Elements Method

A woman sits in the park, eating an apple. At her side, her favourite blue pen and an empty notepad. It’s a cloudy day, yet occasionally the sun peeks through, lighting the trees above. She sees a boy running away from the shadows as they form. She sees a protagonist afraid of his demons.

Wouldn’t it be great if all story ideas came to you so easily? There are times when it does, but one does not simply wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes you have to force your muse’s hand.

I’ve been using Elements method for years, long before I bothered giving it a name. I’d done something like it in the past when I wasn’t sure what should happen in a large-scale fantasy, but knew that the various story threads were on collision courses. Beyond that, I’d let ideas brew in my mind, developing on their own, until the different concepts coalesced into something that seemed special. That approach started with experiments in description – instead of pumping out an info block about the history of the wood used to fashion a table, I peppered the setting in through little touches. A whiff of wood dust here, a warped table there.

A furniture sales pitch, it wasn’t.

The first time I consciously used Elements Method was for the machinima piece, Ascension. It was a short fantasy piece, presented with a kind/cruel approach to various plot points, which sounds a lot cooler than it was in execution. The idea came from the method, as  I knew I wanted whatever I was working on next to have certain Elements. I wanted it to be fantasy, to have an iconic tower, to pay homage to my favourite dialogue from Bridge on the River Kwai, to… well, to have a lot of things.

I came up with a list of about 10 elements that I wanted present in it, and have used the same method for a few other ideas. Characters from films, quotes from novels, songs, places, plot twists, gratuitous hypersonic penguins. Once there’s a bunch of elements, they can be linked together in various ways. I’ve also used Question Method to complement Elements Method, too.

Yes, the approach is pretty artificial. It’s completely forced. I won’t try to replicate the method now, but will instead steal the content from the last time I did the exercise, for a previous blog. The topic I was going for was “Why tech is a good thing, how it can help with human relationships, and its place in the world.” That idea also raised a few questions, one of which was “Could technology ever replace social hierarchy instead of just enforcing it?”

These were the elements:

  • Boo Radley – the misunderstood loner type from To Kill A Mockingbird who has a hidden heroic streak
  • Morgan Freeman – Because he’s cool.
  • The Ballad of Jayne Cobb
  • The awkward, gradual romance from the game Enslaved between Trip and Monkey.
  • “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” – From the Bela Lugosi “Dracula”. I won’t explain it, because you either understand or don’t. IT’S IN THE LIST.
  • An oil rig. Because they’re cool and hey, I just want one in the list.
  • Magic. Maybe. More of a random spell-casting than actual “ooh, isn’t the world magical” or ancient deities and the like.
  • Monkeys. I cheated on this one. I went to Twitter. I wrote a madlib, “Everything’s better with _____.” I was hoping for someone to say monkeys. If you recognise the phrase, you know where it subconsciously came from. Google told me. I did get some pretty cool answers on this: cheesecake, peanut butter, food, and freaking ninjas. Literally, “freaking ninjas”. Anyway, screw you all, I’m using Monkeys.

Ditching the preamble to get straight to the meat, and the linking step. These links happened as I was originally typing the entry, and they may not be the same ones you make yourself.

  • Monkeys, and romance involved the character Monkey.
  • Two characters where misunderstood, and perceived level of heroism was mistaken. Boo and Jayne.
  • Spellcasting and supernatural quote that could refer to many things, dead, undead or alive – all of the options noisy.
  • Oil rig feels like an offshore, majestic but alone – also links with Boo. It could also be source of the noise.

For the question above, about human relationships and tech, we have the idea of romance, and a solo character.

“A female comes to an oil rig to learn the ins and outs of processes so they can create the existing caretaker’s displacement. The caretaker doesn’t seem all there, and has a heavy reliance on the existing machines and ‘helper’ bots to communicate – even refers to their clunky workings as music. Female is apprehensive at first, but they eventually reach an understanding which progresses into a relationship.”

Theme feels like people being irreplaceable, but can use tech to compensate for their shortcomings. The list still presents a few items that aren’t used and for the sake of an exercise, the linking process happens again.

  • Morgan Freeman’s voice has a weighty presence.
  • Cobb did something selfish, that benefited others.
  • Spell-casting… and tech?
  • Monkeys. Lots.

A character casts a spell to save themself. That might cause fortune for those around them. Sometimes you have to extrapolate, too. At this point in the original entry, I thought I was stuck, then this happened:

Okay, it’s not always going to work. But maybe. Technology could supercede magic. It could be replacing it. Scary thought, a world without magi– oh wait. Damnit. But hey, technology and monkeys. Perhaps it’s not a story about people. It could be there’s a bunch of Elves or shapeshifters, or (to steal from the quote in the list) Vampires – and the monkeys with technology are people. And we’re replacing their existing ordered society with a chaotic technological one. I’ll ignore vampires because, well, sanity.

“A human slave is taught the ways of magic by a Elf Lord, and in attempting to protect himself from wrath after ‘misbehaving’, breaks the hold of the elven nobility, which allows for the rise of technology and subsequently causes a war between magic and tools.”

So there it is – Elements Method. Yeah, that really happened.


2 thoughts on “Elements Method

    1. Yay! I use a combination of methods nowadays, though I put a structured version of this into a revised “Plan Plan” for NaNoWriMo- trying to formalise the mishmash process :p

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