Ideas make the storytelling world go round. Everything writers do is based on developing, outlining, and enshrining ideas in prose. But, for people like me, coming up with good ideas can be hard—partly because of a misconception about a story idea’s purpose.
Most beginners think that a novel is founded on a single idea. That is simply not the case. Writing a novel is a process that involves fleshing out a chain of ideas. If you’re one of those people who struggles to foster good ideas for stories, you might get discouraged about your chances of becoming a writer. You need ideas, but where do they originate? Brainstorming.
When you hear the term brainstorming, maybe you imagine the madness of firing synapses and convoluted reasoning that occurs behind the veil in a creator’s mind. Unfortunately, that version of brainstorming won’t be helpful to you. You need to know how to brainstorm effectively.
Brainstorming: A How-to
Merriam Webster defines brainstorming as “the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.” Mulling over something means to think about it at length. When I brainstorm, I usually don’t start producing good ideas for at least a half hour. You have to get your mind fully focused on the story you’re trying to develop and the ideas you’re trying to generate. The best (only) way to do that is to set aside a significant amount of distraction-free time. But how do you spend that half hour and beyond? Sitting and staring at a blinking cursor?
How about not.
Brainstorming (efficient brainstorming, anyway) isn’t a conglomeration of thoughts and “storming.” It doesn’t all happen behind the shroud of the creative’s mind. It’s not a dizzying exercise or mysterious pastime. Sorry to ruin the illusion of grandeur, but brainstorming (like other pursuits) is at least 90 percent work and organization. So let’s begin.
Step 1: Preparation
You can take two preparatory steps to guarantee a successful brainstorming session. The first is to find the biggest canvas available. You need somewhere to put your scads of ideas, and an 8.5 x 11″ sheet of paper won’t cut it. Use a large whiteboard or poster board. If you’re into writing software, check out Scapple. Don’t want to spend the money? Clear your dining room table and spread out half a dozen pieces of paper.
Feel the white space. The emptiness. It’s amazing.
You have so much freedom. Capitalize on it.
Your second step is to review any material you’ve already drummed up for the story. Skim over your outline again. Reread the handful of chapters you’ve written—all at once. (I’d recommend exporting your chapters to a PDF and reading them on a mobile device so you aren’t tempted to edit as you go. Everything will change after you brainstorm anyway.) Don’t limit yourself to stuff you’ve created. If you have Pinterest boards, Spotify playlists, or writing prompts for your story, revisit them. Load all that information into your short-term memory. The more story fragments that are spinning around in your brain, the easier idea generation will be. Then, with white space and freedom in front of you, you’re ready to go.
Step 2: Direction
Even for us writers who struggle with ideas, the problem is usually that we have too many ideas, not too few. Every experience in life is a plot possibility, every interesting situation a prompt, every confusing interaction a character. When you sit down to brainstorm, you feel like you lack ideas because you can’t settle on just one.
What you need is a tool for grabbing one of those ideas and attaching it to other ideas until you have enough to create your story.
That tool is direction. Choose an element that’s holding your story back: a flat character, a dull scene or chapter, a boring setting, or a plot hole. Concentrate on that topic, ignore the others, and brainstorm by asking questions.
- Why is the character flat?
- What is his motivation?
- Why is he in your novel and not on the other side of the world?
- What about your chapter is boring?
- Does the scene need internal or external conflict?
- Why would your character be struggling with himself?
- What external forces could spice up the action?
If you can’t get any ideas rumbling, pick a question that’s close to the issue and refocus your search. Write down five potential answers to each problem and explore them all. Remember, you’re brainstorming; you’ll probably scrap half these ideas, and you’re not stuck with any of them. However, the more ideas you generate, the higher the odds that one (or two) will be good. First ideas are often clichéd and predictable. Thus, latching onto whichever idea pops up first robs you of the chance to keep readers on their toes. By the time you reach the fifth unique idea, though, you’ll be deep in the realm of the unexpected.
Step 3: Preservation
Once inspiration has struck, it’s time to work on the most important part of the process: note taking. If you don’t write down your ideas, they’re lost. Gone forever. Wasted. Which ideas do you need to write down? Every last one.
Two reasons for this:
- If you record the ideas, you’ll have them later. Even the ones you don’t expect to need. Those are the ideas you’ll end up using half the time.
- When you jot down an idea, you force your mind to dwell on it for a few seconds, which can help you expand it further and further. Generating random ideas is beneficial, but forming a chain of ideas is better. After all, that’s what stories are made of.
Step 4: Compilation
Finally, you need to turn the list of ideas into a story. At this point you have five potential answers to each question you’ve asked, but in most cases you only need one. How do you decide which ideas to keep and which to toss? Start with the idea that jumps out at you and excites you the most. Then survey all the other questions you addressed, each with its own idea quintet, and try to find connections. Which ideas mesh? If you get stuck, pick an arbitrary idea for a question you haven’t yet linked and attempt to create another set of connections you can weave together later.
Brainstorming is a mad rush of creativity, but sometimes the endless possibilities are crippling. Use this framework to trigger ideas, but if at some point you take off and don’t need the four steps anymore, let them go. Getting ideas is all that matters. (Except for step three. Don’t ever forget to write your ideas down. That only results in future aggravation.)
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 28, 2018. Updated April 19, 2021.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.
Wow. What a great definition of brainstorming. I’m glad you mentioned how long it takes you to come up with good ideas (I take about a half hour also), because I thought that maybe I was taking too long and my mind was just being slow. 😛
Hey there’s at least two of us. yay!
Haha! This made me smile! I am definitely a brainstormer! And when I get excited about an idea or find something that fits into a puzzle-shaped hole in my writing, I call it a brain blast! XD Writing down our ideas is CRUCIAL! I’ve learned the hard way not to let any of them go. Even if the ideas don’t work for the story you’re pursuing for, they can often either come in handy for other stories, sprout their own stories, or inspire new ideas all together in a future stormy session. I am also very much a question asker. I find the best way to come up with new ideas is to ask bazillions of questions and see where the spider-webs lead. I loved your section on preparation. I never really thought about intentionally stocking your short term memory and creating space on the table is a fantastic idea too! I know the blank space can sometimes paralyze people, but I’ve rarely had that issue personally. Thanks so much for sharing your article!
Writing down ideas. Yes. Very very helpful. Let me know how the brainstorming goes!
Great post, Brandon! One of my biggest writerly struggles is coming up with original, unique ideas. Your suggestion of not latching on to the first idea that pops into your head and instead exploring the fifth idea you come up with is an excellent idea that I am excited to try soon! I also have found that asking a lot of questions about a passage, no matter how easy or hard to answer they are, is extremely helpful for understanding, retention and digging deeper into anything.
This was a really helpful post and I’m excited to employ your suggestions when time permits 🙂
Cool, I’m glad you found my words helpful. Good luck brainstorming!
Thank you Brandon for posting this. I’ve never really gotten into the whole brainstorming thing, even though I have done a little in the past, because I struggled with understanding how it was supposed to work. However, as I read this, ideas began to spark and I think that I’d like to try this system out soon. Who knows? I might grow very attached to brainstorming. 😀
YES. I love brainstorming so much.
Need to do some right now… actually…….