May 9, 2016

How I (Don't) Brainstorm

At the end of the [very good] 2006 film "Miss Potter," Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger) notes, "There's something delicious about writing those first few words of a story. You can never quite tell where they will take you."  Personally, the first few words are never my favorite part of the writing process; I don't like not knowing where I'm headed.  I like the uncertainty about just how the path forward is going to shape up, and I love the way the flow of any given scene may take me away from what I originally intended or may present me with some new aspect I hadn't recognized before.  In that sense, I'm 100% behind Miss Potter (only I don't think she ever really said that; it still makes for a great quote).

Overall, though, I like to have a pretty clear idea of the plot and its main markers -- something a little more concrete than just a vague idea that This is Where We Start and This is How It Ends, although in some cases I'd be happy even to have those two things laid out.  It's frustrating to feel bewildered by your own story, uncertain how to make it all work.  Hitting a roadblock on the way from Point A to Point B is bad enough, but feeling like there's a massive pothole (or two or three) that you can't seem to bridge and being unable to progress until you do bridge it (or them) is even more frustrating.  The same goes for a vague story idea of which you have one or two elements, maybe a handful of characters, and...basically nothing else.  This is when writers start to talk about "brainstorming."  Sometimes they even talk about sitting down and brainstorming.

Confession time: I've never really figured out how this whole brainstorming thing works, and I am really, really bad at it.

I think best through the process of writing, and there have been a number of times when I have become so frustrated with a story idea for not taking shape or with huge plot questions for not resolving themselves that I have sat down with a pen and a notebook and tried to confront the problems head-on.  I wrote out the questions that had hitherto just been floating in my brain: Why don't the characters just resolve their problems by doing X?  (I've no idea.)  What is motivating this particular character?  (Don't know that, either.)  I know this character needs to be involved, but how?  To what purpose?  What even is going on here?  (Noooooo clue.)  The problem with this approach, I've found, is that I end up with a list of the questions that are bothering me and no answers.  Seriously, I've looked back at old lists from story ideas that are still embryonic and thought, "Yeah...  I still don't know what to do about that."

"Sitting down and brainstorming" is also generally ineffective, since unless I am in some way incapacitated, I don't like just sitting and doing nothing but thinking.  My mind also tends to drift, or to keep turning over the same questions again and again without producing viable answers; it's the same ineffective process as writing out the issues.  Pinterest is a nice idea for "gathering inspiration," but a) I don't ever use writing prompts, because they feel too inorganic; b) I'm very picky about which images fit the world of the story, so I rarely see things that just scream "Wordcrafter!" or "Tempus Regina!"; and c) pictures don't go very far toward inspiring me with words, anyhow.  At most they remind me of things I already love about the story.  They don't tend to help me moving forward.

I still haven't come up with a great way to plot, but generally the most effective course has been outlining.  I know I've already commented many times that I am a big fan of outlines, no matter what I'm writing; I charged into NaNoWriMo 2010* with nothing but the names of two characters and an idea that I'd be writing about the Barbary Wars, and while it turned out alright, it was not a pretty picture and I didn't like doing it.  Since then I've been a little smarter, or at least a little more conscious of my planner bent: Tempus Regina was still an extremely difficult book to begin writing, but I made sure I started with several pages' worth of outline; with Wordcrafter I thought I wouldn't need one, it being a rewrite, but I've revised my opinion on that in the last couple weeks.  (Translation: I was totally kidding myself.  I need outlines.  I need them so bad.)

Stumped by a number of points, unable to get resolution by writing out questions, I began by listing the plot points I was sure about in chronological order.  Then I started on an actual, handwritten outline, filling in the gaps between those plot points and forcing myself to put something down even if I wasn't positive about it.  This did lead to a number of question marks, but it also turned out to be useful on three fronts: it showed me that I actually have a clearer idea of where I'm going than I originally thought and reminded me of upcoming scenes I'm genuinely excited about; it got some clutter (useful clutter, but clutter) down on paper so that I will (hopefully) not forget it; and it forced me to make some choices in order to keep moving.  Just writing down questions presents me only with the things that have been frustrating me; it doesn't allow me to put those questions within the context of the whole plot, or to see the elements of the story that will actually hearten me.  Organizing all of my thoughts, on the other hand, lets me see the full story unfold -- even down to the minor elements of a scene I've already charted out in detail.  It's the short hand of writing the whole story, and I find that more thoughts come in that process of tracing the lineaments of the plot.  Even in outline form, the words can take you -- or at least they take me -- to unexpected places.

*Oh my word, how was it almost six years ago?  That's not possible.

Tell me about your plotting process!  How do you get past a roadblock in a story you're writing?  Do you ever get a story idea that just. won't. develop. properly., and how do you coax it forward?  I'm bad at it, so do tell!


  1. My usual method of trying to bridge those potholes is kind of the same one I've been using since I was five years old...going around daydreaming about the story as I do my household chores, walk the dog, et cetera; and try to "act out" in my head all the possible things that might happen next. Very unprofessional-sounding, I know.

    (Or else write an outline for what I've already got, and insert "Something happens here" in those holes in order to drive myself crazy later on when I reach that point.)

    No, but seriously, plotting is not my strongest point. I can dream up characters galore, come up with an exciting concept or a particular scene that I can't wait to write, and then I have to settle down and work at tying things together so that particular character or scene will make sense within the context of a story. Most of the time I end up outlining in a very loose, rough way—because I don't like starting a story when I know there's a big gap three-quarters of the way through and I'm going to hit it sooner or later. Once I have a beginning, ending and a general idea of how I want to get there, I can start writing, and often once I begin to get to know my characters and story better, I sometimes get sudden little bits of inspiration for those connecting links I need to add in.

    Personally, I find journaling very helpful. I do a lot of thinking-out-loud and asking myself questions on the page—not really a list of formal questions, just wondering and speculating and throwing out ideas to see how they sound (look?). I also index my journals so I can go back and find my ramblings on a particular story when I need them.

    1. I have failed at all my attempts at journaling. Not that they were very good attempts at journaling, but anyway, they failed. I love the concept of indexing journals, though; I very frequently scribble something down somewhere, usually on a church bulletin, and then later on I vaguely remember that I wrote something rather good...but can't remember what it was or where that scrap of paper got to. Oops. Indexing would be very good for me.

      "A beginning, ending and a general idea of how I want to get there." Precisely. Middles are usually vast tracts of no-man's-land with the occasional cactus, but if I have a clear(ish) beginning and a clear(ish) conclusion, I know I can get started and the rest will fall into place in due time. If I don't have those, beginning is an impossibility.

  2. I...hmm... Basically don't. X'D Mostly I remain inert until I push myself to write SOMETHING, or something comes to me and I start writing. HOWEVER, with my newest project, I may very well take your advice and a page out of a hyper-planner's book, and try to curb my seat-of-the-pants-all-the-way mentality. XD Thank you for sharing!

    1. It constantly amuses me how different we are. You're like, "Oh my word, outline?? What is this nonsense! I shall fly through on the wings of inspiration and only get stuck, like, once, maybe." And I'm all, "I must plan every scene in detail or I am doomed. Actually, I'm probably still doomed. But I still need to plan my doom."

      Alright, so those are exaggerations, but they're more or less accurate. XD

  3. I can't live without my outlines. I outline in a methodical, layered way and even though I'll still get stuck and have to brainstorm past the holes (thank goodness for brainstorm partners) it's a lot less than I would get stuck without an outline. (I've tried writing without an outline. I nearly went insane.)

    1. I know the feeling! Outlines are the best! I don't really have brainstorm partners; usually when I try to express my stuck-ness to folks, the response is a sympathetic, "Well, I'm sure you'll figure it out." Not the most helpful reply ever. XD

  4. I think your method of outlining/brainstorming is very much what my own falls under. I find that if I try to begin writing without a clear path the plot can get stagnant, and that if I instead write down a bullet-list of the things I do know, I start to see parallels and make the necessary connections between them. There's magic in good old fashioned pen-and-paper, you can't deny it. ;)

    But of course, if I get too detailed it's useless because I always like my most current ideas best (duh) and if I write in a plot twist at the end of the novel before I've written the beginning, odds are something key to that plot twist will have changed before I get there. XP

  5. On my fan fiction, which has been "laid aside" due to fatigue and stress, I have a page called [An Author's Aside] and I give the chapters which were up back then, I suppose, but of them, I underline 4 - these being the original chapters, the most basica outline of my Susan fic.

    Whatever I have done since then has been a "how do I get from A" (already there and written down in detail) "to B" (also already there and written down).

  6. I agree that brainstorming and plotting can be a real struggle! I often am a real pantser, but I make sure to have some basic plot points in mind--and I find those by sitting down and spending quality time thinking about what my characters want and how they'll get there!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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