Harnessing the Storm in Brainstorming

Brainstorming. The word evokes turbulent images of roiling clouds clashing with thunder and lightning. We all wish our ideas would be so powerful and pregnant with possibilities. The word also spurs images of trouble and danger, as if we are dealing with natural elements out of our control.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? When we brainstorm for ideas, our hope is to relinquish our hold on the elements of creativity, so that we can be swept up in the storm of ideas, and hopefully come through with something both tangible and inspired we can use in our writing.

Maneuvering through the Stormy Mess

Anyone who writes at some point has to brainstorm. We start with an idea or something as simple as an image, and from there, pushed by the desire to morph that idea into something bigger, we come up with other ideas that start linking together, and whether we conceive of these ideas in a logical fashion or more of a stormy mess, there is some sort of process whereby we move from initial concept to a creative work. Whether we are writing a short blog post or magazine article or a full-length novel, at some point we have to brainstorm.

In dealing with hundreds of editing clients, I notice that this phase of the creative process related to writing seems to be the most challenging, nebulous, and frustrating for writers. Some of us writers are fortunate to have friends and/or family members that help us kick around ideas and get our creative juices flowing and problem-solve plot points. But most of us often (and sometimes by choice) ideate on our own, in the confines of our lonely office or in a quiet cubicle in the library.

 We Often Dread the Process

Needless to say, creativity isn’t something that we can just turn on full force, like a water spigot. Oh how we wish we could. It seems some people are just bursting with ideas and can’t get them all down fast enough on paper. They seem to be able to convert those bits of ideas into full-fledged concepts and detailed plots without much effort. But most of us don’t find this process so easy.

Often I give detailed instructions to my struggling writing clients on how to brainstorm ideas for scenes and characters. They seem intimidated by the whole idea of brainstorming, afraid they will not come up with anything good. Instead of seeing that stage of the writing process as fun and exciting, they dread and avoid it. It’s puzzling and frustrating at times to rack your brain trying to jiggle loose some good ideas. Sometimes we feel like we are banging our heads against a wall, but to no avail.

Through writing more than a dozen novels, I’ve experimented with various techniques to help me brainstorm ideas. Some work better for me than others, such as writing all my scenes on index cards. But before I can get to the index card stage, I still have to move from random bits of ideas to full-fledged scenes.

Next week, I’ll go into the method I feel is the best way to brainstorm. The process from idea to finished product shouldn’t be intimidating and miserable. Creativity should be fun and exciting. Yes, a bit of hard work, but that’s to be expected.

Do you have ways of brainstorming ideas that you’d like to share with other writers? Let’s hear them.

Feature Photo Credit: ViaMoi via Compfight cc

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  1. I am a lover of music, and I find that a tune can conjure up some really exciting images. I’m also a film aficionado and always notice the soundtrack. (I heard a director say that a really good soundtrack is unnoticable because it doesn’t distract the viewer from the story; however, as a dance instructor once told me, music is so much a part of my soul that I can’t help getting caught up in the notes! As I listen to music, it’s easy to picture my characters in a situation that I hadn’t previously considered. Sometimes music takes me in a new direction and changes the entire complexion of the story. Music is a very thrilling tool for brainstorming.

    1. Sometimes in my working manuscript, at a place where I know I have to write a new scene that’s needed, I will change the font color and just start typing and talking to myself, sort of a ‘stream of consciousness’ thing, about what I have to have in the scene. And sometimes ideas start flowing.

      Another thing I do is imagine the conversations and say them out loud in the character’s voices – just let myself go wild and crazy. And it’s funny how sometimes just the right line of dialogue will come out of that for me.

      And also like Lisa, above, music of the time period will help me visualize certain scenes.

  2. The only way I brainstorm is to ask one of two questions, or both: What could happen next, and what if? Notice the word “could.” I try to list everything I can think of, them work with the most outrageous, most logical, or simply what my gut tells me is the best. I look forward to your post on what you think the best method is. Great subject!

  3. I collect newspaper and magazine clippings, even advertising or commercial snippets. Also, pictures are often a great source. Be it scenery or portrait or even a still life. I ask who inhabits this place, what are their names, what is their life like, do they want to change, how is their life about to change? I mix it all up and sometimes draw things out of a series of boxes – one for location, one for names, one for what if?. If nothing “pops” then I do it again. Word association games are also a fun way to get the creative juices flowing. Grab any book or dictionary or encyclopedia, close your eyes and open the book, place your finger somewhere on the page and read the first six words under your finger tip. It can be just plain fun and you can laugh at the possibilities. That alone should loosen things up. Enjoy the process.

  4. Thanks, “C.S.”, for assisting writers (and any actively creative folks who read your words.) Creativity IS scary because we immediately think it means talent, artistic ability, and genius. But it actually means to make the new or re-arrange the old to appear new.

    “Brainstorming” is scary because MOST brainstorming isn’t brainstorming. Usually what’s going on (in group sessions) is playful arguing with snacks on the table. Mainly, we make the fatal (idea killing) choice of combing Creative & Critical Thinking into ONE activity. When we do that, we are no longer creating we are only being critical. Whether we have an hour, a day, or …weeks/months to solve a problem we MUST first create. Foremost in that process is to be open to ANY & ALL ideas: especially the WILD, goofy, silly, expensive, and “how-in-the-%#@$-can-we-do-that” ideas. The BEST ideas are the ones that at first spark are whacko!

    Creative thinking can be boiled down to 3 words: Think, Say, Write. What ever comes to mind (Think), SAY it, and Write it down. Stuck on a plot point? Fill a page with possibilities. Be more than a little outrageous. A friend (author of 181 books, and counting) says to be successful a non-fiction (novels, short stories) must be believable and non-fiction must be UN-believable.

    That fact that almost no one knows how to do high-powered, world-changing brainstorming is the reason I wrote my latest book. (The complete first chapter is available as a FREE PDF download on my web creativity blog: http://www.TeaWithMcNair.com.) In the book are my “7 Agreements of Brainstorming” developed while I was a Disney Imagineer (theme park thinker upper.) I have used it since with churches and huge corporations from Apple and Chick-fil-A to the Salvation Army. And I have taught it at several writers conferences.

    Stop arguing and fussing—trying to find the “right” answer—and spend just a bit of time imagining 50 – 100 possibilities. Write as fast as you can think.

    Oh, yeah, my book: “HATCH!: Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer.”

    C.S., I look forward to learning you brainstorming solutions – -we cannot possibly have too much good coaching in this area. On-word!

  5. Miss Lakin:
    I enjoyed the report. I brainstorm while I’m watching people, TV, or riding down the road. Sometimes an object will appear before me and create the beginning of a story. Such was a decorative pot sitting below our TV. This pot became ‘The Vessel’ a detective story featuring my man Frank Hawthorn. The actual vessel (in the story)was fabricated from gold mined in the Klondike during the rush many years before. The gentleman who owned the vessel thought it to be a spit-tomb because of it’s drab appearance. Someone in earlier life had painted it to keep people from knowing it was worth millions of dollars. When it was actually discovered the man who owned it was murdered.

    I liked your post so well that I re-posted it on my blog so others would have a chance to read it. You may check it at my web site…

    Best regards,
    James M. Copeland

    1. Thanks for the nice comments and sharing the post. We’ll be looking at brainstorming for the next few weeks, specifically how to mind map and how novelists can use this technique for every component of their novel.

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