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How to riff your way to more ideas

Earlier, I wrote a post about word riffing—applying the musical technique of riffing to find just the right word. Sometimes, I use this riffing technique to generate ideas for plot, character traits, or anything else I might be stuck on.

Often an idea will grab my attention and I’ll follow it, riffing along to see where it leads me. Riffing is like dominos–one thing leads to another. To really get my brain going, I ask questions such as: What if? What’s next? How does it feel?

This happened recently when a friend was diagnosed with an illness. She told me how the doctor’s words felt like a curse. The idea of words as a curse intrigued me so I started asking myself questions. Below is the poem that was born from my riffing:


The doctor’s words fall like dominos—
suppositions and maybes presented as fact.
His roiling curses wake her
five, six, nine times a night as rain
pounds her windows, roots for a way in.

Six days of rain, then sun on the seventh,
that holy day, where God rested from the world
and everything in it.  In her garden, dwarf apples
blossom, lilies and lavender strain skyward.
The neighbor’s son shrieks, chases his

golden lab; a Boeing 757 scorches sky—
even lawnmowers and weed whackers can’t dim
the song of a blue jay or starlings in the holly tree
that squabble like her grandmother and great aunts
drinking beer and playing a game of Lucky Jacks.

The next time an idea grabs you, stop for a few minutes and riff on it. Try asking some of the questions above. How do you riff?

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