Fiction Brainstorming Basics

So you want to expand your story idea into a road map. Or you’re stalled out on plotting or planning or rewriting. Or you’re mired somewhere in the wilds of Indecision, Overthought, or I Got Nothing.

Time to take a high-fiber brain dump.

Get Set to Scrawl

Brainstorming notes should be freewheeling yet organized in whichever way makes the most sense to you. I frequently think in nonlinear terms, and I like to throw a bunch of thoughts together to see what patterns arise. Mind maps are my ideal form of visualization – Scapple, my application of choice for its elegant simplicity. You can play a similar game of connect the dots with any diagramming or flowchart software.

Prefer physical media? Notecards, sticky notes, and dry erase boards can keep your ideas rearrangeable as you think them through.

Identify Problems to Solve

Ask yourself questions to fill gaps in development or whatever else you need to establish first. Base these on what you already know. Have a specific conflict in mind? Consider how the story will get there. Unsure what will happen later on? Map out anything that might contribute – character dynamics, situational stresses, other events.

You may end up working from different angles – learning more about your characters through your intended plot, or engineering conflicts from characterization and setting. If any of these dots fail to connect, you will hopefully have some idea of why, along with direction toward exploring alternatives.

Focus on One Task at a Time

Brainstorming can explode into an overwhelming tangle with no apparent end. To make tangible and regular progress, concentrate on one manageable task after another. Manageability is a fuzzy metric variant on personal mileage and the scope of your story. You might dissect a broad, general question into specifics. You might work out some of those finer-grained details. Regardless, each task should feel like progress toward an overall trend of solidifying your material into an ever growing foundation. Even if you wind up playing an extended game of Not It, the process of elimination will help you identify what It really is.

Inspired to go off on a tangent? Write down those immediate thoughts, and leave their resultant questions for later. Stuck? Switch to a different task and let this one rest. Come back with a fresh perspective or more data to go on.

Get Unstuck With Help

If you’re drawing blanks or guessing at random, restock your mental library with research, inspiration, and worldbuilding. Do you only have a vague concept of a main character’s occupation? Read articles and job descriptions for ideas of what actions they could take. Confused about the limits of your fantastic or speculative technology? Nail down their rules of operation.

You can also study narratives that handle similar concepts especially well. No art is created in a vacuum. With enough of your unique personality and perspective, your work will stand out from its influences.

Friends and other writers can provide ideas and inspirational questions of their own, especially because they aren’t in your head. They might ask about fundamentals not yet established, or bring up possibilities you haven’t considered.

Curate Your Notes

Periodically summarize your findings from your rough exploratory notes. This saves time digging out material later on and adds to your sense of accomplishment – a nice breather if you’re otherwise stuck.

Wrap It Up

Your goal is to solidify enough material for your next phase of writing. This depends on what exactly that phase is – a high-level outline, sketches of scenes, perhaps a set of ideas to hash out in the rough draft itself. In other words, yet another fuzzy metric that you will learn to know when you see.

If you feel ready to go, give it a shot. You can always come back for another round.