelevant details.

This is all you need to know about having good ideas.

There are some secret advanced techniques!

Maybe try combining three simple ideas into your compound one?
Two physical and one abstract?
Two abstract and one physical?
Maybe more?
This gives you more options for concrete ideas.
(Don't use too many, or it can get too complicated early on.)

Maybe try using multiple concrete ideas from the same compound idea?
A bird which spins while flying and provides political spin?
A tree which causes and experiences pain?
Worms which are both a medical treatment and themselves medical professionals?
This gives you a larger, thematically coherent concrete idea.

Perhaps you already have a completed idea.
Maybe try going backwards through these steps to simplify it?
You could work your way all the way down to your simple ideas.
Then you can work your way through the procedure again -
You might end up with a totally different idea!

Here is a collaborative exercise for the reader!
(We will do this on the comment page.)

In top level comments, include three physical and three abstract simple ideas.
(In addition to anything else you might want to say.)
In replies to these, combine pairs of simple ideas into compound ideas.
Then provide one or more concrete ideas for each compound idea.
(Point out ones that you find interesting - or which might be a particular challenge!)
In replies to those, develop one of the concrete ideas into a cohesive idea.
(It would be good to include the steps of your conceptual development.)

By doing this, the comment page should contain a lot of examples of this technique.
If you are curious about what other people can come up with, take a look!
If someone comes up with a cohesive idea you like, ask if you can use it!
(They will probably be flattered!)

Each group of simple ideas has nine corresponding compound ideas.
Each compound idea can have several concrete ideas.
Each concrete idea can have billions of corresponding cohesive ideas!

I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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