Writing advice often talks about how to organize ideas into a coherent form: plot, scenes, timeline. But how do we come up with these story ideas in the first place? How, exactly, does one brainstorm?
At its heart, brainstorming has three steps:
STEP 1: Idea Generation, or Problem Solving
Creativity flourishes within limits. I posit that, for successful brainstorming, we need to assign:
- one or more specific questions, and
- a numerical limit.
An idea is the answer to a question, stated or implied. It is the solution to a problem. The broader (or more unlimited) the question, the vaguer the result. For example, “What is my hero like?” might yield vague answers. More specific questions could be:
What does my hero want the most?
Why does she want this?
What happens if he doesn’t get it?
How can her story-desire be expressed in a scene?
How could he react in a compelling way?
The limit can be quantity (10 ideas, one paragraph, etc) and/or time (5 minutes to an hour).
Do not judge or criticize any ideas generated in Step 1. This step is all about quantity over quality; focus on producing ideas, however weak or “impossible” they seem.
Number your ideas; it helps during Step 2.
All writers (and projects) are different, so there are myriad ways to generate ideas. Popular methods include freewriting, listing, and mindmapping or clustering. Below is an example of a mindmap.
Time limit: 10 minutes.
Question 1: How are these characters connected?
Question 2: What is their nationality or ethnic background?
STEP 2: Evaluation, or Quality Control
Time to engage the critical brain. For every idea generated in the last step:
List its advantages (pros).
List its disadvantages (cons).
How might you convert these cons into pros?
E.g. X is from Country Y.
(1) More diversity in the cast.
(2) Do I know enough about this region to draw a representative and respectful portrait?
(3) Cultural research might enrich / modernize the story.
STEP 3: Repeat
Repeat Steps 1 and 2 as necessary.
Creative brainstorming is a three-step process that we can do at any time; there’s no need to depend on eureka moments in the shower! If you keep a writer’s notebook, I highly recommend creating a page for Problems to Solve.
If instinct tells you to keep a “crazy” idea: figure out why and how.
If there are significant disadvantages to an idea: feel free to discard it. Better ones will come.
If you aren’t coming up with any ideas that you like: rephrase your original questions, or change them altogether.
Good luck, and happy brainstorming ~