Writing Tools: The Idea Matrix

The Creative Process

In the beginning, stories are nothing but paper filled with ideas. Your ideas. Everything, from the characters to the story to the dramatic twist comes from your little head. You are the creative master. So why not make things a little easier for your noggin’ and add a little structure to your process.

Why a Matrix

Let’s use characters as an example for now. Anyone who had ever written something probably knows that you never ever just write a story about a boy. Your story of a boy eventually becomes:

The bullied – boy in school – who lost his mother at a younger tender age – and lives with his caring uncle  – who wishes the boy will crawl out of his shell one day  – to fulfil his fullest potential.

OR

The bullied –  boy in school – who loathes his mother for abandoning him – because his uncles hides the truth from him – thus making him think that she is the devil incarnated – which is why he cuts himself and just bit off the tip of Eric’s nose.

He doesn’t even need to be a boy, you can turn him into a girl, or a middle age accountant. The idea here is to identify the key traits of the character and put them down into a interchangeable grid format. In the above examples. the characters can easily be swapped with just a few key words. Boy – Girl, Angry – Sad, Fulfilment – Frustration.

And to do this efficiently, you need some sort of matrix. Here’s an example of a matrix that I have used to build my own characters thus far:

Simple Matrix

Looks simple doesn’t it? Yet, it still managed to serve multiple purposes:

  1. It clearly presents to you the choices to transform your character.
  2. It inspires you by allowing you to randomly mix and match.
  3. It saves you a lot of rewriting, forgetting and headaches.
  4. It acts as a database for your old characters if you ever need to reference them.

Using A simple Matrix

You can use very simple ones like the one above, which focuses purely on the characters and let your creative juices filll in the rest. Below are just some examples I just thought of literally 2 minutes ago:

E.g. The Hungry Video Game Nerd opens his fridge and grabs a coke, accidentally brushing against the head of his father. He wouldn’t let him game in peace, so he killed him.

E.g. The Jaded Pregnant Girl is sitting at the abortion clinic… again. All the waiting is making her mad, she has a hot date coming up in a few hours and just wants to get it over and done with.

Going further with the concept, you can even take a well-known, well-referenced character, change enough parts of it, and you get a new character completely unique to you and you alone!

Expanding the matrix

If you’re sort of a OCD freak like me, and would like to creative a more extensive matrix which extends the concept to plot, theme and what-nots, here’s my expanded matrix.

Big Matrix

Click for a better view

For an extended Matrix, the basic premises should be filled:

  • Who? The Main Character + optional major secondary characters or villains
  • Why? The Purpose + optional smaller conflict that leads to the big one + optional plot twists.
  •  Where? The Setting + optional smaller, more intimate start point and bigger end game
  • When? Time Frame + Optional jumping to and fros if your story calls for it.
  • How? The story of the character moving ahead + logic fail-safes + your gimmick

Of course, none of the above should be compulsory. If anything else, having a few gaps would allow you to get the creative process going. This full blown matrix should really only used for archiving purposes or just to stare at when you’re fresh out of ideas.

The combinations here are endless if you’re looking for zany wacky possibilities.

Jaded – Superhero – who attends a High School Reunion – but feels he has nothing else to live for – meets a WitchDoctor –  tell hims he can be someone else in another life – makes him goes back in time to kill his own parents – ending up in a alternate universe of his own doing – but climax and conclusion open for you to fill in. 

Will that work? I don’t know. But it is a hell of a original idea as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. From a bunch of old stories I came up with something new, in two minutes by the way. And I only have eight tracks to work with now. Think of the endless possibilities when you fill this up to twenty, forty.

If you’re a burned out writer looking for inspiration, give this method a try. It helped me, I’m sure it’ll help you too. 

Writing Tools is a series I wish to expand upon in future where I talk about the various resources and processes that budding writers out there can use to better their own creations. Most of this concepts should be easily replicatable and I will present them in the form of my own exercises. If you have any ideas of your own, kindly share them as well, in your own blog or in the comments below!

Update – Practical Exercise Example 

Forgot to include a practical example. Here’s how I came up with a story combining 4-5 elements of what I’ve written before into what is more or less 1/2 the material I need for an entire story. Using a Private Eye from an un-uploaded early work regarding a Demon pet, using the old man from The Biodegradable Urn, using Butterfly Lady from the self-titled prompt, using Japanese man from The Immortal Jellyfish and basically borrowed plot lines from everywhere else. I can easily throw in Irish Manager Bob from Pixel Land as a circus ring leader, and the sugar-loving crazy demon imp from my first story (which sadly I will never upload). Maybe borrow a few spiders from Peter’s work as well.

I just picked and matched this in 10 minutes

Instant Plot

Click for a better view

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13 thoughts on “Writing Tools: The Idea Matrix

  1. Wow, that matrix is a great idea. In my work, I created backgrounds for each charcater but nothing like that. Your idea would be much easier and quicker to access. I like it, no wait. I LOVE IT!

    • Thank you very much! Haha, I can think of what you are going to write for Colonel “with 2 Ms” Simmons.

      • Jimmy “Two Balls” Simmons. I am done with him, but his types are all over the US military.

        When I was reading the excerpt to World War Z, the way he described the military is exactly right. Jimmy “Two Balls” would have been one of the dummies making the bad tactical decisions. Please don’t think this guy exists in isolation.

        If you ever write about the US military remember that the turds float to the top. Write accordingly.

      • Don’t worry, that won’t happen. I know nuts about that setting.

  2. I can see where this would work with complex story lines – keeping track of family histories, birthdates, (so you can remember how old your characters would have been when this or that happened) deaths, names of ancestors if necessary, major events etc. – it’s a great idea.

    • Just keep this mind, you might need this if you intend to write a epic sequel.

      • I’m actually finding out that if I can’t find an agent who will pick up my novel I’ll be looking at halving it as it is. Few publishers will touch a first time novelist with a word count of over 125K.

      • I think it differs by genre, if you’re in Erotic Lit, it should be higher right? I know Michelle Proulx (michelleproulx.wordpress.com) made a video log about how she had to trim her YA book down from 120K to under 100K, maybe check with her?

      • Trimming off 20K is one thing, but mine is 213K as it now sits. That’s a lot of trimming! I want it to look like prose, not an owner’s manual! ha ha

      • Think of it this way, the Lord of the rings was originally written as one book if I’m not wrong. Maybe find a natural end point and write a conclusion?

        I think agents would like that you have a book 2 ready to go as well. Though I suggest a 100K each 3 parter (assuming you throw ending chapters for 1 and 2). You can thank me when you sign your trilogy movie deal.

      • Hell, I’ll make sure you get a starring role if you’d like! 🙂

      • After that last munching story you wrote? Uh-uh

      • LMAO

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