Brainstorming Words of Wisdom

Today’s Words of Wisdom brings three excerpts from the KZB archives dealing with a very useful tool for writers: brainstorming.

Steven James gives ways to inject creativity into your writing which can help with brainstorming, PJ Parrish shares a classic approach to brainstorming, and James Scott Bell provides more brainstorming tips.

The full posts are especially worth reading this time, since there’s even more advice in the originals. Each is linked from the respective date at the end of its excerpt.

Most of us know what it feels like to be uncreative—our ideas are stale and dry, our writing is boring and predictable. We long to inject our stories with ideas that are fresh, original, inventive, and spontaneous.

But how do you do it?

Here are four ways:

  1. Explore Your L.I.F.E.
    When you don’t know where else to turn, explore L.I.F.E., an acronym for Literature, Imagination, Folklore, and Experience. L.I.F.E. is a limitless well of ideas waiting to be tapped into.
    Coax new stories from classic plots by setting them in a different time and place; examine your imagination for themes that pique your interest; search through the timeless motifs of myth, fairy tale and folklore; scour the expanses of your own experience to spark new ideas. Let your memories come alive!

Some memories inspire us, others haunt us. Some memories cling to things we own, others hover around places we’ve been. Start with what you have, nurture that fragment of a memory: your teacher’s face, the smell of your grandmother’s cookies, the charming way your father used to whistle, the chill in your soul as you rushed to the hospital, the taste of salt spray that summer at the ocean, how it felt to hold your daughter’s hand for the first time. Turn those memories over in your mind, flesh them out, allow them to breathe.

Every vivid memory is a garden of ripe plot ideas waiting to be harvested.

  1. Change Your Perspective
    A few years ago while visiting a hotel in Denver, I noticed “EXIT” signs not only above the exit doors, but also at their base. “How odd!” I thought. “Only someone crawling on the floor would need a sign down there!”


Whoever placed those signs down low had looked at the doors through the eyes of someone crawling for safety during a fire.

Creativity isn’t “seeing what no one else sees,” it’s “seeing what anyone else would see–if only they were looking.” New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.

Keep ideas alive by working backwards and sideways, by peering over your shoulder rather than always staring straight ahead.  Remember, you don’t dance in a straight line.

So take a moment and look at your story from another person’s perspective. Step into the shoes of your main character and write a journal entry, a complaint letter, or a love note. Switch your point of view. Write a few paragraphs in first person or third person. Think of how you would respond if you were in the story. Walk through the action, stand on your desk, crawl on the floor. And keep your eyes open for the doors no one else has noticed.

Steven James—February 10, 2014

Here’s my main take-aways from Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming.

  1. Think up as many ideas as possible regardless of how ridiculous they may seem. It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect solution right off the bat, so he recommends getting every idea out of your head and then go back to examine them afterwards. An idea that may sound crazy may actually turn out to work with a little modification.

Doesn’t this make sense when you’re plotting? I know when Kelly and I talk, we throw everything on the wall. You need to take the same approach with yourself. Write down every idea and let them bake for a while. Sometimes, the most outrageous thing leads to something useful.

  1. Don’t be judgmental.All ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Ideas can be evaluated after the brainstorming session but judgments during the process should be withheld.

Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you think, “Oh, that’s so stupid, no editor will ever buy it.” Or maybe you are a self-doubter, telling yourself, “I don’t have the chops to try this technique.” Or: “This is a great idea but it’s so complex so I won’t even try.”

  1. Go for quantity not quality.Don’t get hung up (like I often do) on coming up with the most clever solution to your writing problem. Let your brain waves flow so the bad stuff bobs up to the surface along with the good. Osborn said: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Forget quality; aim to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

Osborn’s books were geared more toward corporate types trying to get their teams to think more creatively on things like how to get traffic flowing better in big cities. But take a look at his suggestions for improving creativity and see if there’s not something here for us mere writers:

  1. Break up the problem into smaller pieces. For writers, this can mean tackling each plot or character problem as manageable bites, not getting overwhelmed by the idea that you’ve got 400 pages to fill. Get that first draft written then go back and fix your plot holes or layer your characters better.
  2. Search for alternatives.If you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner, look for a different way out than the old ways.
  3. What can be borrowed or adapted?Read other writers and learn from them.
  4. Modify with new twists.There aren’t many new plots in crime fiction but there is always a way to put your own fresh imprint on them.
  5. Is there something that can be magnified or minified?Maybe the stakes in your thriller aren’t high enough. Maybe you need to play down a secondary character who is overshadowing your hero. Are you larding in too much research?
  6. What can be substituted?Maybe if you changed your location the story would suddenly come alive. Would your mystery work better in a small town where you could exploit the English village dynamic? Is your setting banal and underwritten? Are you hitting all the wrong clichés if your book is set in Paris or some other iconic place?
  7. What can be re-arranged?Maybe you’re writing in the wrong point of view? Try switching from first to third. Or maybe the guy you think is your hero is really the bad guy?

PJ Parrish—March 10, 2015

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:

James Scott Bell—August 30, 2015


  1. What do you do to juice your creativity?
  2. What do you think of Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming? Is there one approach you want to try?
  3. Do you have tips on brainstorming? What works for you?

This entry was posted in brainstorming, creativity, James Scott Bell, PJ Parrish, Steven James by Dale Ivan Smith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dale Ivan Smith

Dale Ivan Smith is a retired librarian turned full-time author. He started out writing fantasy and science fiction, including his five-book Empowered series, and has stories in the High Moon, Street Spells, and Underground anthologies, and his collection, Rules Concerning Earthlight. He's now following his passion for cozy mysteries and working on the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries series, beginning with A Shush Before Dying.

21 thoughts on “Brainstorming Words of Wisdom

  1. Good tips, all. It is especially helpful since I’m going through a bit of creative burnout, which is a total bummer. Not burnout on a particular story issue, just creatively burned out in general at the moment.

    I’ve never had a problem coming up with story ideas, but have definitely run into times where I get stuck on a plot problem in an existing manuscript.

    One of the things that stood out as an example from this post is the idea of trying to write from another character’s point of view. I have a story where I’m trying to show the reader how the protagonist arrived at a particular decision, yet I don’t want to give anything away. The answer might be writing a scene from another character’s POV to create a bridge of understanding for the reader while not giving away the reveal.

    • I’m so glad this is helpful for you, B.K., especially given your creative burnout. Switching POV can really infuse creative energy into a story, as well as give the reader a new perspective.

  2. Dale, what a gold mine. I esp. liked Steve James’s point: “seeing what anyone else would see–if only they were looking.” New ideas are born when we view life from a fresh perspective or peer at the world through another set of eyes.”

    In recent years, publishing has promoted underrepresented voices. Some of those voices opened entire new worlds, cultures, and customs to me. At the same time, realization comes that some problems are universal to humans at any time in any world.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Your right, the human condition is universal, while human experiences can vary, sometimes greatly, depending upon culture, gender, age, and so many other factors.

  3. Excellent collection of posts, Dale. Thanks for all your work in pulling these articles from the archives and organizing them into topics. Much appreciated!

    1. Juicing my creativity: I especially like Jim’s free-form journal. I have used that in my last few books. Getting the ideas down on a Word or Google doc not only helps me go back and review what ideas I had a couple days ago, but allows me to jump in and change ideas or go off on tangents, move around ideas, etc. For me, this is the most enjoyable part of writing.

    2. Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming: I’m eager to explore his books, if they’re available.

    3. Brainstorming tips: Recording random thoughts after exercise sessions, mindless physical work, long drives, or any time your mind has been free to roam unfettered by something that takes constant focus.

    Thanks, Dale. And have a creative weekend!

    • You’re very welcome, Steve!

      I did some searching and see that Osborne’s Applied Imagination is currently available for Kindle and in print. His book, Wake Up Your Mind is long out of print but available used. I’d love to learn your thoughts on his writings if you do read one of his books.

      Terrific suggestion about recording random thoughts “any time your mind has been free to roam unfettered.”

      Hope you have a wonderful creative weekend as well.

  4. You unearthed gold today, Dale. Thank you!

    I agree with Jim’s point about experience increasing the difficulty of each new novel. Our expectations rise as well. Reading the previous book in the series helps me brainstorm. Notes for future books litter my Kindle. Some I use. Others I save for another project. Research sparks the most ideas for me. I don’t free write or journal, but I can see the benefits.

    The Beaver Moon stayed so bright and beautiful for several nights. Wasn’t it spectacular? I swear it had a bluish outer ring. Curious what you thought. Haven’t been to X for a few days. 😉

    • Your mention of the Beaver Moon sent me to Google. I’ve always called the November Moon the Hunter Moon, but evidently that only happens when the full moon falls on or before Nov. 7.
      The beaver moon happens when a full moon falls after Nov. 7, according to Earth Sky. During the month of November, beavers in North America prepare their dens and stock up on food for the incoming winter months. If the full moon in November falls before Nov. 7, it is called the Hunter’s Moon.

      Oh and I totally agree that each book is harder–every book I write teaches me something, making me want to make it better than the last…

    • Thanks, Sue! Reading the previous novel in the series is a terrific idea.

      The Beaver Moon was brilliant on Wednesday evening. I didn’t see a bluish ring here. Since then, another atmospheric river has arrived and is currently drenching us in rain, as well as of course hiding the stars.

  5. Thanks for mining another treasure trove of wisdom, Dale. I’m a firm believer in brainstorming sessions. I often talk to my husband about plot details, and although some ideas are discarded, something always comes up that makes the story better.

    And I agree with the others: every book represents a greater challenge than the ones before.

    Have a great weekend.

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