Writers in the Storm

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March 1, 2013

Brainstorming: Tips For Getting More Out Of "What if..."

CharBy Sharla Rae

Some writers brainstorm on their own, some do it with another writer or a group of writers. My personal favorite is 'what-ifing' with my critique group. Along the way I learned a few things. I think the biggest lesson was that if I walked away disappointed, it was probably my own fault.

There are websites that go into scientific details, spouting lots of brainstorming terms you'll soon forget. I'm not going there. I'm speaking from plain old practical experience and what's worked for me. I hope it works for you too.

Pinpointing exactly what you want to brainstorm is the first step.

Sound easy? Sometimes it is. But sometimes, puzzling out exactly what's missing in a story needs a brainstorm session of its own. If time is short and you need to pinpoint the problem yourself before taking it to your posse, here's a few blogs that might help.

Part 1 – Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 – How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 – A Lack of Goals
Part 4 – Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing
Part 7 – Pick Up the Pace
Part 8 -  Is Your Plot Predictable
Part 9 – Plots That Rely on Coincidence and Contrivance

There are as many possible topics to brainstorm as there are stories. Below are a few common topics that are frequently discussed.

  • Brainstorm a plot for a particular character personality you want to write and the reverse, finding the right characters for a story plot that’s begging you to write it.
  • Brainstorm how to choreograph a scene - action, fighting, even a love scene
  • Brainstorm how to write yourself “out” of a corner.
  • Brainstorm a character’s psyche, that is how a particular personality should handle a situation.
  • Brainstorm where the story begins – 1st chapters are the hardest chapters in the entire book.
  • Brainstorm the turning point in the plot, how to get there and what comes next.

Showing up with a problem is not enough. Being prepared avoids wasting your time and someone else's on explanations or background information. It's also the best way to get more our of your 'what-ifing.' 

Before the Brainstorming Session:

1)  Explain the specific subject you want to brainstorm.

2)  Prepare an outline of facts you already know about the story. Keep it as short as possible but provide all the information needed to help you brainstorm. The blogs listed above might help organize your thoughts.

3)  List ideas that won’t work so your partners don’t waste time considering those scenarios. Of course, realize that they just might tell you how to make one of those scenarios work.

4)  E-mail the outline a couple days before the group meets so they have time mull over some ideas.  (This saves a lot of time at the meeting) If it’s not possible to e-mail the outline ahead of time, at least be prepared with handouts.

During the Brainstorming Session:

1)  Make sure everyone is clear about “what” you expect to accomplish. Invite questions. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have all the answers to those questions. Sometimes the questions engender an 'ah-hah' moment that is key to a fruitful session.

2)  Be open to all suggestions. In a good brainstorming group, one idea will trigger another and then another. Don’t automatically discount anything. Some of the craziest suggestions inspire the best results.

3)  Take notes. You might think that you couldn’t possibly forget the best of ideas, but it’s the little details that really count. I repeat, take notes.

4)  If you are brainstorming another writer’s work, study the outline ahead of time, be prepared with questions and if you have time, jot down ideas. Above all, remember that in the end this is the author’s book, not yours – no matter how brilliant your own ideas might be.

5)  Have fun. Most of the brainstorming sessions I’ve attended include lots of laughter and we're all excited when a scenario comes together in a great scene or story plot.

Not everyone has a critique group or even wants one. That doesn’t mean you can’t start a brainstorming or plotting group. 

The benefit of meeting with the same people each time is familiarity.  Once the group has a feel for your writing style and the type of stories you like to write, they're  better equipped to offer appropriate solutions to your story problem. Some might argue that new faces will offer new perspectives. That could be true but remember this new group will still need the background info.

Be as picky about choosing a brainstorming group as you would be choosing a critique group. For some ideas you might like to read my blog: Critique Groups: How To Find Your Dream Team.  Joining a group that includes even one ego-maniac who believes his or her ideas are the end all - be all will put a damper on the entire group's productively.

Can you brainstorm with non-writer friends and family? Some writers tell me their spouses are great at brainstorming and in my own experience, friends will jump at the chance to brainstorm ideas. The problem? Most don’t understand story craft and sometimes that’s problematic. So the answer to this question is … whatever works for you.

Websites on brainstorming: Some of these take a scientific approach but it's fun to explore all methods. You'll also find ways to brainstorm by yourself.

Brainstorming at Mind Tools
7 Unique Brainstorming Techniques
Brainstorming at the Writing Center
5 Brainstorming Strategies for Writers

How do you brainstorm? What works best in your experience?

0 comments on “Brainstorming: Tips For Getting More Out Of "What if..."”

  1. Char, we've had so many great brainstorming sessions over the years - I doubt my books would have gotten written if not for them. Plotting is my weakness, so knowing that my group has my back gives me confidence to dive in! Thanks for the great post.

  2. Fabulous post, Char!
    I love brainstorming for others but find myself getting stuck sometimes what-ifing for my books. Great tips - I'm trying some out today. 🙂

  3. That's the problem. We are to into our books. It's like when we edit our own books--we often read into our own work what we "know" is supposed to be there but innately we know something is missing and can't quite pinpoint the problem. A plot group can help with that.

  4. This is even a better post than I expected. W/O reading it I FB-ed it, because I know I can count on you folks for good, solid info. And indeed, you came through. Two of my CPs and I did a brainstorming weekend. Really just one day. We checked into a local hotel, one largish room, with our flip charts and markers, and some planning ahead. Friday afternoon to Saturday. It was a fun time as you mention, but we got a lot accomplished. It always amazes me the questions others have about my work that in my head are so apparent. LOL This is a keeper post as so many of y'alls are.

  5. Thanks Marsha! I love plotting retreats too. They allow more time even during some other activity ideas pop up that you can discuss. And I think the time spent with friends relaxes us so that the creative mind can be set free. : )

  6. Over the years my critique group has morphed into a brainstorming/plotting group. It really helps because we been together for many years and know each other. In addition to getting together once a month or so to work on specific problem someone might have, we go on a retreat once or twice a year. As Marshwest (above) says, check into a hotel, with the white boards, flip chart, sticky notes, etc. We've developed our system for creating characters and then storyboard the plot. This system works so well for us that on our last retreat, two members brought an idea, and we plotted out five novella, which are being published as The New Year's Eve Club. You can check it out at http://tinyurl.com/ctd3su8.

    The key is to know what you want out of a brainstorming session, and to have a compatable group. Oh, and once you come home, write up your notes/story/plot/outline as soon as you can.
    This system really works for us. Hope it works for you.

  7. This was a fantastic post. I love your suggestions including the links. I really needed this. Thank you!


  8. I'm approaching my first novel (based loosely on real events) and this notion of brainstorming the many missing elements to the story is wonderful. Thanks so much!

  9. [...] Some writers brainstorm on their own, some do it with another writer or a group of writers. My personal favorite is ‘what-ifing’ with my critique group. Along the way I learned a few things. I think the biggest lesson was that if I walked away disappointed, it was probably my own fault. There are websites that go into scientific details, spouting lots of brainstorming terms you’ll soon forget. I’m not going there. I’m speaking from plain old practical experience and what’s worked for me. I hope it works for you too.  [...]

  10. Sharla, I love plotting sessions with my critique partners. We had some good sessions back in the day, didn't we? Lately, my brother has helped me with a few unique scenarios. Great fun and excellent post. You've nailed all the good ideas! Thanks for sharing.

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