How to Create Amazing Story Ideas Using Morphological Analysis
Okay, so don't let the title put you off. Morphological Analysis is neither as close to being as scary as it sounds nor as complicated to execute. What it can do is help you make interesting new connections between seemingly unrelated things. Those kinds of connections can result in stories no one saw coming. (I'm looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)
Here's a little background before I talk you through how we can use Morphological Analysis to create brilliant new ideas for brilliant fresh stories.
What is Morphological Analysis?
The Morphological Analysis we're looking at shouldn't be confused with linguistic Morphological Analysis, which is a way of analysing words and the changes they undergo through time.
No, we'll be using the Morphological Analysis created by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in the 1940s to stimulate innovation and creativity.
Many moons ago, when I worked at Ford Motor Company, and later at what is now Warner Bros. Discovery, I ran innovation workshops and Morphological Analysis was one tool I used with my students. Of all the innovation tools I used, Morphological Analysis stuck with me because it's great for writers.
Back then, it was all about problem statements, functions, and morphologies, but what stood out to me were dimensions. Stories have dimensions. They have genre, character, style, structure, content and so on.
I've used the tool with clients as part of my Story Development package, but I thought it'd be useful to share it with you.
Morphological Analysis in Action
"What if?" is arguably the most powerful question a writer can ask.
"What if?" can also help you come up with plot points, twists, and many other things that your story might need.
What if the main character can only be helped by the world's wisest person but that person has recently reincarnated, is still a baby, and can't yet speak? What does the main character do, wait around for 12-18 months?
Let's look at a romance example simply because there are so many juicy tropes we can delve into.
Make a list of settings. For this example, I'm going to jot down remote (as in a cabin in the woods, mansion by a lake), workplace, desert island, and ancient Rome.
Make a list of subgenres. I'm going to list paranormal, historical, romantic suspense, contemporary, sports, and romantic comedy.
Hmm. As I'm making my lists, I'm taken by paranormal, so I make a list of the kinds of paranormal fantasy characters I immediately think of: Ghosts; demons; vampires; werewolves; and mermen.
Place the lists side by side, ideally in a spreadsheet or in a grid. We've just created a multi-dimensional matrix or 'Zwicky Box'. Looking at that Zwicky Box allows us to look for creative combinations.
My brain has already made a connection, but I'll ignore it for now because I want to see what else there is.
A woman falls in love with a ghost while she's staying in a remote mansion by a lake. Seems kind of familiar.
A man falls in love with a vampire who by daylight has to hide under the wreckage of their upturned boat after it ran aground on a desert island. It's okay, but as soon as night falls, someone's coconuts are up for grabs. Not enough conflict for me.
Here's what caught my eye: werewolves and the workplace. How about two companies, each one staffed by rival wolf-packs, end up in the same location for a team building week? The CEOs, both literally alpha males, decide to get all competitive and pit company against company. As luck would have it, the ultimate challenge falls during a full moon.
It's a start.
We can make another list of workplace romance tropes. Hot for supervisor, against company policy, problematic pairing (like two police officers).
That's only three, but now I've connected with hot for supervisor. A love triangle, perhaps? A werewolf personal assistant with the hots for their alpha male CEO, but who's now lusted after by Hairy Henry in the rival company's accounting team following a hot and sweaty paint-balling face-off ?
Let's go back to our lists.
A sports romance in Ancient Rome where the burgeoning romance of two star-crossed Olympic athletes is thrown into disarray when they're possessed by two equally star-crossed demons who've escaped Tartarus and gone on the run? Might work.
And you can make connections between the same lists too. That workplace setting could be in a remote mansion on a lake. Perhaps it's a strategic planning retreat. The main character suddenly sees their colleague in a new light now that he's finally out of that stuffy suit and tie.
And being hot for your supervisor can also be against company policy.
In summary, Morphological Analysis can be hugely useful when exploring new ideas. It can help unblock you when you are stuck and nudge you towards a different way of thinking. Plus, it's just a lot of fun.
So, how about you? Which lists do you think you'd have the most fun with and what connections have you made with Morphological Analysis? Drop a comment below!