Creativity is Chemistry: Ideas are Easy to Discover but Hard to Combine

If you’re a writer, then you’ve faced this question before: “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, the idea part is easy. They pop up all the time. Ideas are like atoms, easy to discover and there are only so many to choose from. It’s how you combine these ideas that matters. Creativity is chemistry, constantly rehashing the same core concepts to create something new.

Ideas Are Atoms

Quick, name a few atoms. Not too hard, is it? When pressed, I think of Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Carbon. But now, try to name molecules or compounds built from these atoms. That’s a bit harder. Yes, we can easily think of water (H2O) and maybe that oxygen comes in a pair (O2) but beyond that it gets muddled.

You see, simple combinations are easy to think up. This is what the average person can think up. But a chemist can name hundreds of compounds. Writers do much the same thing. The average Joe can dream up simple plots and characters (the literary equivalent to water and oxygen). But the writer, someone who delves into creativity on a daily basis, can create more nuanced combinations. 

Limitless Concepts from a Small Number of Elements

There are only so many elements on the periodic table. Ditto for creative ideas. There are only so many core concepts we can play with. And for the most part, they’ve all been discovered.

It’s in the combinations of these ideas, the chemistry of creativity, that true genius lies. Taking a known plot and swapping it to a different genre (like a Western version of Dracula) can lead to interesting results. 

Occasionally, writers are like research scientists, discovering a unique combination of ideas that has never been seen before. But often, we simply tweak and twist the combinations we already know. 

Examples of Creative Atoms

Take organic chemicals. They are enormous chains of atoms composed primarily of carbon atoms. These might be the “dramatic” building blocks of plot. The tension element, if you will. But you can weave it into new and unique scenarios while still using the same core atoms or ideas.

  • Time Constraints or Deadlines: Setting specific time limits for characters to achieve their goals creates urgency with the “ticking clock” effect.
  • Conflict: Interpersonal conflicts, whether internal or external, can generate emotional and physical tension.
  • Unanswered Questions: Intriguing questions will keep readers curious and eager for answers.
  • Character Flaws: Vulnerabilities and weaknesses in characters make their struggles and challenges more relatable and tense.
  • Cliffhangers: Ending chapters or scenes with unresolved conflicts will leave readers eagerly wanting to know what happens next.

So the next time someone asks you where your ideas come from, you can say they’re everywhere around you. It’s the alchemy of writing that brews up interesting plots and fascinating characters. 

Tim Kane

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