Random Generators: Gimmick or Untapped Resource?

I think it’s safe to say that most writers who have regular Internet access have used a random idea generator at some point in their lives. Why not? Ideas are hard to come by and always seem to evade us when we need them most. When people want to write but don’t know WHAT to write, that missing bit of inspiration (whether it’s an occupation, a setting, or a complete premise) can be filled in by a machine. Ain’t technology great?

I’ve gone down the random inspiration route plenty of times myself. A while back I was really into prompted writing–“write about what’s happening in this picture” and the like. It’s a great way to get the words flowing when you seem to be hitting a dead end everywhere else. Still, I was dismissive of it as a viable springboard for any serious writing. After all, the best ideas come from a place deep inside your own heart and mind, nestled amid past experiences and deeply felt convictions, not from some computer program. Don’t they?

In the video-infused article “Re-Inventing Invention: A Performance in Three Acts,” Bre Garrett, Denise Landrum-Geyer, and Jason Palmeri invite their readers to try out a program called the “Digital Invention Box.” The reader presses a button and is shown a random combination of quotes and/or images. The idea is that the reader will then think of some kind of connection between these two elements.

When I read about this, I was reminded of a writers’ tool that I ran across online once: the Random Logline Generator. (A logline is a one-sentence summary of a film used for pitching purposes, but in principle it can describe fiction in any medium). The generator’s offerings look something like this:


When I began reading the sentence, I thought, “Uh-huh, okay, laundry list of weird characters, yeah, this isn’t that interesting.” The action of the sentence, “wreak havoc,” was what initially sparked my interest. Then I looked at the sentence as a whole. Suddenly it didn’t seem so uninteresting. Who were these people? What sort of “havoc” were they wreaking and why? One voiceover artist or many?

It’s entirely possible that such a program could spark an idea that could lead to a serious project. As with anything, though, the real deal-breaker is the effort put forward by the writer.