Build a Better Brainstorm

Build a better brainstorm session with these three quick tips! |

Finding good ideas.

Sometimes that feels like my total job description: finding the series of tiny ideas that turn into a character, an action line, a scene, a novel. 

A good idea has some heat to it, some intrigue--and it pulls me forward, makes the process of writing nearly effortless. A dull idea, or one that doesn't suit me--well, that adds weights to the writing process, bogs it down.

Brainstorming. It's how we scare the good ideas into the light, right? How we scrub around for ideas in the folds of our brains. We all need tools to dig around with, ways to bring those ideas out. How far can a writer get without ideas? Not far at all.

My take on brainstorming used to be: Put down all the ideas you can think of.

That was it. Pretty straightforward, pretty chill. But I've done a bit of reading about creativity since then, and these three insights have helped me up my idea-generation game. 

1. Have a question: have a goal.

In his fantastic book, Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky has a lot to say about brainstorming. (Actually, the whole book is about the process of turning an idea into a thing, a product. Annnnnnnd basically you should just quit reading this post and pick up that book. It's amazing.)

While brainstorming is a necessary part of the process, it's too easy to get stuck in this happy, anything-is-possible phase. He cautions, "A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought. The tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea spreads your energy horizontally rather than vertically."

Okay. So true. One of my book projects is paralyzed by too many ideas. The draft is basically a collection of possible scenes, some of them written as many as four times in four different ways... So many possibilities, that I got mired in the mess and finally shelved it.

How do you get around this?

Scott Belsky says, "Brainstorming should start with a question and the goal of capturing something specific, relevant, and actionable."

Oooh. Game on.

This kind of clarity is so helpful. Especially when I'm trying to tweak something about the way I work, or what to focus on in a story. It's easy for me to take out a sheet of paper and just generate stuff. But it's so much more valuable to ask, What precisely am I looking for? What exactly is my question? 

And then to take those results and test them to see: How will this look in action? How can this translate to real life, to steps taken?

2. Go after an "aggressive quota for ideas."

One of the best books on creativity I know: The Creative Habit, by master choreographer Twyla Tharp. She advises "giving yourself an aggressive quota for ideas."

There's something in our brains that rises to the challenge of listing a bunch of ideas in a very short time frame. 

Tharp writes about an exercise she gives when she's speaking at an event. "You've got two minutes to come up with sixty uses for [a] stool."

Two minutes: sixty ideas. 

Idea generating goes berserk.

She writes, "The most interesting thing I've noticed is that there's a consistent order to the quality of ideas. You'd think the sixtieth idea would be the most lame, but for my purposes, which are to trigger leaps of imagination, it's often the opposite."

Isn't that crazy? My main takeaway is: I usually stop seeking ideas way too soon.

She says, "It's the same every time: the first third of the ideas are obvious; the second third are more interesting; the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity, as later thinking builds on earlier thinking."

So now, when I'm searching for ideas, I try to give myself a short time limit and a biiiiiiiiig list to fill. And then I let myself go crazy.

Try it! You might surprise yourself.

3. Go the other way.

One of the most butt-kicking books in my how-to-write library is Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

You guys. This is one of my desert island books. If I was going to, uh, write a book on a desert island and could only bring one book on craft, this would be it. I'm still firmly convinced that the more I apply what he discusses in these exercises, I'll have written the best darned book I could possibly write.

He has a section devoted to brainstorming, with several excellent tips on how to seek out original ideas. But my favorite tip is this: 

Remember the power of reversal. Take your first impulses, and go the opposite way. That is the secret of brainstorming.

This especially applies to the kind of work that doesn't lend itself to "write sixty possible whatevers." For me, this works best in situations like this:

What will Fiona do when the three-headed dog shows up? Run. Scream. Faint. Try to shoot it. Those are the first ideas that come to mind.

But taking those initial impulses and going the opposite way, looks more like this: 

Ignore the dog. Bark at it. Sprout a second head herself. Go closer. Offer it ice cream. Dance.

And suddenly, the scene has a whole different range of possibilities. (We readers love a bit of unpredictability, right?)

Are your gray cells tingling yet?

What brainstorming strategies have worked for you? Which of these tips are you itching to try? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Wanna keep reading? Check out: What we write about when we write about teethmarks and The Way to Great Things.

If you liked this post and want to give your fellow brainstormers a boost, please share the link!