Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ideas: Strength Through Association

You've likely heard the spiritual, Dem Bones, and know that the toe bone's connected to the foot bone, and the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, and so on. It's both an anatomy lesson, of sorts, and reference to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel's vision of a valley of dry bones.

In the vision, Ezekiel prophesies, as commanded, to the bones and they come together, bone to bone, and sinews and flesh until "and exceeding great army" stands before him. Without delving into the religious significance of the vision, we can appreciate the structural significance: by themselves, the bones are dry and impotent but in proper association they become a strength and a beauty that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the strengths of the mass of interconnected neurons inside our skulls is in making associations.

I've talked before about story molecules: how a single idea isn't enough to carry a novel, which is why you need a constellation of ideas, working together, to sustain a long-form narrative. Associations are what bind those ideas together.

Think of it this way: if ideas are points, associations are the lines that join those points. Two point can be joined with one line. With three points, each can be connected to the other two with three lines. Four points have six lines; Five points have ten lines; and six points have fifteen. Each time you add one more idea, the number of possible connections jumps. It doesn't take many ideas before you have a rich web of associations.

Another way to look at it is that associating two ideas is a simple way to create a whole (the associated ideas) greater than the sum of the parts (the ideas in isolation).

Let's play a game: we'll start with one object, a gun, and associate it by proximity (i.e., placing it next to) another.
  • What comes to mind if we place our gun next to a shot of whiskey?
  • Now, what comes to mind if we place our gun next to a pair of baby shoes?
Associations become even more powerful if we link ideas into a chain. There was a fascinating series on PBS called Connections, in which host James Burke showed how an event or innovation in the past traced "through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world."

The associations in your stories need not be so profound, but you can use the same principle, particularly when brainstorming, to turn common-place ideas into something special.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /