Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fun Art of Brainstorming

Brainstorming a story is one of the best parts of writing and after having an impromptu and fun brainstorming session with fellow Torkidlit writer Jo Swartz (twitter @joswartz) on Sunday over Dim Sum I thought the area of brainstorming deserved its own blog post.

Now notice my title did not say "fine" art - because brainstorming is not really an art but it's definitely not a science either. What brainstorming can be is spur of the moment or planned, methodical or messy, solitary or with friends. You see? It's what you want it to be. The only rule is that it should be fun because what you want to do is "play" with your story idea. Brainstorming is a way of testing out a whole bunch of leads to see where they take you and, above all else, is an opportunity to ask a heck of a lot of questions about your story and characters. Like many games, it's sometimes more fun if you play it with others but you can brainstorm on your own if that's your preference.(What writer doesn't like playing online solitaire?)

I personally love brainstorming with writer friends but usually I like brainstorming their story ideas (I brainstorm mine doing the solitary version of the game). I love it when a writer pal has a nugget of a great idea but is still trying to flesh out the plot and characters to make it a deeper story. The role I love to play is almost like a Devil's Advocate. I LOVE asking questions (to the point where my writer friends sometimes get overwhelmed because they may not have all the answers to them yet). For example, say my friend tells me she wants to write a ghost story about a very fearful child who's fascinated by ghosts and the story opens with 12 year old Susie, going to explore a burnt-out, decrepit, reportedly haunted house? Hmm, I say, "But I thought you told me Susie is a cautious, fearful kid? What would make her go into that spooky old house?" My writer pal might have a very logical reason why Susie would do that but, more often than not, it's still so early in the story development phase that they haven't thought about linking their characters traits to plot points. If the writer pal doesn't have a solid reason for this character action I usually ask, "Okay. Can there be a compelling reason for Susie to have to overcome her fear and caution in order for her to step into that scary place?" That question usually springboards us into a discussion of one of the most important questions to ask about your story: Who or What does your main character care about/want the most? i.e. the core goal of your character. That core motivation leads to plot and action and, if all is well with the story, should be inextricably linked.

If the brainstorming on character and plot is going well there might be an epiphany of sorts - something you never realized about your character, some inner emotional conflict that will make it very difficult to make a choice. For example, going back to Susie who's standing in front of that scary house, as a fearful and cautious child, but maybe she'll follow her beloved dog in to that house to get him back. But, a few other questions then. Why is that dog enough to make her push through her fear? Why is Susie a fearful, cautious child in the first place? Why is this dog so important to her? Did that dog wake her up when he smelled smoke and saved Susie even though her parents died in a fire? Is that old house her old home that the neighbourhood kids say is still haunted by the spirits of her dead parents? Did Susie start the fire accidentally by playing with matches in the basement and is now riddled with guilt? Is that the reason she can't go in - not even for the dog who saved her? Is that why she's fascinated by ghosts? That is a definite, nail-biting conflict.

Wow. Even I'm getting caught up in Susie's story now.

My point is, if you keep asking questions in the brainstorming game and they lead to more questions - that's good! As long as you can answer them or are intrigued enough by where the questions are taking you you're winning the game and having fun in the process.

So, go ahead and play Brainstorm. Trust me, it's fun!


  1. OK, I'm going to have to send you a lengthy email so we can brainstorm WIP!

    Great post.

  2. he-he-he. I had the same thought, Patty! I want Nelsa as a brainstorming partner!

  3. I like brainstorming others' ideas also. But I think it's because it takes the pressure off me to develop into a novel length plot.

  4. I love brainstorming! Ideas and questions ricocheting around--nothing beats it, especially if you're blocked.

  5. Patty and Anna: Awww, thanks gals. But are you sure? Honestly, even I get sick of my constant questions. I'd have a blast but not sure you guys would after the twentieth "But why ..." question. :)

    Hi Brad! Thanks for stopping by. Yup, you've got it right - just like spending other people's money, figuring out other people's characters/plot is WAY more fun than your own!

    Hi Linda: I agree. Brainstorming really does help with blockage. Sometimes all it takes is to talk it out.

  6. Great post! Asking questions whether alone or with other writers is important. I'm trying to push myself beyond the first couple of ideas, which might be cliche or boring, but to keep listing until I've found the right idea or core motivation.

  7. Hey, Laura: Yes, it's definitely important to keep asking more and more questions - not just the first few. It's amazing what you'll end up with.

  8. Anne and Patty, you couldn't do better than have Nelsa as a brainstorming partner. I loved all the questions, and the epiphanies, which just kept rolling in long after our 'impromptu' session. She definitely helped me see my story and my character's motivations and conflicts more clearly. Great blog post Nelsa!

  9. Hi Jo - it was an absolute pleasure brainstorming an story as good as yours was! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the pages you sent. Now get back to work and keep writing it!