Six impossible things

Brainstorming blockages

“The best ideas don’t need to be sought out at all; you just have to train yourself not to swerve out of the way when they jump out in front of you.” – Jon Forss

Brainstorming is a mental activity, so it is unsurprising that most of the things that disrupt it are mental difficulties. A lot of them boil down to fear:  fear of not getting ideas, fear of “doing it wrong,” fear of failure, fear of success, fear of clichés, fear of wasting time, fear of regimentation, fear that no one will like the story, fear that the results will be embarrassingly bad.

The thing is, brainstorming is not a success/failure technique. There is no right way or wrong way; like writing, it’s what works or what doesn’t, and “what works” is different for every writer and every book. If you can’t manage to let go of whatever you are afraid of, try tricking yourself – doing it for practice (and then using whatever good stuff turns up, so that it won’t be wasted). Or switch methods from spiderwebbing to freewriting or list-making, or make adjustments and adaptations to your method to suit your personal style (some suggestions below). An remember, an unused idea is not necessarily the same as a useless idea.

The second biggest difficulty is usually escalation of either expectations or consequences. People build up an idea in their heads of the brilliant things that will follow a “successful” brainstorming (a perfect plot in ten minutes! No more thinking necessary!), or they come up with a horrific list of negative consequences that will result from a “failure” (clichés! Imagination burnout! Loss of creativity!). Either one is intimidating enough to put them off; both together make a lot of people refuse to play with the technique at all.

Brainstorming is a technique to encourage lateral thinking. It’s not a cure for what ails your manuscript, and it’s not an evil system for producing generic stories. If the results are horrible, you can always throw them away. If it totally doesn’t fit your brain, you can adapt it or use some other technique. Expectations – good or bad – are things you are doing to yourself.

There are a bunch of ways to adapt the basic spiderweb, freewriting, and list-making techniques to give them a little extra oomph. Using a picture as the center of your brainstorming spiderweb can give it new spin – a photo of someone who looks like one of your characters, or a montage of places and people and actions that “feel right.” The particularly kinesthetic can try role-playing, either to work out a troublesome scene, or perhaps playing one of the characters explaining the whole adventure after-the-fact to a college classmate over drinks.

Temporarily changing the intended media can give you a new outlook. What would the story be like if you wrote it as an epic poem? What has to change/be added/be subtracted if you write it as a movie script or a comic book? As a series of haiku?

Assume you are a newspaper reporter who will be interviewing one of your characters, and make up the interview questions. Then decide which ones the character would refuse to answer, which he/she thinks are stupid or irrelevant or misguided, and which ones he/she will exaggerate or lie outright about and why. Take your character(s) on a mental trip to your favorite bar, mall, or ethnic restaurant and see if you can get them to drop hints (“This food is so much better than that time in Eritrina!” “That’s because you were in the dungeons there, not eating at a fancy restaurant.”). Some of what you find out will appear to be plot-irrelevant, like the character’s favorite color, how spicy they like their food, or what their hobbies are, but again, the point of brainstorming is to pile up a large heap of information, not to sort it into plot-relevant and not-plot-relevant right off the bat.

If you like the spiderweb, but can’t get past the central topic, there are two ways of kick-starting things. The first is the old reliable Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How: from “who” you spin out all the characters you know and maybe some more you’ve just invented or folks who could possibly be in the story/scene; for “what,” you spin out the type of book (mystery, fantasy, thriller, fantasy-mystery, SF-romance…) and then the kinds of things that you think ought to or could happen in it, “when” and “where” are time and place, “how” can be anything from proto-plot-points like “go on a quest” to story structure (“circular, multiple POV”). Don’t be afraid to put down stuff you already know.

(If you’re really good at coming up with a character’s backstory, start your brainstorming ten or twenty years after the book you are writing, so that your current project has become the future-characters’ backstory. Or look at the story from an unusual viewpoint – the sidekick’s mother-in-law, or the villain’s rebellious teenaged son.)

The other kick-start works best if you have a situation but can’t figure out how to progress from there. Make the situation the center of the spiderweb (“George accused of stealing painting.”) Then make a list of five or six people – imaginary characters or real-life ones – who are REALLY different from each other, like Darth Vader, Xena Warrior Princess, Mahatma Gandhi, Hermione Granger, Donald Trump, Cleopatra. What would each of them do if they were in George’s place? Kill the accuser, hire a lawyer, bribe someone to provide an alibi, start solving the mystery on his/her own, seduce the accuser and/or the cop…now you have the start of a first ring of possible things that George could do, even if most of them aren’t things he would do. The “would he do it” part comes later, in next week’s post.

16 Comments
  1. My trouble seems to be that I generally have a situation that’s not really a dramatic situation. (“Character shops for new clothes on an alien planet.”) I can brainstorm or otherwise come up with ways to make my initial situation into something more dramatic. (“Debit card gets unaccountably locked.” “Alterations promised ‘to fit human women’ don’t.” “The highly-recommended store has shut its doors and gone out of business.”) But after that, working out a resolution almost always turns out to be a bridge too far.

    Or as I grumbled in a comment on the earlier post: Brainstorming gives me a fast forced-growth of my usual barnacles. I get setting and character and story-start barnacles, but dang-near nothing for story-climax and story-ending barnacles.

    Similarly when I do web searches for “story prompts.” I find loads and loads of sites with “Here are some ideas for starting a story!” But I don’t need that (usually). What I need are prompts and kick-starts for the climax and ending parts.

    But maybe that’s Hard for everyone, not just me. Which would explain why help with the Easy parts is so easy to find but help with the Hard parts is hard to find.

    • For me, I think it’s more that I know how to find info for the easy parts, which is part of what makes them easy….

      A couple of things that have worked for me (ymmv) in finding a resolution for various stories:

      Endings=Beginnings, both in the sense that the ending of the story could match the beginning in some way, where match can mean be the same (monster killed, status quo restored) or be the opposite (rags to riches, farm boy to emperor), and also that the story can stop easily where another story starts (wedding, coronation, new life of X, goal W achieved). It might help to have a list of what needs to be resolved, or what you want resolved in what way.

      Climax=the mountain, possibly inverted. Everything that can go wrong should all be piling up, or dragging down. It might help to look at the opposition in the story and give them the Best Day Ever, which hopefully is terrible for your character(s). Alternatively, show off character Y. e.g. character has grown because can now do Z that they initially would have failed at.

      Hope this helps

    • Does it help to remember that not ALL plots need to finish up at “saved the world!” A smaller, less dramatic ending works just fine too. Heck, nearly everything in the Romance genre is on a very small scale indeed. (I’ve read some books with 4 named characters or less)

      Perhaps your story ‘climax’ needs to be a very small one. Like… graduate. Or find a job.

      Or just take your barnacle-bits – put a satisfing “solution” on each one – and line them up in chrological order. Ta Da! Rough Draft of Book! (Seriously, that is pretty much the plot to a Slice-of-Life type story.) Perfecting that type of “plot” is to layer the parts that take longer with the short bits. And pruning the barnacles so you have a unified theme/mood/topic with your “stuff that happens”. And maybe shuffing the bits so the really awsome bits aren’t lumped up in one chapter.

  2. I hadn’t thought to use a picture as the triggering impulse, despite my current WIP having emerged (and grown in wholly unpredictable directions) from a picture of two mail-clad soldiers getting drunk in the loft room of a tavern.

    How that turned into a first-contact, anthropologic space-opera isn’t entirely clear, but most of it was me just eavesdropping on their conversation and seeing where it led.

  3. “Character shops for new clothes on an alien planet.”

    Zoom out a little bit. Why is your character shopping for clothes? And why is she on an alien planet in the first place?

    The drama in a scene frequently comes from its effect on the long-term goal. What’s her long-term goal? It’s probably tied to why she’s on the alien planet at all (unless she was kidnapped, or some such).

    What are the stakes? i.e., what will happen if she doesn’t accomplish her long-term goal?

    What is the conflict? (Not knowing the language, future in-laws want her to recover an Ancient Relic, kidnappers want to sacrifice her to the Volcano God, etc.)

    Try putting some of these questions in the middle of your brainstorm sheet and see if anything shows up.

    • Oh, the character’s shopping for clothes because her own luggage has gone missing. I think it was actually stolen, by someone who has mistaken her for, hm, a spy? A hidden heir? Bewildered character stumbles around as increasingly dangerous weird happenings thwart her perfectly reasonable desire to leave this planet.

      How alien is the planet? Is there in fact a local sentient race? Are there other humans in the same area, or is she quite alone?

      Now, if someone would like to tell me how to get my own characters out of this one cozy upstairs parlor, which is now getting a bit crowded with the engaged couple (she’s local, he’s an offworlder) her aunt, her brother, his freshly arrived aunt and uncle, and a couple of servants, I would be grateful.I am considering having the brother offer to hold the ladder while the e.c. elopes.

    • I’ve already got lots more detail than I’ve put down in my thumbnail blog comment.

      Part of the problem may be that I want to write a cozy little domestic adventure, a short story in part of a series featuring an unchanging “iconic” character, rather than a full novel about a character who Saves the World and has her Life Fundamentally Transformed by a trip to pick out some new skirts and tops. So I’ve already blocked off lots of the long-term big-stuff branches as “NOT going to happen” in my brainstorming. (“No, she’s not going to be attacked by terrorists who object to humans being on the alien world.”)

      And my biggest problem is coming up with a satisfying turn of events that makes it all come out right in the end. The usual advice is to pile more and more trouble on the character, along with ideas of how to do this. But that is not what I need help with, either in this case or in general. I can already do that – it’s hard, but it’s a doable sort of hard. Most writing advice seems to have an unspoken assumption that once a writer piles enough grief on his characters, and that once he has enough detail about the grief he’s piled on, then the ending will just fall into his lap. But this is not the case. Not for me, and I’d say not for many other writers either, given how common bad “deus ex machina” endings are.

      The part of Plot that I find truly Hard is not ways of getting characters into more trouble, but in coming up with ways the characters might get out of trouble that are both satisfying and plausible.

      • If you know what problems need to be solved, try doing a search on “problem solving strategies”

        Or is the problem coming up with the right, um, size problem for the type of story you want it to be?

        Ultimately, why is your character shopping? She’s looking for item X? The threats are in the categories of ‘not found’ or ‘not obtainable.’ Shopping is stress relief? The threats are things that add stress. etc.

      • Most writing advice seems to have an unspoken assumption that once a writer piles enough grief on his characters, and that once he has enough detail about the grief he’s piled on, then the ending will just fall into his lap. But this is not the case.

        What Deep Lurker said. Make their lives difficult? Easy. Fix it (believably and interestingly)? Um….

      • …then the ending will just fall into his lap.

        I suspect every writer is different. I seem to one of those writers for whom the ending does just fall into my lap. Once I hit about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through my story, the words seem to tumble from my fingertips, and I know exactly where I’m headed. The whole story has been building to this point, and I’m rocking it.

        The part I struggle with is the beginning. Not the idea for the start of the story, but the actual getting it into specific words in my computer file. I can do it. But I feel like I have lead weights hanging from my fingertips.

        Once I’m started, the weight eases up, and I go along fairly comfortably, but still with a fair bit of effort. It’s when I hit that 2/3 to 3/4 point that it becomes easy and I feel like I’m flying.

        • I suspect we may be talking at cross purposes – unless you’re one of those writers who have no ideal what the ending will look like until you reach that 2/3 or 3/4 point and it suddenly appears to you.

          Me, I need to have a general idea what the climax scene & ending looks like before I can usefully start writing. Starting without this is a good way for me to create a few paragraphs of story-start than never ever get finished. (And if it’s a novel-length book, I need a few “way-point” scene ideas, as well.)

          • I write for the same reason I read: to see what happens next.

            If I know the end of a story beforehand, writing turns into the mere drudgery of typing.

            Just shows how different writers approaches can (must?) be.

          • I suspect we may be talking at cross purposes…

            That’s entirely possible. Comments on a blog are a limited format. My apologies if I came across as unsympathetic. I did not mean to.

            As it chances, I’m not one of those writers who writes merrily along with no idea about what is coming next. That does not work for me at all. (I’m a little jealous of writers who can pull it off.) 😉

            When I’m brainstorming my story, I tend to start with the setting – both physical and cultural – and imagine who the people are who would have serious difficulties in that milieu. And I build from there, imagining specific characters and specific situations, creating a rough plot arc. My climax scene and its resolution tend to be baked into my process as a whole, so that I do know what I’m aiming for by the time I start. But my outline is a skeletal one, and the way I get to the climax and its resolution sometimes takes a turn or two (or three) that I hadn’t foreseen when I started.

  4. from “who” you spin out all the characters you know and maybe some more you’ve just invented or folks who could possibly be in the story/scene;

    Hmm, now that made a few neurons tingle. I might just have to make some time to play with that….

  5. My climax scene and its resolution tend to be baked into my process as a whole, so that I do know what I’m aiming for by the time I start.

    OK we were talking at cross-purposes. The part that’s really Hard for me is in coming up with that climax scene and resolution in the rough plot arc/skeletal outline before I begin writing. It’s not in actually writing that scene, once I have it in hand and am banging out the story itself. If anything, I have a (much) milder version of your “sprint after the 3/4th point.”

    So I was talking about “the ending” at the pre-writing, brainstorming, create-a-rough-plot-arc stage not falling into my lap even after working out the first half or two-thirds of the plot arc, and you were (I think) talking about “the ending” at the write-the-first draft stage falling into your lap once you got most of your first draft written.

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