When is a candle a spirit level? Break out of pattern matching to make your writing more original

Humans are pattern matching creatures, swift to classify and categorise all elements of the world around us. This is both a great strength and terrible weakness.

As we grow up, we apply patterns and put everything in its rightful place. A chair is for sitting on. A plate is for eating from. A car is for driving.

Of course, in most cases this kind of assumption is necessary for every day life. If every time we came across a chair, we had to mentally go through all the possible ways we could use that arrangement of sticks, we would end up with very tired legs.

Children, inventors are McGuyver are examples of people that are able to think outside of the standard assumptions, and see alternate uses for every day things in order to play or solve a problem.

As authors, we need to constantly challenge these patterns and assumptions and find new and surprising ways to look at every day things in order to give our work originality. This comes in useful in everything from coming up with fresh ways to describe things, rather than resorting to hallowed clichés to coming up with a shocking plot twist that hasn’t been done a hundred times before.

An interesting way to start to break down these assumptions it to try to think about exactly when a thing becomes a thing. In doing this we can start to see that the world isn’t quite a concrete as we thought.

For example, we all know what a car is. And if you remove the roof, it’s a clearly still a car. But what if you remove the engine instead of the roof. Is it still a car now? It looks the same, assuming the bonnet is closed, but it doesn’t meet the main function of the car. What if it has the engine but no wheels or doors. At what point does it cease to be a car and become a chassis. Its’ not so easy to answer.

Similarly, if you watch a daffodil grow in the garden, at what point does it become a flower. At first it is just a green stalk. Then it starts to create a yellowish bulb and slowly the bulb unfurls, Can you pin down the exact moment it becomes a flower?

If you can encourage your brain to be more open to seeing things outside of their normal categories, you can train it to be more flexible and open to unusual ideas that can enrich your writing.

Try this writing exercise:

1.       Think of at least thirty different uses for the following things:
a.       A set of keys
b.      A cellar
c.       An iPad
d.      A wooden elephant
e.      An old tennis racquet
f.        A plank of wood
g.       A bottle of shampoo
h.      A candle
i.         A CD
j.        The Bible
Try not to be constrained by what you ‘know’ the main purpose of each of the items is. If you get stuck, try to think about different physical aspects of each of the items, including what it’s made of, its properties (strong, waterproof etc), its size and shape, conductivity, reactivity.
What you should find is that at first you will come up with obvious uses for the object, but as you are forced to think of more, your brain will work harder to become more flexible and open to unusual ideas.

For example:

A candle:
1.       A light
2.       For heating food
3.       For blocking up a hole
4.       For poking a mouse out of a hole
5.       For highlighting hidden text written in invisible ink
6.       For burning a forbidden letter
7.       For propping up a table
8.       For melting and using the wax in frisky foreplay
9.       As a time keeper
10.   Use the wick as string to tie something
11.   As a weapon
12.   To write messages on
13.   A chew or throw toy for a dog
14.   A rolling pin
15.   A signal that someone is home
16.   For sending morse code at night
17.   Use the wax to fill in scuffs in wood
18.   A drumstick
19.   To hold up a box trap
20.   To wedge open a door
21.   To weight down a helium balloon
22.   A pretend magic wand
23.   A stirring implement
24.   Carve it into a mini totem pole
25.   A spirit level (hold it by the wick)
26.   A bookmark
27.   To break up a blockage
28.   To measure the depth of oil or mud
29.   To tie a puppet to.

2.       To bring it a little closer to home, think of at least ten different endings as you can each of these tired premises:
1.       Girl meets boy – they hate each other
2.       Aliens attack planet earth
3.       There’s a bomb on the bus
4.       A bank heist
5.       A pirate adventure

For example:

Aliens attack planet earth
1.       Humans fight back and win
2.       Humans fight back and lose
3.       Aliens turn out to be an ancient generation of humans that fled earth into space and are now returning
4.       Aliens turn out to be victims of another alien race and join forces with humans to fight against the third race
5.       Humans domesticate the aliens
6.       Humans abandon earth and join the aliens
7.       Humans fight back then go and attack the aliens’ home planet
8.       Aliens integrate and interbreed with humans
9.       Aliens take humans as their slaves
10.   Aliens turn out to be humans from an alternate universe

Please post your lists in the comments below!

Credit to The Five Minute Writer by Margaret Geraghty for the inspiration for this post – if you liked it, you should buy the book.


  1. They find a buried chest.
    1. It's full of treasure
    2. It has a map to a treasure
    3. It's empty or full of junk
    4. It contains incriminating evidence (who shot JFK?)
    5. Stolen money from a local bank
    6. Shrink-wrapped drugs
    7. Body parts
    8. A secret formula
    9. Time capsule memorabilia
    10. Confession of a famous dying criminal
    11. Instructions or blueprints to bypass security
    12. Weapons and ammo cache
    13. Ticking time bomb
    14. Prophecy describing the diggers and their fates
    15. An apparition
    16. A warning from gophers to stop digging
    17. A doll house with little tiny people living inside

    1. That's great! I particularly love the last two!