How to Brainstorm Your Fiction

6 Steps, No Rules.  Just unique, original stories.

I attended the When Words Collide conference on the weekend, and was a speaker on a number of panels, including one on brainstorming.

I was taken aback by the turnout for that panel, and the trend of the questions from the audience told me that many writers have heard about the power of brainstorming, but don’t know how to go about it.  They want a simple way to try it.

I’ve been using brainstorming for years to build my story concepts, plots, and to improve scenes and develop characters.  I’m currently building a second brain for story development, but it’s purely an experiment:  Brainstorming works very well for me, so if the second brain notebook doesn’t work for story development, I’m covered, anyway.

What is brainstorming for fiction?

Brainstorming is a technique for “forcing” creative ideas in a short period of time. 

Brainstorming for fiction has next to zero relationship to the formal, structured brainstorming that often takes place in corporate settings.  Formal brainstorming has rules, a step-by-step process, and usually a stopwatch that adds a layer of pressure.

Brainstorming for fiction is almost antiquated.  It’s been replaced by note-taking, second brain thinking, personal knowledge management…  Yet most of the sexy content-development techniques these days (and story-building is just another form of content-development) take an investment of time and effort to pay off. 

Fiction writers often need ideas now–story ideas, ideas for scenes, ideas for characters, quick ideas for how to tackle a key conversation….  All the new note-taking techniques won’t provide quick answers and will require diving deep into the files to find a possible idea.

Brainstorming cuts through all that. It taps into your sub-conscious and finds the same unexpected associations that a well-built second brain notebook does. 

Brainstorming also provides solutions that are ideally suited to the story as you’ve already written or plotted it.

How do you do it?

The short answer:  Any way you want to.

There are no rules.  No magic single way that makes it work or work better than any other way.  The more you use brainstorming to develop stories, the more you will hammer out steps or a system that works for you. 

Brainstorming is that flexible.

But here’s a few simple steps and tips that will help you work through your first few brainstorming sessions, until you get a feel for whether it works for you or not.

1 Use materials you’re comfortable with.

If you’re a pen-and-paper writer, use your favourite pen and a lot of paper…or a whole new notebook, if you want.

If you’re uber-comfortable with a blank screen and your keyboard (I am), work digitally.

2 Start with what you know.

You might not have a question in mind that you need answered, especially if you’re starting a story from scratch.  Or if you’re really jammed up trying to progress on an already started story.

In this situation, write down everything you know about the story, already-written or not.  

3 Find a question you need answered.

Often, you’ll already know what answer you need: 

Where should I set this scene? 

What happens next? 

Damn, I can’t have her react that way, it doesn’t fit with her character, so what can she do?

If you’re in the middle of writing a book, the question will be obvious.

If you’re developing a story from scratch or trying a remedial rescue on a book that isn’t working, once you’ve written everything down that you know about the story, you’ll likely have dozens, if not hundreds of questions that need answering.

Who IS the real protagonist in this story?

How can I make the concept even cooler?

Why am I even bothering with this novel?

Yes, you can even start with meta-questions like the last one, if that’s what it takes to get you working on the story itself.

Why does this story suck?

I hate this book now.  Why????

Answering these meta-questions will get you thinking strategically, instead of emotionally, and you’ll be able to tease out the threads of the story that are causing issues.

Everything you know about the story, that you’ve now brain dumped onto the page, does not yet make a coherent, whole, properly structured story outline/plot. 

So, what do I need to know to make this story work?

Okay, I’ve got a whole lot of characters, but not enough plot.  How do I fix that?

Start organizing your brain dump into a story outline or bullet points.  You’ll soon spot where the holes are.  Those are questions, too.

What has to happen after that scene to get them to this next scene?

Why would the hospital blow up right then?

Who did she really run away with?

And so on.

4 Once you have your question, answer it.

This is where a bit of technique comes into play.

At the top of a new sheet or page, write your question (or move it there).  

The blank page is important here – it divorces the question from everything you’ve already decided about the story.  Which means that anything goes, answer-wise.

Start writing answers to that question

They can be as shortform or longwinded as you need them to be.

I’ve learned, over the years, to write short bullet point answers, as quickly as possible, which helps short-circuit the editor sitting on my shoulders, whispering that my answer is stoopid and that my writing sucks.

Don’t stop at one answer…or five.

Aim to get at least seven possible answers down.  Why seven?

Because the first few answers you think of will be stupid.  They’ll be clichéd, obvious and pulled directly from the content you’ve consumed recently. 

This is why the process uses up a lot of (virtual) paper. 

You write down answers, then force yourself to keep writing down even more answers after that.

After around five or so answers, you’ll find yourself putting down what feels like even more stupid answers, because you just can’t think of anything else. 

Keep going.  Stretch for at least seven answers.   Ten is even better.  The last few might take as much time each as it took to come up with the first five but make yourself put something down.

Even if you’re answering a meta-question that feels more like a journal entry (“Why am I writing this dross, again???”), use the same technique.  Don’t stop at the first obvious answer.  Keep digging for more possibilities. Keep mining your thoughts, feelings and emotions.   Keep coming back to the original question and write down another answer for it.

I guarantee that if you keep at it, you’ll end up writing down a thought that breaks open dams, floods you with adrenaline and makes you twitch to get back to the story.

5 This is where the gold gets uncovered.

Those last few answers to your questions will be highly original, because you’ve reached far back into your mind, for ideas that have been buried beneath daily doses of content consumption.

The far-out, I’m putting this down just to get to ten answers answers will often be the answer to your question.  They’ll be original, creative, and you dug them up because they had an unexpected connection to the story you’re trying to build.  This has happened to me more times than I can remember. 

Sometimes, you don’t need to force yourself to seven or ten answers.  The unique, holy cowbells! answer will pop up somewhere on your list, and you’ll suck in a sharp breath or feel invisible fingers walk up your spine.  Stop there.  You’ve got your answer.

But if you reach ten answers and still don’t find anything inspiring in your list, there’s a couple of things you can do to find the perfect answer.

Study the list of answers and play around with them

Try combining answers, or tweaking them (“No, don’t have Doug do it, Sherry should…oh!  Yep, that works!”).  Think about each answer for a little while.


Turn the best answer into another question and brainstorm that question.

If there’s a good possibility or two on your list of answers, but they just don’t seem quite right, then expand upon them the same way you did for the original question.  Try out different scenarios, switch around characters. 

If ancient-virus-bearing polar ice isn’t quite the weapon of mass destruction that works for you, what about an ice age?  Or an ancient disease bought up in a sealed jar recovered from an ancient wreck? 

Keep digging for different possibilities.  Don’t settle.

6 Add your cool new story beat to the story and move on.

If you’ve stopped in the middle of writing the story to figure out a small problem like a setting or character development, or action sequence, you can now go back to writing it out, knowing you’ve come up with one of the best possible ideas for the story.

If you’re still at the concept/outlining stage, add the beat to your growing outline, find another question and repeat the process.

That’s brainstorming

It seems like a simple, even obvious process, but the results are anything but simple.

As long as you dig for even more answers, every single time, you will develop original stories, with a high cool factor, and your concepts will be utterly unique.

Try it and see.

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