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Wednesday, February 26, 2014


It is one of the most essential and iterative tools of writing, but in my experience brainstorming is often ignored or rushed through.  I thought that today I would offer up my own advice on how I brainstorm, and that might help out someone, somewhere.

Brainstorming is simply getting ideas out, usually onto paper.  Often it is done in groups, but can be performed on an individual basis.  There really is no "right way" to do it, but there are plenty of wrong ways.  I remember being taught some basic techniques for it when in Jr. High.  Sadly, those are the same techniques I was taught as a senior in college.  This means that they either work really well or they are the only techniques people can think of.  The popular methods for brainstorming, referred to as Osborn's Method, keep two things in mind: write a lot and don't judge it.  The more ideas you put down on paper, the better the chance of one of them not being crap.  If you've had any writing classes, you're probably familiar with the bubbles technique, where you start with one idea and circle it.  Then you put related ideas around it and circle them, then connect with lines.  You keep doing this, making a bubble map of related ideas.  I've never liked doing this.  A more effective method, I believe, is simply to write things down in a list.

The method I like best, however, is to come up with potential plot lines or link two ideas together.  Of course, this only works for stories, so it may not work for you.  I start off with an idea, a hook.  Then I ask one of two questions: "What happens next?" or "How did it get to this point?"  If I'm linking two ideas, then I ask, which one starts and how do I get to the other?"  I come up with all the possibilities.  If, for instance, I start with the idea of a boy who never needs to sleep, I might ask "why not?  Was he born this way, or did something happen to him?"  I'll weigh the possibilities... if he was born that way, he would never know what dreaming is like, would probably have been a terror on his parents, and would find himself with a lot of extra time for things like reading or getting into trouble.  If something happened to him, it could be self-inflicted or external, it could have been a traumatic experience.  I decide that, after delving into the "something happened" scenario a little deeper, I prefer to have him born without needing to sleep.  Next I would ask, "What happens now?"  Well, he may be curious.  He might want to learn what sleep is like.  Or maybe he is glad he doesn't have to sleep and leads a double life at night.  Maybe his parents don't know he doesn't sleep, so he can sneak out at night or stay up all night reading.  I continue like this until I have a semblance of a plot line.  I might even go back and decide that I prefer to have him not born that way, because then he might really fight to get his sleep back.  Then I try to think of the other people, the other situations, and how they might interact with his plot line.  What if he doesn't need sleep because of a virus that restores his body all the time?  What would the doctors think if they found out.  One of them might decide this would be a great way to make money...

Often I have to bounce ideas off of someone, but I don't usually have that option, so as a back-up, I let them linger.  Procrastination, to a writer, is actually your friend.  Go relax.  Get your mind off the story.  Play a game, listen to some music, do some sewing, watch a movie, go play with your cat.  Then come back to it, but always come back to it.  Don't procrastinate too long, or you'll lose the progress you made.  Sometimes inspiration will strike from the simplest thing, like watching your trash collector slip on ice, or wondering what possessed someone to write Catnapped!  No, really, what were they on?  Bring that inspiration with you when you get back to writing.  And give yourself a good 2 hours to brainstorm.  It takes about that long for your mind to really get into the creative groove.  To help, tell someone else a joke, then start.  Telling a joke helps get your mind into a creative mode.

Well, there you have it.  I like to come up with possibilities and eliminate them based on their potential (or lack thereof).  I tend to ask myself a lot of questions to make sure I cover every point.  But I always write down the ideas.  That way I can go back to one I've eliminated and make it viable again.  I also keep a notebook around to write ideas down in.  If I'm near my computer, I put it into a file instead.  Then, if I need to come up with an idea, I can browse through those I've already thought of.  I usually find something that'll work.  Whatever works for you is perfectly acceptable.

I may not have a short story for you all this week.  I apologize for that.  I'm working on a short story for a contest that is due on Friday, and it's taking up more time than I thought it would.  We'll see.


  1. This is exactly how I brainstorm writing ideas too! I've never found that bubble technique to work well because I would just end up with map of synonyms and antonyms or vague ideas that I can't remember why I thought they connected in the first place. I think questions work well because answering them is just another way to tell the story and if none of it ends up in the final narrative it still informs it and creates a richer final product in the end.

    I don't have a lot of writer friends to talk out writerly problems with either but I still talk about issues I might be working through with my friends and family, even if they have no idea what I'm talking about, or can't offer much help, at least I can hear my thoughts out loud and they start to take a different shape. Sometimes I've found that making a voice recording, using either Quicktime on my computer or Evernote on my phone, helps both to take notes and also to hear the ideas and let them develop more organically without having to make my fingers type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts.

    There are a lot of anecdotes out there about writers taking long walks or swimming miles and miles while thinking over a narrative problem or idea. Sometimes just sleeping helps. I think Brain Pickings has a lot of links/info about famous writer routines and using procrastination/distraction to kick up some creative juices.

    1. I'm glad it's not just me! Asking and answering questions has always been what gives me the best results. Sometimes I ask my wife unusual questions because I'm trying to work through a plot. Things like, "If you had to choose your death, what would you choose?" or "Do you think the person who invented plexiglass thought it might be used as a weapon?" or "If we get all our crap from China, where do they get all their crap from?"

      Hmmm... maybe I should make a twitter account just to post up the weird crap I ask myself and my wife.