So, it’s official. You’re stuck.
Maybe you can’t come up with a decent story idea. Maybe you’ve no idea of where to take the plot. Or possibly you’re just losing patience with an intractable character.
Whatever it is, you feel as though you’re spinning your wheels. What can you do?
Welcome to the power of brainstorming. (I have no doubt that you have heard of ‘brainstorming’ before – but perhaps you don’t know just how amazing the results can be, or you think it’s not something that you can do on your own!)
Brainstorming is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you focus on a problem area and jot down ideas at a fast and furious rate (‘storming’ the topic!) until you are overwhelmed with the possibilities. Don’t think too hard; don’t edit, and don’t stop. Usually, brainstorming is accomplished with at least two heads being put together… but with a ‘silent partner’ in the form of the ideas at the end of this article, or by coming up with your own lists, you can do it by yourself.
It helps if you have some guidelines. What follows are suggestions for the brainstorming process in a group situation or by yourself. This is followed by a list of broad areas ready for you to brainstorm and develop.
1. Brainstorming with a group.
- Nominate the subject area ahead of the group meeting. Example #1: Brainstorming a character for one person’s book (e.g. ‘hero for Marcie’s work in progress’), or a character type for everyone to use as a resource (e.g. ‘Alpha Male’ type). Example #2: Twist endings (again, for a specific group member’s book, or twist endings generally.)
- Ask everyone to bring along 3 ideas for the brainstorming session; each idea on one sheet of paper.
- Everyone presents their ideas. These are laid out where everyone can see them, or stuck on a wall. Eliminate duplicates.
- Choose one person as the scribe. Everyone works through the ideas one by one and talks about how to develop them (what might result if the OPPOSITE happened; what ‘out of the box’ ideas can spin off the first idea, etc). The scribe jots down every thought.
- Have a brief session at the end where everyone nominates their favourite idea and tells why.
You can follow this up by allowing participants to take a day or two to think about it, after which they share any more ideas. The nominated scribe types up all ideas and distributes them.
2. Brainstorming on your own.
When you look at what is written above, you might think that it’s impossible to achieve the same results on your own. Not so! You just need to approach it differently. Here’s how.
- Choose the subject area. Same basic rules apply as for a group.
- Write down the nature of your problem. (e.g. ‘Character too bland’; ‘Plot direction too predictable’.)
- Use the ideas below to start generating ideas, or create your own lists related to your specific problem. As an aid to creating your own lists, type your problem into Google and see if you can find advice on the Internet. It’s likely that you’re not the first one to run up against it!
- When you’ve written down as many ideas as you can think of, give yourself a short break and then keep going. Set yourself a time limit – say, ten minutes – to scribble down as many MORE ideas as you can think of, without stopping. (That’s the only rule – that you are not allowed to stop, even if you have to start writing down utterly impossible or crazy ideas. Why? Because many brilliant ideas have come out of those ‘impossible’ ideas – sometimes it takes only a minor tweak and there you have it: sheer genius! You’ll find that at this stage, sheer desperation can breed amazing results.)
- Put everything away. The next day – or the next week – come back and look over what you’ve done. This has a double benefit: one; it gives your subconscious time to work on what you’ve already done, and two; because you’re looking at it with fresh eyes, some options will really stand out.
Some Useful Directions for Brainstorming
Where does the story start? (What if you started it somewhere else? Where else could it start? Can you move it forward in time? Back in time? Why does it start here? Imagine what would happen if you moved it back two weeks, or forward a year.)
How will this story end? (You should have SOME idea of where you’re headed with this. Is it too predictable? What if you turned this planned ending on its head? What if you turned it around completely? What is an alternative ending? What are three or five or six alternative endings?)
Where are the story’s turning points? (What is the point of no return for your character? What if he/she DID change her mind at this point? What would happen? What would happen if you moved a turning point forward or back? What if you introduced a new turning point?)
What if you picked a different main character? (Have you chosen the right viewpoint character? How would the story play out if you chose another character? Where would the story start then? How would it end? How would it work if you changed the sex of the main character? What would happen if you took two characters and switched roles?)
What if you gave the main character a different personality? (Is your character too perfect? Is your character too villainous? What would happen if you introduced a negative character trait? TWO negative character traits? How can you introduce a new idiosyncrasy for your character? What could be a fatal flaw? How many different fatal flaws can you think of?)
What if you gave your main character a different past? (Can you give them a secret? What is the secret? What would happen if someone found out? What if your character thinks he/she has a past to be proud of, but it turns out they were living a lie? Why would this happen? Where might it lead?)
These are just a few examples. There are no limits to where you can go with the brainstorming process. And if you’re stuck… anything’s worth a try, right?