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?



Incidentally, We Can Do Without This

James Scott Bell

Among writing instructors you’ll often hear the term “inciting incident.” It’s become part of the craft jargon. But not with me. In fact, I think I’ve only used it once or twice in the past, and then only to make some minor point about something else.
Now it’s time to dump it completely.
For starters, no one agrees on a definition.  Is it the “action that starts the story” or the “Call to Adventure”? Is it the scene that “kicks the story into motion”? And if it is, what is all that stuff BEFORE the “inciting incident”? Stuff that DOESN’T kick the story into motion?  Every scene in your book or movie better incite SOMETHING or it shouldn’t be there.
Is it an “event that forces the hero to react”? But there are many events that force reaction in a novel. If there aren’t, you’ve got a four-letter novel, spelled d-u-l-l.
Is the “inciting incident” supposed to happen near the opening of the novel? Or is it the break into Act 2? You’ll find it taught both ways.
Does the inciting incident “upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life”?
Well, if it does, how come it’s only one incident? There are lots of incidents in a story that upset the “balance of forces.”
Look at The Wizard of Oz. Miss Gulch takes Toto away. Dorothy gets him back and runs away. A twister hits and carries her to Oz. She meets a bunch of Munchkins and a good witch who looks like a soap bubble. She’s confronted by the Wicked Witch and threatened with death. Then she’s given the ruby slippers and told to follow the yellow brick road. She meets three odd allies, is peppered with apples by angry trees, gets intimidated by the Great Oz, gets carried away by flying monkeys and imprisoned, disposes of the Wicked Witch, gets cheated by Oz (until Toto reveals the man behind the curtain) and ends up back in black and white Kansas.
All of those incidents “upset the balance of forces.”
So instead of worrying about what an “inciting incident” means and where it goes, try it this way: You open with a disturbance. That’s change or challenge, anything that puts a ripple in the Lead’s ordinary life.
How does The Wizard of Oz start? Not with a rainbow, or birds singing, or Dorothy waking up happy. No. The first shot is her running down the road, afraid of Miss Gulch coming after Toto.
Disturbance. If you want more on that, I refer you to this post.
Then we get to the Act 1 break. This I call the Doorway of No Return. It’s got to force the Lead through and slam shut. That’s what Act 2 has to feel like. The Lead is in trouble and has to solve it. She can’t go running back to the placid world where she came from.
The twister in Oz does that to Dorothy. The murder of his Aunt and Uncle does that to Luke Skywalker. Life will never be the same for them. It happens to Astrid Magnussen in Janet Fitch’s White Oleander when her mother is imprisoned and Astrid is forced into the foster home system. The door has slammed shut. Literally, she can’t go home again.
Now some writers have these ideas right in their DNA and do these things instinctively. Others have to learn how to do them. Still others, even published authors, could strengthen their books by giving these craft points some study.
I urge all writers to keep up a study of the craft. Would you want your brain surgery to be done by a doctor who is reading the medical journals and constantly trying to improve? Or the one who has just returned from a year long vacation in Barbados, where he did nothing but lounge on the beach sipping Piña Coladas?
Writing is like brain surgery, except nobody dies when you make a mistake. Readers might get bored, though, if you don’t know how to disturb and then push through the Doorway of No Return.
And, on every page, incite something.