Using Word association to jump to creative conclusions

Using Word association to jump to creative conclusions

A Lesson by Chris

Word association is like concept mapping for the lazy. A few seconds of free-thought word association can get ideas rolling, though, and it's a good refining technique if you already have a skeleton of your story.


In my three years so far at College, I've spent all but about a week of it in the campus improv comedy group. The experience is a great one not only for the fun of making people laugh on stage, but also because it's opened my mind to whole new ways of thinking. One of the biggest things is definitely being able to take a one word suggestion from the audience and turn it into an entire scene. An example is:

Audience member: "Carrot!"

Scene: Follows a sad rabbit who found out he ate his last carrot and now must battle his way into the gov't veggie storehouse to procure a new supply of succulent orange goodness.

Now, that might seem a little strange, and that's because it is. But the point of these thinking exercises is not to make coherent, serious stories. The idea is to be so wildly creative that the audience is taken entirely off-guard by it.

Now, that's for improv acting, but the same principles apply to writing books. No one wants to read something if they know what's going to happen. People want to read to be entertained, and that entertainment, for most people, sprouts from being surprised by the clever twists and turns that an author throws their way.

So how do we go from "carrot" to Rambo Rabbit? It's a little thing called Word Associations.

Word Associations are something you do all day every day, but unconsciously. Think of the last time you had a conversation, and someone said something. Maybe they said, "Pickle." You thought pickle, but then you thought, "Hamburger." You have mental maps of the way words play out, and pickle and hamburger are next to each other.

Now, harnessing the ability to run automatic word associations is something you can work on. Focus on a word, then say something that comes to mind. Eventually you'll get to the point where you can make associations like Frisbee --> Dogs walking people. How? Multiple degrees of association.

In multiple degrees is where the true value of word associations lie. I went from frisbee--> park --> dog --> walking dog --> dog walking people. This is how word association can bring you from thinking about a totally ordinary thing to an extraordinary one.

If you'd like to practice, here's an exercise. For the next five days, set aside at least three minutes, and split it into three one-minute segments. Make associations straight for one minute, then pick a new word, rinse, repeat. By the end of the five days you'll be associating like a pro, and tying words like "Ape," "Barbell," and "Grape," to ideas like "Applesauce cannon," "Giant man-eating frogs," and "Space elevator."

That's all for this lesson, so go out and associate!     

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Added on April 15, 2011
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St. Charles, IL

I'm from St. Charles out west of Chicago, but for school I made the big move to Wisconsin... or as I call it, out north of Chicago. Despite not having a dog or an awesome beard, or a life story that m..