What is an association game?
Association games are well-known within theatres and as a practice in creative thinking in general. There are a ton of ways to go about it, but here I’ll provide you with a suggestion on how to use it with creative writing, to generate new ideas.
First of all this exercise is about jumpstarting your creativity and thinking outside the box. Maybe you have a certain scene or character in your story, that you’re a bit stuck with. Perhaps something is just missing or you’re unsure of how your worldbuilding is going to hold up.
This is where the association game can prove to be a helpful exercise. If used at the right time it could help you open up for a creative flow of thinking, where ideas, words, thoughts and images just come floating at you. It’s important to remember that it is an exercise however, and that means it will probably take a few tries, before you get the hang of it.
Simply told you start off with one word or image and then you associate your way forward until you’ve reached something completely different. Whatever you end up with, might bring you inspiration or be the answer to some of your obstacles. Maybe it’s the beginning of a whole new project?
How to do it
Start with one word or image
This can be an image from a magazine, a word on a sign somewhere or even just the word ‘cat’. The important thing isn’t what to start with, it just needs to be simple and give you some ideas already, for new words.
Start associating, one thing at a time
After you’ve come up with the first word, like ‘cat’, your task now is to let that word inspire you to a new word. It doesn’t have to be original or anything, just let whatever comes to mind, be the next thing. If your first thought after ‘cat’ was ‘dog’, then so be it. Then ‘dog’ would be the next word.
It can be useful to write these words down as you go along. That way you can track your thoughts when you’re done. It’s important not to stop to think of something cooler or more crazy, because that will ruin your creative flow completely.
One word at a time – don’t look back
To get your creative flow going, don’t look back to where you started. If you started with ‘cat’ and then thought of ‘dog’, you don’t necessarily think of a mouse. If ‘dog’ was the first word, you might have thought of a doghouse instead. That is one of the most important guidelines in this exercise. Don’t look back, because the whole game is about getting as far away from the starting point as you can. We do that, to unlock the more spontaneous parts of our creativity.
Practice asking questions
After associating and writing down a lot of different words and small sentences, it’s now time to stop. Have a look at what you’ve written. Use these associations to ask yourself weird but specific questions to your text or novel that you’re working on. Answer these questions with whichever answer comes to mind first and remember that it’s not meant to be useful afterwards. You can always go back, read it again and change it if you had a good idea for your novel. Don’t think too long, just write whatever it is you think of!
Write by yourself or with someone else
You can play this game by yourself by writing down as you go. But you can also choose to find a friend or another writer to play with, and then take turns coming up with a new word. If you try to come up with new things as fast as you can, just keep going until you get a great idea for your novel or when you’re out of associations.
When I first used this exercise with a writer, I was on the train with my sister (author Louise Lund Olesen). She had some trouble coming up with some elements for her worldbuilding in an upcoming book. We talked about how she was nervous about it being too cliché and then I suggested we play a word game. We started off by taking turns saying a word, and then I started asking her questions, based on the words she said. For example, if she had said ‘cat’, I could have asked what the cat is called and who named it etc.
Just for the sake of those in a hurry and refreshing the exercise, here is a quick summary of the association game, if you’re by yourself;
 Start with a word or an image
 Write the next thing that comes to mind when you think of 
 Repeat 
 Continue until you run dry of thoughts or paper to write on
 Start from the beginning and ask questions to the things you’ve written down. Answer these questions with the first thing that comes to you
Practice, practice, practice!
There are so many possibilities in the association game as a writing exercise. It’s wonderful when you want to practice kickstarting your creativity. It can be a bit demanding at first, because like so many other exercises, you have to get the hang of it, before you can really enjoy it fully. Give yourself a chance to start over once in a while if you’ve had a tough start, just try a new word and begin again. It won’t always make sense!
Try playing with different ways to practice this exercise and use different start-words every time. You can even play the association game when you’re on the bus, by looking around and associate over what you see. Then ask questions about what you see and come up with new, ridiculous answers as to why things are the way they are. It doesn’t have to be true or imitate real life, just come up with things and let your creativity play around with some ideas!
Have you tried the association game? Do you have any questions for the exercise or want to share your thoughts?
Please feel free to leave a comment and tell me about your experiences with creative writing exercises!
If this exercise wasn’t exactly what you’re looking for or you just want more, please have a look at my collection of writers’ ressources here>>. This is where I gather all my exercises, writing prompts and advice for writers.