When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

gobi-692640_1280A writing friend recently shared with a bunch of fellow scribes that she was seriously stuck on the brainstorming aspect of a new project. She gave me permission to blog about it. This author needs to solidify her idea and start writing because she has a thing called a deadline. But, she says, “the story and the characters are seriously playing hard to get.”

She asked, “Would love any brainstorming tips and tricks if you have them! How do you start building your story and characters? And how do you feel productive and intentional when brainstorming is such a creative (often stubborn…at least for me) process?”

It’s a great question. Here is what I wrote to her:

I wonder if part of the deal is what so many of us have expressed over the years with each new book, that it seems to get “harder.” And the reason for that, I believe, is that with each book you’re better and your standards go up. You know what goes into writing a whole book, all the constituent parts, and think, “Man, I’ve got to do all that again! And better!” So every idea in the brainstorming phase gets tested, when it should be a time for getting as many ideas as you can without judgment.

FWIW, I do the following at the beginning of any project.

– A free-form journal, interacting with myself, asking myself questions, going deeper into why I think I want to write this, and also putting down plot and character ideas as they come. I take several days (at least) for this, writing without stopping, but re-reading the journal each day, doing some editing on what I wrote the day before, highlighting the best ideas, and so on.

– At some point I take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to Starbucks and just write down scene ideas. Random. Whatever vivid scene comes to mind. I might prompt myself by playing the dictionary game (opening a dictionary to a random page, picking a noun, and riffing off that). When I have 30-40 scenes I shuffle the deck and pick two cards at random and see what the connection suggests.

– Finally, I want my concept in a three-sentence elevator pitch that I know is absolutely solid and marketable. Sentence 1 is character + vocation + current situation. Sentence 2 starts with “When” and is what I call the Doorway of No Return––the thing that pushes the Lead into the main plot. Sentence 3 begins with “Now” and the death (physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual) stakes. Here’s an example based on The Insider by Reece Hirsch:

Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high level merger negotiations between computer companies. 

When Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.  

Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology for mass destruction.  

Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch.

When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her.

Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

A good pitch guarantees a solid foundation. Now what?

Well, the next phase depends on how you like to approach things: plotter or pantser or something in between?

My own practice is to go immediately to the mirror moment, for it influences everything else. This is a concept I explain in detail in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle.

Now, I know there are some dedicated pantsers out there for whom any kind of pre-planning brings out a case of hives. They just want to start writing, and that’s okay … so long as you realize that you’re basically brainstorming the long way round. Some contend that this is the best way to find original story material. I would say it is only one way. There is still going to be a lot of editing and a ton of rewriting. The process I’ve described here is a faster and, to my mind, a more efficient way of getting to an original story line that you will be excited to write.

And so ended my advice, which I hope bursts the clouds for a fellow writer.

When things go dry in your writer’s mind, what are some of the things you do?



40 thoughts on “When Your Brainstorming Hits a Drought

  1. Sound advice as usual, Mr. Bell. A basic understanding of structure did more for my writing than any other aspect of the craft. Your books were a great help (especially after I woke up and said, “Hey, maybe if I actually put this stuff into practice…). I try to get those major plot points and at least a one-line description of every scene down in my OneNote file before beginning. But, at the very least, knowing the plot points gives me something to aim for other than a target that is 80,000 pages away. Keep up the good work, sir. I love your short how-to books. God bless.

    • Ron, you bring up a hugely important point. Knowing structure is actually FREEING. The knock on it by those who espouse “pure pantsing” is that it is restrictive. But story LOVES structure. Structure, in fact, is story’s best friend because it is what I call “translation software for your imagination.” It renders all that heart you have about your story in a form readers can actually relate to, and unless they relate your heart is useless…it sits in a jar on your desk rather than beats inside a living, breathing story.

  2. Working on Larry Brooks’ Quick Hit thingy. Concept was easy; premise not so much. Elevator pitch? Hopeless.

    Your elevator pitch helps immensely despite other stuff I’ve read about the same thing… one of the many reasons we should never stop studying the craft. At some point, an issue which has been giving us problems will become clear, simply because of the way successful author #10 says it, even though we’ve already read the way successful authors #1 through #9 said it.

    As for plotting and brainstorming, years ago another successful author said, “Write alone, but don’t plot alone.” When I get stuck, I’ll talk out loud with a friend–any friend. The process of talking out loud, even if the friend’s responses are along the lines of “Hmmm,” helps me.

    • Sheryl, the simple elevator pitch here is a tremendous time saver. It enables you to lay the right foundation before starting the long journey. Anyone–plotter, pantser, or tweener–needs at least that much before moving on.

      And yes, having someone to talk to helps a great deal at this stage.

  3. Excellent advice. I use an Excel spreadsheet (based on Story Engineering) where I input the milestones I need to hit and it tells me what page it should land on. No more math! It’s wonderful. I also have spreadsheets for Save the Cat and a mixture of the two. Now, it’s time to make a few adjustments to include the Mirror Moment and other elements from your Write Your Novel From the Middle. The more pivotal moments I can include, the tighter the story. So, thanks for the reminder!

    • Sue, may I say (with requisite humility) that you have chosen three superb texts to draw from.

      I’ll let you in on something. I just started brainstorming a new thriller, which will have a dual POV going on. Using my own Super Structure, I’ve begun laying out the signpost scenes, double the number of course because there are two POVs. Some of the scenes are blank, but I found to my delight that when I worked out the mirror moments for both the characters, the entire plot became clear. More scenes now suggest themselves. I really do use this material myself!

  4. Your 3X5 cards reminds me of an article I read way back in the analog days by, I think, John D. MacDonald, wherein he shared his method of creating or keeping up with everything from characters to locations to scenes to plot points using 3X5’s, then “assembling”, rearranging, and/or reassigning (to another story as yet undefined) , on an ongoing basis as he worked on the WIP. Despite Google, I have yet to dredge up said article fro re-reference – so perhaps it wasn’t by JDMac.

    The elevator pitch (WHO/WHEN/NOW), is quite timely for the WIP I’m stumble-starting at the moment~ it reminds me to stay focused and not let my ADD pull me (and my characters) off target.

    • I’d me interested in knowing if that was JDMacD. I do know he came from a business background and treated his writing that way, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he had such a system.

      Some people rebel at the idea of “systematizing” creative work, but I think the most productive writers do this. I like to have a weekly creativity time, set aside at least an hour for pure creation, using specific games and prompts.

  5. Thanks for the reminder on the Mirror Moment. I found your book at the end of my first novel and wished I had known about this milestone years earlier. When I originally wrote the scene, I worried that a pause in the action to self-examine would slow the pace, but, on the contrary, it actually added tension: what a mess I’m in, but what will life look like if I fail? Now, on novel two, I will incorporate this moment into my pre-writing plan.

    • Thank you for that great report, Nancy. You are quite right about that mirror moment adding tension precisely because it pulls the character into the darkest waters.

  6. What helps me the most in brainstorming would only help those writers who write historical. Since most of my story ideas come from doing research on my chosen period in history, I tend to keep digging into the research until more Aha! moments pop in my story brainstorming. Because usually, when I start getting stuck in a story I’m further into it, and have specialized my research by that time, which always serves to set off new ideas (my problem being it usually spawns NEW story ideas too and drags my attention away from my WIP. Can you say RABBIT!)

    I’ve prepped my stories both ways–with and without an outline. The second time I did it without but I think that was more because of never having enough time to live life than a dislike of outlines. So at the very least, putting up a structural framework for the story is a good idea to keep my brain frothing with ideas.

    • BK, I think research of various kinds is good for creativity. Virtually anything you dig a little further into gets you interested and starts the gears churning.

      Writers who express dislike of outlines generally think of them as joyless and time-consuming. But if approached as signposts rather than trying to render James Patterson-esque 80 page single spaced treatment, I think it’s just as enjoyable as writing the draft.

  7. Jim, thanks for another great teaching moment.

    And wonderful reinforcement. Last night I reviewed Chapter 17, “Letting Block Tackle You,” from your 27 FICTION WRITING BLUNDERS – AND HOW NOT TO MAKE THEM! Very helpful exercises for breaking free from block at the beginning (as this blog discusses) or the two other levels you describe in your book.

    And I would vouch for the value of the mirror moment (and the golden triangle). I’ve had some satisfying success recently with their use in short stories (four out of four accepted for publication). I love the way readers describe that the story resonates.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for that nice confirmation, Steve. I’m glad to help a little with the things that have helped me too. Congrats on your short story success! That’s quite a hitting streak you’ve got there.

  8. Great post, Jim, as always.

    Totally agree with Sheryl’s point about reading advice from experts #1 through 9, until, with #10, the message finally becomes clear. Sometimes we writers are not ready to absorb advice until we reach a certain point on the learning curve. Before then, advice might sound like gibberish, but after the moment of clarity, it’s pure wisdom.

    Like Sheryl, I “don’t plot alone.” I need a little help from my friends and am fortunate to have a terrific, intelligent critique group to bounce ideas around with. The verbal swirling of suggestions among several people seems to lead effortlessly from one possibility to the next, building and enriching as it goes. Someone else’s idea often triggers a different tangent of my own, which I never would have thought of without that person’s trigger.

    I think the same chemistry happens in discussions on TKZ, each bit of insight building on and amplifying previous ones. That’s why I look forward to this blog every day.

    • You’re right about the discussions here, Debbie. Always intelligent and content-filled.

      When I was first learning to write (after being told it can’t be learned) I was reading books and articles like crazy, and trying everything I could, and then I read a chapter Jack Bickham’s book, Writing Novels That Sell…and BOOM. Lights and sirens went off. It was a truly next level jump in understanding, and from that point on I started to sell.

      • The great Jack Bickham provided a similar epiphany for me. Years ago, I was privileged to meet him at a conference and he autographed Scene & Structure, one of my all-time favorite references.

  9. Great craft wisdom both in the post in the comments. I always begin with an elevator pitch — I have to sell myself before I could possibly think of selling to someone else, right?

    But then I take it further to be sure that my ideas and characters hold water:

    I turn my elevator pitch into a 500-word synopsis.

    Then I turn that 500 words into 1,000.

    Then 2,000. Then 3,000. Then 4,000. Then 5,000.

    And even further if I feel I still haven’t hit my signposts and doorways and other structural supports. If I feel the story still hasn’t achieved liftoff. Until what I have is a sieve-free, scale-model novel. Then rewrite from scratch, filling in dialogue and character/descriptive color and plotting nuance as I go.

    This technique either exposes fatal weaknesses in my idea (usually too much dependence on backstory events or the failure to develop an interesting enough antagonist) or finds strengths in my idea I would never have known existed if I had been a strict pantser and just let it rip from Page 1. Yet it feels more freeing than a strict chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene outline. It’s the workable compromise between pantsing and plotting that I’ve long sought.

    (By the way, why Starbucks? Support the indies!)

    • Jim, that’s a great way to do it. It’s similar to the method spelled out by John Braine, a British thriller author of yesteryear. Only he advocated just doing a first draft (pants) and using THAT to go back and do 2000 words, shaping it up. I think going at it from the elevator direction is more efficient.

      I have a local Starbys with the right chairs and lighting and ambience. There are a couple of nice indies in town, but usually overcrowded and quite a distance.

  10. Interesting concept–the brainstorming with a group. I confess I’ve never found myself in a situation comfortable enough to do that. I have tried it once, years ago, but it just didn’t seem to fly. Maybe I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining my story. Maybe we were all just pre-occupied with our own many issues, but I didn’t come away wowed by that particular method.

    Given the right circumstances, I would try it again.

    • I don’t usually brainstorm in a big group because it gets confusing, but I do brainstorm a lot with writer friends, one at a time. I don’t poll them all at once, just as I get the idea or get stuck. Usually I send a text or email complaining about the problem, they ask for details, and I find myself trying to explain what’s going on.

      It’s good practice to force yourself to explain to another person the gist of the idea, but there is an element of needing that person to be the “right” sort of person–someone who won’t make you feel bad or stupid, someone who might have questions, but won’t poke all the plot holes…it’s definitely a balancing act.

  11. Making a transition from dramatic writing to fiction, I started NaNo with only an inspirational image and wrote 52,000 words. The book is a mess, but worth revising. It got me back to writing fiction. There is a lot of work on my plate and I was considering scrapping until I watched your Revising a Novel seminar for Writer’s Digest on YouTube. You say that you learn from finishing each novel and I agree with that. So I am revising but I am under no illusions. I know what I have is unorganized brainstorming. But it’s good stuff. I’m curious about what you mean when you say “Mirror Moment,” although I think I know what it is.

    From the seminar I added two new tools to my writer’s kit, the “chair through the window” and “what will the character say about the experience 20 years later?”

    I learned when writing for TV that I work better with limitations. I am more creative in a productive forward motion when possibilities have fences. Planning and outlining allows me to set my limits. Once I finish my current mess, I will be writing from the middle from the beginning.

    • You’re quite right, Cynthia, that you learn so much from working through a novel. As for the mirror moment, follow the first link. That gives you a thumbnail sketch of it. The reason I wrote the book about it is that I just kept testing it for myself, and experiencing the power.

  12. I’m guess I get to be the outlier. I don’t outline more than a couple of chapters ahead. Even then, the story goes where it will. Writing doesn’t start, though, until I can crawl into the skin of my characters, and I know where the story ends.

    As for getting blocked, it doesn’t seem to happen. Engagement with as many varied experiences (real, written, virtual) forms the basis of my creativity. Disengagement from the noise gives it room to speak to me. If ideas are slow, I go for a run, take a long shower, take a longer drive.

    • Paul, you are doing what E. L. Doctorow recommended. He said it’s like driving at night with the headlights on…you can see only the next stretch of road. Once you go further, you can see a little bit more.

      That’s all fine, but the reason I came up with the signposts idea is so you can know where to go when you get to a fork … and not drive to a spot where the bridge is out!

  13. I need to let my imagination roam and it helps if I work out at the gym or go for a long walk. Then I start writing an outline — chapters and paragraphs describing the action, but I don’t number them. Next I run my idea past my brainstorming partner — my husband. Just saying the ideas out loud helps me decide if they are good or bad. I may give him three suspects for a murder and ask him which seems most logical. Talking it out really helps me get going.

  14. Love this post. Felt like I wrote it, in fact, because you (Jim) and I are so often so much on the same page. Your three part concept breakdown is actually, in my opinion, the development of the premise (which is imbued with a conceptual idea). As you know, when the premise is soft (for example, when it is mostly character without giving that character something compelling to do), things get harder from there, because the premise is incomplete.

    What’s interesting to note is that this is pure structure (as you know, Jim; so I offer this for others who may not see it this way). Your friend asks how to take a story forward, and the key to that is a) understanding the structure that needs to be there once the story works, and b) using those parts and milestones as targets as you brainstorm development. This is as true for structure cynics as it is for structure advocates, like Jim and I (me and Jim?… never quite sure how to correctly phrase that one…)

    For example, Jim’s first sentence in his three part breakdown exercise – where a character is introduced in a sort of “pre-plot” context – is the first “act” or “part” of the novel, where precisely that is the goal, along with foreshadowing and mechanically setting up (along with stakes) the story to come.

    That second sentence, what Jim so aptly calls “the doorway of no return,” is what I call (with less poetic nuance) the First Plot Point. It is the launch of the core dramatic story, commonly known as the “plot” or dramatic arc itself.

    And then, his third sentence is the “now what?” launch of the dramatic arc narrative launched by that doorway of no return.

    The story won’t really work until you get solid on all three of these things. Thus, they become very powerful brainstorming tools, as “must haves” within the story plan. Our opening idea, that first creative volley, often is so powerful, we get so excited about it, that it is tempting to simply begin writing “it,” before those other elements show up. Which is fine, we all search for our story in our own way (some with index cards, some with exploratory drafts, and everything in between). But whatever our process, certain things will end up being there in a story that works, and when we shoot for them up front (rather than wait for them to sneak into the story), everything falls into place faster, and more effectively.

    • “…when we shoot for them up front (rather than wait for them to sneak into the story), everything falls into place faster, and more effectively.”

      Exactly, Larry. I’m reminded of an old commercial catch phrase: try it, you’ll like it!

  15. Jim, All excellent suggestions. I’ve copied your three-sentence approach to the Elevator Pitch and may thumb-tack it above my computer (unless I decide to write it with ballpoint ink on my palm, the way we used to do algebra equations).
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. A few of my tried-and-true brainstorming techniques are odd, but they work for me.

    The first involves music. I love music, and I have a variety of styles. A lot of times I just get ideas from listening to music, so when I feel like the idea is ready for development, I’ll listen to that song and others like it to get me in the mood. I also listen to the words and get some inspiration there, mostly by wondering what could happen to a person to make them sing/write a song about it.

    The second method I learned from Holly Lisle in her “How to Think Sideways” writing class. She calls it “Calling the Lightening” and basically, you prep your muse or subconscious to give you the ideas. You think about what you need from the idea, specific but not nailed down, like “The next book in my gumshoe private eye series, with a cool twist on a tired trope”, and then write it down. You spend some time noodling around with what that could look like, any other images or characters that might be there, and then you let it go. You go about your daily life, and when you subconscious pings back with something, go gentle. Don’t think “that’s dumb” because you’re shutting yourself down. You can think “eh, but how would that work?” or “Nah, I’m not feeling it, but what if we did this?” but try to leave things open.

    This sounds like some sort of gimmick, but once you train yourself to really listen to your subconscious, you’ll get some great stuff. I get answers in the form of dreams, feelings, vague ideas, and sometimes an entire book downloaded into my brain.

    The last thing I do is work with images. Once I have an idea for the story, I go to Pinterest and make a story board. I pin anything that fits the idea, from character ideas, to landscape scenes that just help set the mood. While I’m pinning, I’m also thinking about stuff in the background, like “okay what if this castle is this secret base?”. I interact with what I’m pinning instead of mindlessly picking something because it’s pretty. It can go on the board if it just “feels right”, but having a sense of the atmosphere is important too.

    Mostly I brainstorm by using all my senses. I cover visual, hearing, taste in the form of trying foods that my character might love, smell when I burn candles that smell like the area the book is set in, anything that can give my subconscious a leg up in showing me what the idea is.

    There’s been plenty of times, right now being one of them, where I have the vaguest of ideas, more of a feeling than really even a concept, and I have to patiently tease it out of my subconscious. Trips to the book store, browsing through Amazon and Pinterest, listening to music…anything that might make a connection between the idea and your conscious thoughts is up for grabs.

  17. Coincidentally, I was cleaning my desk (finished the manuscript – yay!) and found this ‘alternative’ TV Guide type listing for The Wizard of Oz:

    “Transported to a surreal landscape, a troubled teen kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”

    I’m a pantser. Your post makes me shiver. I can’t do much of this before I’ve written at least 5-10 chapters, although I’m braving the “planster” approach for a novella.

  18. I discovered TKZ three months ago via an FB post from Jodie Renner (and wish I’d discovered you all sooner). Now this blog is my daily go-to for craft content and intelligent discussion.

    The mirror moment? The all-is-lost, how-can-I-survive turning point? I checked back with my #1 novel (published) and #2 novel (in final edits). Yep, there it is in both, slap bang in the middle. I may have Jack Bickham to thank for that.

    Some years ago I attended a writers’ conference (I live in the UK), and was lucky enough to book a one-to-one session with a midlist American author. I sent in the first six pages of my mystery thriller MS (a bloated mess, pantsed, and a mere 160,000 words in total) and a synopsis for him to read before we met.

    He was generous, and helpful. He gave me hope. I had a good story buried somewhere in the bloated mess, but needed to work hard on learning craft. This author recommended Jack Bickham’s “Scene and Structure”. He said the book had been a revelation to him when he first read it. It was also a revelation to me.

    I pantsed novel #1, pantsed novel #2 until about halfway through when I seemed to be writing in a fog, not knowing where I was going, and decided to outline from there to the end. For novel #3 I’ll be outlining from the start. Thanks for the three-sentence pitch idea, James, and another great post.

  19. I consistently learn more from James Scott Bell than anyone else. Just when I think I’m getting pretty good, you open another door.

    The three sentence pitch is brilliant. As I read the pitch from the Wizard of Oz, I realized that it will not only crystalize the idea of the book, but will help me stay on track as I approach those writing moments when I don’t know where the story should go. Thanks again.

    • Very kind of you, Brian. Indeed, this three sentence pitch operates as a lighthouse in case you ever feel like you’ve lost your way. It works for me, I think it will work for you, too.

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