Brainstorming For the Young (and Young-at-Heart)

Knowing many of you readers are teachers and parents, I am certain you have, at one time or another, heard this complaint: I don’t know what to write about!*  (*said in a whining tone of voice)  Well, here are a few tips you can share with those young writers and you can say you got them from a real author!

You can tell I'm a real author by my messy work station

First off, authors do not have a complete story in mind before they write it! It is said that authors don’t write stories, they discover them. We all start with a puzzle piece or two: A name, Setting, Cool phrase, Subject (war/baseball/dog/dance, etc), Ending, Title, Character (boy/girl, alien, chipmunk), Conflict (argument, competition, misunderstanding, 2 people w/ conflicting needs).  We then take those few puzzle pieces and brainstorm.

General Brainstorming Rules

  • Have lots of scrap paper available – don’t limit yourself to just one page.
  • Write down EVERYTHING that comes to mind, however stupid or lame or blah or boring or far-fetched. Actually PUT IT ON PAPER. It may not be as stupid as you think and it may lead you to something better.
  • Write fast. Do not pause to edit or second guess. NO editing allowed at this stage!
  • Neatness does NOT count. Neither does spelling or grammar or complete sentences.
  • If something ‘rings your bell’ put a star by it but KEEP BRAINSTORMING.

Three Brainstorming Techniques to Try (In order, from knowing the least about your story to knowing the most)

1. Web-making or Tree branching (Puzzle piece = Cool Phrase, Subject, Genre, Setting, Title)

Put your word in the center of the page and draw a circle around it.

Then play a ‘word association game’ with it, writing as many other words/phrases that come to mind. If a word you write makes you think of a different word, continue the branch forward. When you run out of words on one branch, go back and start a new branch with another first word.

Don’t get caught up with the branching – drop it if it is slowing you down. It’s not a work of art and there’s no right/wrong way. The most important part is to keep writing down words/ideas that come to mind.

2. Questionnaire (Puzzle piece = Name, Character, Conflict, Ending)

Take your initial idea/word/subject and start asking yourself questions about it.

Write down as many different answers as you can to each question – nothing is stupid!

Sometimes you have to get those first, easy answers out of your brain to make room and time for something more interesting to come out. Writing them down gets them out of your way, out of your mind so they don’t keep coming back to block your thinking.

If you have trouble asking yourself questions, here are some to get you started:

  1. Who is the Main Character?
  2. What does the Main Character want/need? (Needs are more compelling than wants)
  3. Why is this important to the Main Character?
  4. What could happen to stop the MC from getting what he/she wants?(conflict, complications)
  5. Where does this story take place?
  6. What is cool or important about this setting?
  7. Who are the other characters in this story
  8. How do they feel about the MC and/or his problem?
  9. Does the MC achieve his goal and if so, how? How does he fail?

3. Character Diaries/Interviews (Puzzle piece = Conflict, Character(s)

Write from the point of view of each of your characters. A short story should have a main character and a few others (3 max?). If you’ve decided what the conflict/major story problem is, have each character write about it from his/her perspective. This is merely the way you used to pretend as a kid. It’s acting, but on paper. Pretend you are this person and start ‘talking’. You can pretend you are writing in your diary, or writing a letter, or even being interviewed (where you make up the questions).

Post Brainstorming: Now what?

Once you have a paper or ten full of ideas, words, phrases, go back and re-read. Mark anything that strikes you as interesting/exciting. Pull out those ideas and put on a separate sheet of paper. You may need to do a little mini brainstorming to fill in the holes.

By the time you are finished, you should have

A Character___________________________________________________________

in a setting____________________________________________________________

who wants/needs something______________________________________________

but there’s a conflict_____________________________________________________

and he/she has some failures (making it worse each time)_______________________


until finally*…___________________________________________________________

(*Remember, your character should solve his/her own problem. They can have help but only a little.)

Brainstorming is not just for Beginnings! There are many times, mid-manuscript, when authors get stuck. So I go back to my earlier brainstorming sheets and see if there are some ideas there. If that doesn’t help, I brainstorm my problem, asking myself, um, “what’s the problem?” And then, “What are some possible solutions?” If a character is not working, I might do a diary entry for that character to see what I can “discover” about him/her.

Brainstorming is useful in the “re-visioning” process as well. By the time we are finished with our first drafts, we know the characters better than when we started. We may find our original plan does not work so well with who the characters have become.  Uh oh! What’s a writer to do? 

Why, brainstorm, of course!

Beverly Patt is mid-brainstorming, mid-re-visioning her third novel at this very moment.

Beverly Patt