Thursday, April 8, 2010

Brainstorming and You

Song Playing: Spark by Tori Amos

I signed up for three blogfests recently, because I am a glutton for punishment. So here they are before I get on with today’s post.

Charity Bradford is having a Baking Scene Blogfest:

The Write Runner, also known as Iapetus999, also known as Andrew Rosenberg is having a Bad Girl Scene blogfest, which I totally have covered:

And finally, Tara is having a Bar Scene Blogfest:

Also, the lovely Mia is having a Deleted Scene Blogfest, that I will sign up for if I can think of something! So go on, check them out. It’s fun to write a scene with a specific goal in mind. I like to use these scenes to stretch myself as a writer, so it doesn’t just have to be a distraction from your normal schedule.


Brainstorming. Every writer does it. Whether it’s just thinking about how the idea you’ve had can play itself out, or a more formal jotting ideas down on paper, you’ve had to brainstorm your idea every time you write a book.

Given the frequency a writer will brainstorm, I was surprised I didn’t find more information about various brainstorming methods on the Internet and in books. So I decided to post about it myself.

I have already touched on the idea of brainstorming in one of my earlier posts, “Hypnotize Yourself While Writing”, but I didn’t really expand past mentioning you need to brainstorm.

Now, you might be thinking you don’t like to brainstorm, you hated those tree diagrams and free association just isn’t for you, but like I said, my theory is EVERY writer brainstorms, it’s just a matter of how.

Let’s back up. What do I mean by brainstorming exactly? I mean when you have an idea for a book, and you think about how that idea could work itself out. Probably the idea comes to you in a piece. My ideas almost ALWAYS come as a situation between two characters.

Case in point: two nights ago I had a dream that a rich, high society girl was traveling by a large ship across freezing waters with her high society family. She snubs a soldier on the boat, but later she falls overboard, and starts to drown. Her parents are standing on the boat, crying out for her, but not doing anything to help. They assume she’s already lost because the waters are freezing, and by the time they can get a lifeboat out to her she’ll already have drowned.

The soldier guy she snubbed earlier dives into the ocean, and drags her back to the lifeboat the other soldiers have lowered into the water. The girl gets medical attention, but now has a huge dilemma. She just had literal proof her parents wouldn’t risk their lives to save her. A complete stranger—one that she had been mean to, no less—was the one to risk his life. Not her family. She had always suspected she was just an asset to her parents, but here was the ugly truth (note: I realize that not diving into the freezing ocean doesn’t necessarily mean someone doesn’t love you. But that’s how it was in my dream. ;) ).

That’s the idea. In it’s entirety. A typical idea for me, where there are two characters that are connected through a complicated, not easy to define way, and they both have to deal with internal issues.

Everything I do to develop this idea I consider brainstorming (or will do since I am just writing this idea down for later, since I have several others books already in the queue).

Let’s say you do need to do some brainstorming. If not now, in the future. How do you go about it? The neat thing is almost anything can click with you and make you see your idea in another light. Actually, I try to allow that synergy to happen as often as possible, so when I have an idea, I write down everything I know about it and then let the idea stew for a while (the above example’s idea page is longer than what I explained to you. Sometimes just the act of writing the idea down will spark more ideas, or uncover more information. Like, when I typed that up I KNEW her older sister was a rival, and her parent’s greatly favored her older sister over her).

Some people prefer to not write the idea down and let it stew, but I do my best stewing with I have something jotted down, even if it’s just a sentence. If you are passively brainstorming, you’re acting like a normal writer and observing the world around you, thinking “What if this happened?”, reading books, watching movies, watching birds, listening to people talk, thinking about the idea while driving, talking to people etc. And sometimes you see a picture or watch a movie that clicks and opens up more potential for an idea you’ve already had. Those kismet moments are what I live for as a writer (among others).

Sometimes you decide you want to do some more active brainstorming, for a variety of reasons. Here are some, according to the most common for me.

1) You are in love with an idea, it burns deep inside you, and you absolutely must work on it. Right now.

2) You already have most of the basics of the idea down. Maybe you have the characters named, you know the theme and setting. All you need now is a plot. (Because in my case, I almost NEVER had ideas that come with plots. Situations that could spin out into a plot? Yes. But not a whole lot of ideas relating to plots).

3) You are bored, feeling creative, and your mind is wandering. Out of curiosity, you what to see what comes out.

So you’ve decide to brainstorm. What next?

Brainstorming is as personal as creating characters, but here are some of the methods I have run across in my time as a writer:

1) The Free Form
This one is also called Stream of Conscious, or something along that line. Basically you sit down, and write everything that comes to mind while vaguely thinking about your plot. For my girl falling off boat idea, Free Form could look like this: boat, ocean, Titanic, life rafts, SCUBA diving…

I don’t like to do this so early on in the brainstorming process, but some people swear by it. I almost never come up with something useful when I have so little already planned.

2) The Web o’ Ideas
We all know this one. This is where you draw a circle, write the character’s name in the middle, and draw another circle. You write something in that circle, like BOAT. Maybe you have another idea related to BOAT, so you draw a circle off of BOAT and write LIFE RAFT. Or you have an idea for the character and write PARENTS USE HER. You get the picture. There’s all sorts of data why this is useful—because you’re engaging both sides of your brain, because you’re drawing, because you’re harnessing order and chaos.

I don’t really use this method a whole lot either. I don’t do well with anything resembling free form. I don’t know why. I just keep recycling the same ideas over and over. So I get frustrated, crumple it into a ball, throw it across the room, and do something more linear.

3) The List
This form of brainstorming is where you either write long hand, or type in a new document some short bullets of your idea. It’s a cousin to the Web o’ Ideas in that most of the time the bullet builds on the one that came before it. It’s different from Free Form because you normally group similar ideas together, but very similar since you are just sort of throwing ideas out there as they come. So in the continuing example, my list could look like this:

*Somehow the soldier has to function in her world, instead of going the expected route and making the parents destitute, and having to rely on him. He is granted a huge amount of land and title for saving her life?

*Her sister is the main antagonist? She’s prettier and engaged to a prince or something?

*Or war could break out where soldiers are more needed, the soldier guy gets titled, and then moves up the ranks. Leadership, where you have people under you. Grant land from a traitor and give it to the soldier?

*No one showed the soldier how to be noble. He doesn’t know how to deal with finances because he’s been a soldier his entire life. The estate has a huge upkeep, high, falling to ruin, deeply in debt, the girl helps him out of it? Mined his own land, and kept his land. Social etiquette part?

*The girl listened to all the chatter of the high society, talk about the latest fashions, runs across the soldier, so he’s a different person and has different things to talk about.

I use this one a ton, so that is a real life example from where I wrote my idea down. See how the ideas jump around a bit, but mostly stay on topic? I also have several permutations of a situation—in this case how the soldier will come into play later—and I basically think out loud.

4) The Hundred Questions
This is also called several different things, and I have also blogged about this method a little bit, in my post “From Idea to Story” when I talked about brainstorming. You sit down with a piece of paper or new word processing document, write out your basic idea, and start asking yourself all sorts of questions. Like, what if X happened? What would happen from that? How would that work out? Where would that happen? Who would do it? You could follow this train of thought as far as you want, with as many detours as you want. You could decide you didn’t like this line of thought, and go back to the start, and ask yourself the same questions.
A girl falls overboard from a huge boat, in the middle of freaking nowhere, and the water is ice cold.
What if she was really pushed overboard? What if her parents paid to have her pushed? What if she fell due to her own stupidity? What if someone saves her but now they are stuck with each other because of the customs of the land? What if she realized her parents didn’t love her because they assumed she was dead? What if she decided to sabotage her parents because of this hurt? What if she joined the mafia? What if she embezzled all her parents’ money and turned to a life of crime…

And so on. I have NO idea where the mafia thing came from, but see how I started to follow that train of thought? Initially I would say that there is no mafia where they live, so she can’t join it, but maybe I could have a criminal element? Maybe they are merchants and her father belongs to the mob in their world, and she sells him out? Maybe I keep the “stealing all her parents’ money” part and drop the mafia angle.

Maybe not, but it’s something I could keep in mind. Many times I have come up with a random thought I didn’t think fit the story at all, only to think of a way include it much to the betterment of the story later.

I really really really…REALLY like this method. I always do this as some point in time to my plots. It helps me make sure I have really found the best, most original way for the story to unfold. Usually I have one part of the idea, and then I ask myself what if over and over, and just write whatever springs to mind. Half of what I come up with is awful, but that’s not the point. The point is to think your idea through as much as you can before you actually write it. Sometimes you can spot an idea that’s going to fizzle during this stage, or a glaring problem that you’re going to need to address.

And plus, it’s loads of fun! I think writers should play “What if” at parties.

5) With a Twist!
Something you can do at any stage in any method of brainstorming is twist your idea. Take whatever you just wrote, and twist it. You can already see how I twisted an idea with the previous example. Girl falls over board, guy saves her. I decided I didn’t want to just write a damsel in distress story, so I twisted it, and started thinking of ways that she could also “save” him. And not in that sappy, “He’s a jerk, and she melts his cold heart and saves her with LOVE” *cue sappy music* sort of saving him.

Also, most people would simply have them fall in love, and then have her wealthy parents loose all their money, and it turns out that her parents rely on the soldier for food and shelter. It would turn into Romeo and Juliet Take a Chilly Cruise in a heartbeat. So I decided to head that off at the pass, and left the nature of their relationship up in the air, and twisted the idea so that the soldier would have to learn how to function in the upper class’s world. Somehow. The details are still sketchy.

Or you could use a synergy of any or all of the above. I knew a writer who used the web, but also Free Formed ideas in a sidebar on the same paper. Different forms of brainstorming might be more useful at different stages of the book for you as well. Like I said earlier, I don’t like to use the Web or Free Form early on, but once I have most of the details worked out I will sometimes do that to see what other ideas shake down from my subconscious.

To start with, I usually use a combination of the List and the Hundred Questions. You can actually see the questions buried in the bullets, where I was already asking myself why? How? What? Who? And When?

Something else to consider: put yourself into the story. No, I am not talking about making a Mary or Gary Stu. But somewhere around the stage when I am twisting and wringing the idea for all it’s worth, I start asking myself, What do I like about this idea?

That questions can save your book if you know the answer. If you get to the middle of the book and run out of steam, you can look back at the brainstorming stage and read over what made you so excited in the first place, and rekindle the book.

Finding out what you like about the idea can also keep you on track with your plot. We know that by making one decision about the plot, we also affect every other future decision we make on the plot in a chaos-butterfly effect way. Let’s look at my example. By deciding the soldier was going to have to deal with the high society, I changed a lot of the other options I had for the plot. It would probably take place in high society more now, than if I had went the “family goes bankrupt” route. Every decision takes you down a different path, and sometimes it’s hard to know which path you want to go down.

If you know why you are so excited about the idea, you can make sure your plot stays within that idea. I don’t know if you have ever had this happen, but sometimes I would either write an idea out or plot it out, and suddenly I was no longer interested in it. The book morphed at some point into a story I didn’t care about telling.

Once I started identify what caused the fires to be stoked, I never had that problem again. AND it helps while you revise the book.

This reason doesn’t have to be meaningful, or insightful, or even make sense. I like the girl falling over the boat idea so much because I love wondering how she’s going to deal with finding out her parents don’t love her. I also love the “pride comes before a fall” concept, so the girl finding out there’s more to life than fancy parties intrigues me. It’s that simple. When my plot starts to veer off course, I bring it back to: what situations would force her to come to terms with her family? How can I milk that for all it’s worth?

Some ideas I liked just because I had a great feel for the main characters. Others because I had a good sense of the world. This reason can be anything you like. Once you realize what draws you to the idea, you can also proceed to put more of what you find fascinating into the story. Why stop with just one thing?

Here is something that has really changed the way I write, and create ideas. I have noticed a huge difference in my stories after I started doing this.

Keep a file on your computer, call it whatever you think is appropriate. Mine is called “My theme” and subtitled “The Shiny”. Write in this file ideas and concepts that fascinate you. For example, I think dreams are really cool, and I want to write a story about someone controlling their dreams. Some other things I find cool to think about:

*Why is it that the things we want hurt us the most? Is it the act of wanting it? Or the thing itself? Is it us? Our choices? Something we can’t control?

*Why is it to really live sometimes you have to die? Why is it ironic, why do you have to give up your hair for a hair comb? Why?

*Forgiveness: are there some things someone can do to you that are so terrible, or just hurt you so bad that you could never really forgive them? What if this was a loved one? A family member?

Finding your themes is easy. What topics do you find yourself debating until the wee hours in the morning? What subjects are guaranteed to keep your interest? A quirky sidekick? (maybe you could write a story about a quirky sidekick, and what it’s like to play second fiddle) Angels and demons? Do you, like me, love those movies that came out in the 90’s that dealt with heaven and hell fighting each other?

I also have a list of subjects that intrigue in the same file. Here is a small sample:

survival in a dystopia
survival after an apocalypse
angels and demons fighting, exorcism
Orpheus going back to the underworld
death is not the end
serial killers
1940’s gangster
gang wars
Mental illness

I am not suggesting you write the same story over and over, but to have a place you can regularly go to for ideas that you love. In the girl falls off a boat idea, I could easily see myself asking the Forgiveness question. Could she forgive her parents? Could they make things better? Worse? How would she get over it (without whining through the entire book)?

Once you story identifying how you brainstorm best, and what excites you about a story, you can reliably create interesting ideas. I am not saying you don’t still need your muse (I would never suggest such a thing. I love my muse. He’s the greatest, bestest musing muse in the history of muses…there. I think I placated his ego enough) but when you have all the rest of this stuff in place it makes it a lot easier to start cross pollinating and getting eureka moments.

What is the best way you have found to brainstorm? What topics rabidly interest you?

(P.S. I could say I used all pictures of glasses to symbolize how brainstorming fills your creativity up, but that would be a lie. I just found those pictures aesthetically pleasing. Thank you, for the pictures)


  1. Holy wow! What a post. :) Thanks for the shout out and for signing up for the blogfest.

    I think I do a combination of some of these brainstorming techniques. I stew ideas until I MUST write and then I free form with questions thrown in. I can write pages of stuff about the characters and scene ideas and when I don't know what the motivation is I start writing questions.

    Its a big mess when I go back to get organized, but I take highlighters to it and block out different things: questions, characteristics, scene synopsis, etc.

  2. That's a great idea Charity! That was my only complaint about free writing and What Ifing, is the mess it leaves my file. Now I will print that puppy out and use a highlighter to mark different pieces. Thanks!

  3. Wowee this is a long post with a lot of information! I tend to brainstorm more in stream on consciousness when I bring my notebook with me, and when I don't I jot down a sentence here or there usually on a receipt!

    I love that picture with the red white and blue glasses. :)

  4. Great post!

    I mainly do number 1 and 3 when brainstorming but number 4 sounds like something I want to try for sure. Most of my brainstorming starts with a scene that comes to me which I go back to and pick at. I find out aspects about my characters and asks questions as I read through it again.

    p.s. thank you so much for the mention, all these Blogfests are going to be such fun!

  5. I picture my ideas as movies in my head, and then I remember what that looked like as if it were an actual memory. Then I think about what would have made the 'movie' better, and I work on that. Yeah, I know: I'm nuts.

  6. @ Aubrie: Thanks for stopping by! I too write on any scrap piece of paper in a moment of desperation. Sometimes the best brainstorming comes from that.

    @Mia: No problem! Like I said, I can't think of anything clever for a Deleted Scene, even though the idea itself is sheer brillience, but I will sign up if I can come up with something.

    @Christi: If you're nuts, I fell from the same tree. I see a lot of scenes from my books as though they were movies or memory. While I am writing I can actually SEE what I am writing about. Freaky, huh?