Creativity, Writer’s Block, and the power of “Yes, And?”

Creativity comes from the ability to accept multiple correct options. It’s the ability to look at a thing and ask what else it could be. It’s saying “That works” or “That’s true” to one option and then finding more options which are also functional and true. Also known as the “Yes, and?” game.

The what now you lunatic? I’m sure I hear some of you saying, to which I say “this has its origins in theatre sports” and you probably find that to be all the explanation you needed for the apparent madness. Not that such a thing will prevent me from explaining further anyway.

In improvisational comedy, the “Yes, and…” principle is to agree with whatever idea your fellow improvisor has put forward (to continue the scene they have begun) and add to it, as opposed to blocking them – which would be to break the potential suspension of disbelief by contradicting what has already been created. This non-judgemental approach of accepting ideas and continuing is also the basis behind the concept of brainstorming – the process of throwing out idea after idea without rejecting any of them.

Asking “Yes, and?” instead of making an immediate judgement call is very important to creative thinking – not only does it allow you to keep coming up with new ideas (which, even if all the earlier ideas were good themselves, may yet be better) but it also keeps you from getting locked in to one line (trench, really) of thinking.

If you examine ideas one by one and dismiss them as they come, you begin to convince yourself that something must happen a certain way, that there are no other options, and/or that something cannot be done. This thought process reduces creativity in general, prevents new ideas from being tested and new inventions from making the world a better place (“it’s never been done, so it’s a bad idea” and such thoughts tend to be attached to this) and – most importantly for this blog – is the core of many cases of writer’s block. It’s what happens when a writer is so convinced they must take their character from A to B – because B was the first place they thought of – that they become bogged down trying to figure out how instead of asking why A doesn’t just go to C, D, X, Y, Z, or Albuquerque instead.

Obviously, not ever answer a brainstorming session – or a game of Yes, and? – produces will be viable. But the point of both is not to find The Right Answer, but rather there is no one right answer. There are many right answers and you limit and inhibit yourself if you dismiss them in search of one shining beacon of perfect truth and correctness.

Playing Yes, and? is fairly simple – you simply pose a problem as a question and then provide an answer. Then you say (or, if you have trouble breaking out of the judgmental mindset of automatically analysing each option and dismissing it instead of continuing, you get someone else to say) “Yes, and?” and provide another answer. This pattern continues until you genuinely cannot think of anymore – something which will occur far later than you expect to be unable to think of any more, as your mind (thanks to the right/wrong approach to tests in most educational systems) has been trained to find no more than two options at a time, under normal circumstances (the “right answer” and the “wrong answer”). The point of the Yes, and? game, however, is to remove those normal circumstances. It’s not unlike having a physical trainer tell you to do push ups until you can’t do it anymore and then do ten more.

Here’s an example more suited to fiction:

Your hero is racing toward the tower where his princess is trapped. He comes to the stairway only to find that it was destroyed earlier when he was being chase by the dragon. Alas, you think, now how are you supposed to get the prince up those stairs? He cannot jump it and he cannot fly! And, thus, writer’s block sets in. You find you cannot take your prince up the expected path, but that is the right answer, so you cannot move forward at all. You have become convinced that is the route he must take, so all your efforts come back to finding a way for him to do something he cannot do. You’ve dug yourself into a trench of thought. This is the only way you have considered for him to go, and it is not working, so there is no way to move on. But, of course, he must run up the stairs that’s what princes do. Its “the right answer”. It’s the wrong question.

In this scenario, the true question is: How do you remove a princess from a tower?

Climb the stairs, you answer, but that’s not working. Yes, says the game, and? What else?

…Climb to her window. Yes, and? Build a ramp. Yes, and? Knock the tower down. Yes, and? Ask her to come down. Yes, and? Give her what she needs to remove herself. Yes, and? Lift her out through the roof. Yes, and? Ask a friendly dragon to fly her out! Yes, AND? Disinherit her. YES! AND?

Climb to her window and climb the stairs are the obvious answers, here, given that they are the known, safe, traditional answers tried and tested by most fairy tales. When you think about heroes rescuing princesses from towers, you probably either imagine Rapunzel and her hair, or Prince-What’s-His-Name-Again-I’m-Sure-He-Had-One, from Sleeping Beauty, charging up the stairs after defeating Maleficent as a dragon. But if you stop there your hero will be stuck forever at the base of the tower and your story will be stuck forever in the dark and dusty drawer realms of half-finished manuscripts instead of marching through adversity to publication.

Are all of the options the game created viable for your hero? Probably not. But they are options. It might not suit your story to have the hero solve the problem of the trapped princess preventing anyone from ruling the land by having her disinherited. Maybe he actually cares about her as a person and wants to get her to safety. But maybe it is – to your surprise – the kind of story where the political situation can be resolved by simply disinheriting the troublesome party so that their hostage-taker cannot rule through them. Maybe you can’t convince the dragon to be helpful and rescue the princess – or it’s all too Shrek for you – but you think about the options build a ramp and give her what she needs to remove herself and realise that what the hero needs to do is call up to her and have them together find a way to use her bedsheets to get her down across the vast un-jumpable hole in the stairs. She can slide down part way and he can catch her. And suddenly, right there, you have a solution. The writer’s block in the road has been defeated.


Obviously, it doesn’t work for all kinds of writers’ block, but if you’re stuck on finding a way to make something happen in your story, a round of Yes, and? might just clear it up for you.


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