Six impossible things

Plot is Hard: Brainstorming

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas, and only keep the good ones.” – Linus Pauling

Once you know how you work best and what you do and do not know about your story, you actually have to sit down and do the creative part that nobody really knows how to force to happen. There are, however, a few requirements and several things that are known to get in the way, and some techniques that can help this part along. There are also some things that seriously get in the way, but I’m going to talk about those next week.

Being creative requires time, energy, and space. Yes, sometimes you just sit down and have great idea (or get hit with one in the middle of the grocery store), but for most of us, most of the time, getting those ideas and fitting them together takes a lot of mulling over and fiddling, and considering and rejecting alternatives, all of which takes time and energy.

Space is another matter, and somewhat trickier. There have been several interesting experiments in creativity that indicate that inventions and problem solutions come faster and better when people are faced with constraints. People given two short boards and two lengths of rope, and told to cross a section of floor without touching the ground, all do exactly the same thing: tie one board to each foot and skate across. People given one board and one length of rope also do the same thing: they tie the rope to one end of the board, stand on the board, and jump-and-jerk to scoot it across the floor without touching, which takes half the time (and half the materials) of the first group, but nobody who had two boards thought of it.

If you’re starting with a bunch of characters or a setting, and you have no plot, there are an enormous number of things those characters can do. Even if you know they all go off on a quest, there are still a zillion different ways their story can go. This is one reason why so many writers start by coming up with the ending they want to get to – it provides a constraint on the rest of the things that can happen in the story (if George is going to become the next head of the space program at the end of the book, you probably can’t kill him off in Chapter Four).

You can get at constraints another way: by poking around a bit in the things your characters “obviously” can’t do. If your main character is a mermaid, she can’t become an astronaut…or can she? Real-life astronauts train underwater sometimes to simulate zero-gravity maneuvering; a mermaid would have an obvious advantage there. Maybe it’s not such a nutty idea after all.

In other words, one has to have the mental space for ideas to show up in, but it can’t be too large or too small (and “too large/small” are, as usual, defined by each individual writer – what feels cramped and too constraining to one will be just right for someone else and much too open-ended to let another person get any traction).

One of the most common creativity techniques is brainstorming (mind-mapping, fishboning, spiderwebbing, networking, envisioning, etc.). You start with a blank sheet of paper and write something you already know that is short and concrete in the middle, like “Horses.” From that, you spin off lines in all directions with whatever ideas seem to connect to it –  the first batch might say things like “brown” “riding” “travel” “saddle/bridle” “hooves” “Palomino” “Westerns”, for instance. Then you spin more off from those, and draw lines to connect the ones that seem to fit together. So your second round might have “rodeo” connected to both “Westerns” and “riding,” and maybe “other breeds” connected to “Palomino” and “look up horse colors” connected to “brown.” Eventually, the diagram looks like a giant spiderweb (there are apps that do this; search on “mindmap” in your app store, though I like the kinesthetics of using a pen and paper).

Essentially, you’re free associating in multiple directions. To get it to work, there has to be the right amount of room. If you start with “Plot” on your central line and try brainstorming, you’re probably not going to get much that’s useful (unless you’re writing a paper on plot for your M.F.A.) because it’s too large; if you start with “Getting the cell key,” you’re probably going to miss any ideas for getting out of the cell that involve picking the lock, finding a secret passage, arranging a rescue from outside, etc. (“Escape” might be a better choice).

You also need to stick with the “free” part of free associating for long enough. A lot of folks try to censor their ideas (“because that’s a cliché/dumb/too off-the-wall”). This tends to shut down any useful free-associating almost at once. So if  you find yourself thinking “Cirque du Soleil” as a branch on your Horse mind-map because you saw their equestrian performance once, put it down and move on. Maybe it won’t be useful … or maybe it will be a link to some idea farther on that turns out to be just what you need.

The other big mistake people make is to immediately try to organize and connect their ideas before they’ve really worked through the brainstorming/free-association. There’s nothing wrong with making connections between ideas as you go – that’s what the whole spiderweb thing is about – but if you catch yourself trying to decide whether the rodeo should come before or after the roundup of the Palominos, you may be short-circuiting the process. Brainstorming isn’t about deciding what to use or how to use it; it’s about coming up with possibilities and connections and seeing what you can make of them.

Note that you can – and probably should – make several different mind-maps: perhaps one for each character or thing-you-know or subplot or story goal. Starting with a question is often good, as long as it is specific enough to trigger some associations but general enough to have room for a bunch of different possibilities.

If spiderwebs and mind-maps aren’t your thing, you can try freewriting or making a “possibilities” list. Again, the point isn’t to come up with an actual coherent plot; it’s to come up with a bunch of interesting elements that could eventually be combined into a plot. The key word there is “eventually.” After all:

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable.  – Isaac Asimov

15 Comments
  1. Freewriting that includes a ton of questions is what works for me, although your caution about not censoring definitely applies. Some of my questions (why am I afraid of writing about x?) are not directly pertinent to story development, but lead to it, even when I don’t answer them. Often posing the question gets my brain moving without any need for answering it. But most of my questions are directly pertinent: if the 5-yo isn’t a star-drake, but she does have some connection to dragons, what could that connection be? Etc. I’m often surprised by the answers I get. Surprised in a good way. 😉

  2. I’m also on the freewriting end of things. Writing out a question and then answering it can be surprisingly direct, especially since I’ve usually spent days thinking about the problem and haven’t come up with much. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a spiderweb. I should revisit that and see what happens.

  3. it’s about coming up with possibilities and connections and seeing what you can make of them

    But what if your mind-map sits there blank, and try as you might you can’t come up with anything to make connections to? Maybe next week will shed some light on that.

    • Maybe you’re being too focused. If I understand it correctly, a mind-map is the equivalent of dumping out the legos in a box and seeing what you’ve got. Sorting them out and picking which ones to start building with comes later. So it’s a time to be silly and not worry about things like practicality.

    • It sounds like you don’t have enough pieces, so maybe you haven’t done it long enough. You might ask a friend to help brainstorm. They will look at things differently and add pieces you haven’t thought of.

    • You can’t come up with anything to put at the center start point? Or you can’t come up with anything once you
      have the start point?

      If the problem is the start point, you’re probably overthinking. Start with the name of a character, or the title, or the name of the city, or the type of book (“Mystery” or “SF Thriller” or whatever). Start with the date the story happens. If you have absolutely nothing that you know is true, start with “My next novel” or “Things I like to write about.”

      If the problem is the parts of the web, you are probably trying to limit your ideas to what is “relevant.” Meaning that if you are brainstorming “my next novel,” and you think “wins Hugo award!”, you refuse to put it down because you’re “supposed to” be brainstorming the plot. Ditto for if you put down “George” and think “blond,” because “blond has nothing to do with plot.” You have to believe that it is OK to put down “120,000 words” or “needs main character” or even a question like “Should it start a series?” as well as something totally cracky like “Darth Vader crashes Cinderella’s ball and kidnaps the eldest stepsister.”

      But “wins Hugo” can trigger “must be SF,” which can go off into “near future” and “far future” and “space opera” and whatever other SF genres come up. Which can lead you to think about what you like about each type of story. Or what you don’t like; it’s perfectly possible to have one of the category bubbles be “NO epic space battles.”

      Don’t try to make things make sense; just write down everything you can possibly think of that applies to novels or George or horses or whatever. Even “stupid title.” The point is to get QUANTITY, not quality; the quality comes later.

      • I have the start point — let’s call it “weird thing that happened”. But in trying to mind-map out why the weird thing happened, or who or what else is involved in it — well, I can write down “goes surfing on his vacations” (and I have), which is connected because it’s about the same character, but it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I can get character and setting connections until my pen runs dry, but if there’s anything that could remotely lead to a plot point, it’s on some other page in an alternate universe I can’t access.

        Possibly this just means that this is the wrong technique for me to be using, but I’m ready to try anything at this point.

        • I’m having a similar problem. A little experimenting showed that a spiderweb style mind map just doesn’t work for me – I find the format awkward, and it slows me down too much. With my trusty custom un-numbered, un-bulleted multi-level list style in MS Word, on the other hand, I can produce lots of stuff very quickly when going in with a mode of “just put associations down, and don’t worry about relevancy or making sense.”

          But what I get is a fast forced-growth of my usual barnacles. I get lots of cool setting details and a sprinkling of plot-beginning ideas, and nothing when it comes to possible plot resolutions and endings.

          How about a post on “how to point brainstorming in the desired direction”? (Point, not aim; brainstorming is a shotgun rather than a rifle.)

          Or maybe what I need to do is something as simple as starting from an end-of-story status (“And they lived happily ever after” or “Mr. X is awaiting trial for attempted murder, Mr. Y is engaged to be married to Miss Z, and Detective-Officer AA is thinking about going on a vacation in Elfland.”) And then working (back) from that point.

        • Try limiting yourself to single words and make it a game. If you want, call in friends and play with them. Example: Start with surfing, list 20-30 words or everything you can think of having to do with surfing for 1-5 minutes: e.g beach, ocean, wave, board, sun, lifeguard, shark, jaws, james bond, moonraker (it’s ok, possibly even a good thing, if you drift off topic), beach boys, Anette Funi-however-it’s-spelled, bikini, snails, balance, bugie board, beetlejuice, car crash

          If any of those words sound interesting, use them as a new starting point. Or, pull out your thesaurus, find a word that means almost the same thing as one of your words and use that as a starting point: e.g. vacation-> break: spring break, hiking, camping, nap, hammock, broken, sticks, glass, heart.

          If no ideas spark with just the words, write sentences that involve your character and one or more of the words. Example: [Character] is surfing when he is attacked by sharks, but a lifeguard with an octopus tattoo shoots the shark with a harpoon. The lifeguard is James Bond’s cousin and the [character] is now involved in…. etc.

          Hope this helps.

  4. My normal brainstorming method is a “possibilities” list in a outline-tree format. I should try the mindmap/spiderweb style sometime – in particular when I need to cast a wider net. Usually I brainstorm when I already have one piece of the solution and need to come up with the rest.

  5. “Discipline is a kind of constraint that sets me free.”
    ―Julie Andrews

    When I was on the editorial board of a newspaper, I introduced the staff to the concept of brainstorming for article ideas. They thought they got it, but they sabotaged the brainstorming sessions we attempted by immediately censoring ideas as too impractical or silly. I was never able to get it through to them that you had to allow the ridiculous to flourish until you could pass through to find something usable.

    I personally use a variation of the spiderweb technique (I call it “molecules”) where you start with some initial condition and write *all* a character’s possible responses in a little bubble connected to it, then all the possible paths from each of those bubbles, and so on. The diagram grows exponentially at first, but then links start looping back to previous bubbles, and you soon have a pattern emerging from the mess.

    A potential difficulty lies in choosing what seems a workable path too soon in the process. Doing so almost always leads to a flat, predictable story line. (This technique also requires that you have an initial situation and at least one character.)

    • You’re right; trying to censor the brainstorming makes it pointless.

      There’s another variation where you pose yourself a really specific question (like “how do they get out of the jail cell?”) and then open a dictionary at random and pick the first noun you see (“monkey”) and do the spiderweb on that. Posing the question slants your ideas in that direction; the total irrelevance of the random noun forces more free-associating. I haven’t tried it, but it is supposed to work quite well for most people.

      • I might give that a try.

        • Ah, finally found the link that I was going to add (which I am now going to bookmark in six different places):

          Oblique Strategies is a random remark generator, based on a set of cards. Rather like reading fortune cookies for one’s characters, it can give you odd, often cryptic phrases to ponder in relation to a creative dilemma.

          I might try it instead of or in combination with the dictionary suggestion.

  6. I’ve only done this style of brinstormy-thing once in real life (as opposed to in school); I was running into a point in my novel about unicorns where I had to decide what their deal was, and in what ways they match or do not match the real-life cultural concepts of “unicorn”.
    I divided a piece of paper in half, wrote “mine” on one half and “traditional” on the other, and started filling in the “traditional” half with all the unicorn-related things that came to mind, adding things to the “mine” half anytime I thought of something that felt right, whether it went with or against the traditional things or was completely unrelated.

    Point being, you can adjust the basic tool as needed. I don’t think the above would have worked if I didn’t already have unicorns on my mind and hadn’t already been pondering my unique unicorns, and I don’t think the approach of just writing “unicorns” in the middle and free associating from there would have helped me as much.

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