Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing 101: Brainstorming

Hey guys! Michael here with our first Writing Tips post. Before we delve into the deep topics, I wanted to begin this series with the most essential, yet often overlooked part of worldbuilding: brainstorming. Whether you’ve just begun a new story or are well into a developed story, you can brainstorm anything at any time. Some ideas will pop into your head fully formed, while other ideas you’ll have to work a little harder to bring them out. I’m going to show you a couple of the easiest techniques to get that inspiration following and help solve your current story issues.
 TLDR (2)
Ask ‘what if?’and ‘why?’
Make a list

Asking Questions

Two of your greatest tools are these two questions: What if? and Why? If you’re just starting a story, read encyclopedias and ask yourself 'what if?' Find pictures on the Internets that inspire you and ask yourself 'what if'.
Even if you’re well into a draft, it’s never too late to ask yourself these questions. The answers may lead you down the road to turning that cool idea into a cool story or help beef up what you’ve already written.
What if all fire in the entire world turned cold, while ice became so hot that it melted fire? How could that even be possible?
The laws of physics are going haywire obviously.
But why?
Because all the elemental spirits are ill. Fire has the chills. Ice has a fever. [Main character] needs to first figure out how they got sick and then he must heal them with [Mysterious Magical McGuffin] before the world goes kablooey. Always a bad thing.
At any stage of the writing process you can ask yourself, ‘what if?’ If you're just starting out with a blank page, anything goes. Write every idea that comes to your mind. Your mantra should be, "Nothing sucks until I write something better." And even when you do think of a better idea, never immediately delete the unused material. Sometimes those silly ideas look quite sophisticated after a little bit of polishing. You never know. So, keep your notes around for a while. They won't hurt you.

If you’re further along in your writing, you can take scenes from your draft and prune them. For instance, your main character successfully achieved a goal in Act 1. What if instead, she failed? Or what if she succeeded, but her win only made things worse, unintentionally?

If you're on submission and haven't been getting the response you desired from agents/editors, you might want to consider trying this technique out on your manuscript. What if you approached a pivotal scene from a different perspective? What if you erased a character entirely? Would that harm the rest of the story or not?

See, what I did there? Asking yourself ‘what if’ and ‘why’ are just starting points and are certainly not the only questions you should ask yourself. There’s also: how, when, where, who, etc. Always be as specific as possible. The more specific your question, the more specific your answer will be, which will lead to the building of a detailed story if you’re in the beginning stages or a more solid story if you’re in the final stages. To keep yourself organized, you can make lists. I love lists. They’re super flexible.

Making a List

Let’s make a list using the results from my example above. Lists can be numbered,…
  1. Fire is cold. Ice is hot and melts fire
  2. Elemental spirits are sick
  3. Main Character is on the case
  4. Mysterious Magical McGuffin heals the spirits

  • Fire is cold. Ice is hot and melts fire
  • Elemental spirits are sick
  • Main Character is on the case
  • Mysterious Magical McGuffin heals the  spirits

…or simply a series of words and/or sentences fragments.
Fire is cold. Ice is hot and melts fire
Elemental spirits are sick
Main Character is on the case
The frozen donkey wheel moves the island…wait. What?

Lists can also be formed out of a combination of all the above methods. I usually go with the sentence fragment approach because it’s faster and less clunky. But this is your list. It's your choice in how you structure it. The great thing is no one else besides you is going to see it, so the structure doesn’t even matter, as long as you can understand it. Here’s you chance to free yourself from the evil clutches of grammar and punctuation.

Your list can be as long or as short as you need, but probably should be much longer than my four-tiered examples above. Keep in mind that the longer the list, the more ideas you have to choose from, and the easier it will be to cut ideas that don't fit the story you want to tell.

When building a list, try to always think in story terms. Always attempt to solve your story’s issue, whatever that may be. You may not know exactly where you’re going, but you should aim toward some specific direction. Specificity is what you’re always striving for. Detours can lead to some amazing finds, but most road trips have a particular destination, a reason to drive. It’s what will propel you to keep going without turning back. Joyriders eventually get bored with circling the city and they go back home.

You can create lists for brainstorming character names or character motivations. Lists can help you build potential names for your Mysterious Magical McGuffin or organize scene structure. You can list the turning points of a plot that takes place in a single book or milestones that occur across a series of books. For those that may not know, that would be called an outline (one form of it anyway).

Lists can aid you well if you have a polished manuscript that you plan to make significant changes within. Before you make any major revisions, create a list of the changes you would like to make. This will give you a preview of how the story would look in its new state before you hack it to pieces.

Of course, this is all optional. Sometimes you won’t need a list or need to ask yourself questions. As I mentioned earlier, there are times when great ideas arrive fully formed in your head. You may even have a different method that works better for you than making lists. There is no “right” way to eat a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or to write a book. Take what you need and leave the rest.


Holly Dodson said...

Awesome post, Michael! These are really great tips, that I will definitely be giving a try.

Heidi said...

"Nothing sucks until I write something better." YES. Love that line. Great post!

Michelle Julian said...

"Nothing sucks until I write something better" is my new motto!!

Marquita Hockaday said...

Okay...this is too cool. This is one of those posts that makes me want to print it out and post it above my desk. I really think it'll help me get some ideas going :D And ditto the ladies above me. The "nothing sucks" makes for a nice writer slogan.

Racquel Henry said...

Great Post! I'm definitely going to try it out, especially when I have writer's block. :)

Pam Harris said...

Whoa...okay, I need you to help me revise all of my manuscripts. This was awesome! :)

lina said...
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Lauren Hunter said...

Awesome! Thanks for the tips, Michael. :D Ditto on "nothing sucks until I write something better" being my new mantra!

The Blue Lipstick Samurai said...

Um... I guess I'm the only one who would TOTALLY read a story with that plot, if only to giggle incessantly.

I think the 'What if?' and 'Why?' questions are essential throughout the process, but brainstorming is such a crucial part that is taken for granted.

Lovely post, Michael!

blueeyedadri said...

Great Post Michael, I am going to apply this to my current wip just in case I forgot something.

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

Apparently I should've gotten the T-shirts printed up yesterday. "Nothing sucks..." on the front. "Until I write something better." on the back. lol

Thank you all for reading. I'm glad if I helped you.

@ Pam - We are technically critique partners now, so all you gotta do is ask. :) Happy to beta you.