Sunday, May 26, 2013

Brainstorming, Part 3: "I Can Identify My Problem"


Two weeks ago, we examined three manifestations of writer's block: being unable to identify the precise problem, identifying the problem but being unable to think of a solution, and just not having enough material to work with.  Last week, we used brainstorming to get from mindless ranting to figuring out the trouble spots.  Which brings us to this week.

The Problem

You can identify precisely where your story went wrong.  Maybe your main character has made stupid decisions and you need to break him of that habit.  Maybe your world-building isn't up to par.  Maybe you can't figure out where or how to do the final confrontation.  The point is, you know your headache.  But how do you fix it?


Half the times, simply stating the problem automatically leads you to a solution.  For example, if you realize that the path to the capital is blocked by a battle, take your characters by a different route.

Other times, however, the solution is not obvious.  Don't worry.  As a writer, you are infinitely creative and resourceful.  Given enough time and effort, you will find a way to solve your problem.  The trick is to get your brain to be loose and flexible.  And for that, I humbly offer these suggestions.

Throw Ideas Until Something Sticks

This is a very simple, but proven method.  Take a piece of paper and a pencil (or a computer, if you prefer) and write down whatever pops into your head.  Throw ideas around until you find one that makes you go, "Ah-ha!" or at least "Hm, maybe..."  If nothing works, set your writing aside for a little while and look at it again with fresh eyes.

"Big deal," you say.  "My first grade teacher taught me this method."

Fair enough.  So let me offer my own insight.  The difficulty here is not tossing out ideas, so much as it is shutting off the critical part of the brain.  And how do you do that?

First of all, reassure yourself that, unlike those painful group brainstorming sessions in grade school, where your teacher assured you there are no stupid ideas while your laughing friends immediately contradicted her, here no one will ever read your writing.  What happens in brainstorming, stays in brainstorming.  There's no ridicule attached.

Second of all, as soon as the first stupid, obvious, unworkable, this-doesn't-even-count-as-an-idea idea pops into your head, WRITE IT DOWN.  It generally opens the floodgates to more ideas.  Maybe the new ideas are just as bad.  Doesn't matter.  Grit your teeth and commit them to paper.  Bad ideas are better than nothing.  You can work on bad ideas.  You can't work with nothing.

Listen to Your Judgement

Now maybe during those painfully embarrassing brainstorming sessions, your elementary teacher proclaimed, "This is a judgement free zone." And if you can turn off your judgement, great.  But personally, I can't always do that--it's part of my perfectionism.  So instead of trying to suppress it, I use judgement as a brainstorming tool.


First, I try to be fair and logical.  Saying "This is stupid" helps no one.  Saying "This is stupid, because...." can actually trigger more ideas.  If I know the knight slaying the dragon is obvious and cliche, my brain might say, "All right, so what's original?"  The princess slaying the dragon?  The dragon having a heart attack?  The dragon faking its death?

If you can't turn your judgement into a positive force, write down your judgement and move on.  Give it no more space than the actual idea. Holding in your judgement gives it more power--writing it down deflates it a bit.  As long as you don't wallow in your judgement, it should be fine.

Attack from the Sides

If your problem is plot, stop and take a look at the setting.

Elements of a story are linked together.  Your character's decisions influence the plot; the events of the plot affects the character's mindset.  Each added element is a new door into your story.  You don't always have to go in through the front gate.  Sometimes the back door is preferable.

One of my favorite tricks is to take a deep look into the motivations, backgrounds, and secrets of minor characters.  That worn-out innkeeper your hero talked to on page 11 might have been a rebel fighter in his youth.  Maybe he still keeps a list of all his compatriots and stockpiles weapons in the basement.

Look around.  You never know what you'll find.

Break Taboos

Do you ever find yourself thinking like this?

Poor Stable Boy has great chemistry with Witty Bar Maid, but he's supposed to end up with Beautiful Princess.

My heroes must take the Black Fortress by Midsummer's Eve, but I can't seem to get them there on time.

The Fizzy Fairy won't appear until Chapter 32, but she has the Amulet of Truth my White Knight needs to defeat the Black Wizard on Chapter 27.

Supposed to.  Must.  Won't.  Pay attention to these words in your writing.  They indicate the taboos you have secretly erected in your mind.

Long ago, you came up with an idea you thought would fit.  Three drafts later, that wispy thought has calcified into a stone pillar.  You think removing it would cause the whole story to tumble down on your head.

Try it and see.

Breaking taboos can radically shift the way you think about your story.  Destroy something that has become sacred and see where it takes you.  How does it affect other pieces of the story?  What could you replace it with?  What are the consequences of removing it?

Map out the trail of destruction.

I'm not saying you should actually throw out every portion of your writing that gives you problems.  You're not changing your manuscript; you're merely speculating.  Sometimes, you find that the pillar you thought was a vital support structure is merely decorative.  You can take it out and the story will stand.

Other times you realize you really, really want this element to stay--losing it would drain some of the life out of your story.  By all means, keep it.  One of the points of this exercise is to clarify what's absolutely essential and what's not.

But the interesting thing is, by threatening your taboos, your mind is forced to move in a completely different direction, which may in turn provide you with all sorts of new ideas.  Take the new ideas, stitch them with the old, and watch the patchwork transform into something original and beautiful.

Ignore It

Not every problem needs solving.

If it's a little thing, no one may even notice.  Sometimes that critical part of your brain zeroes in and nitpicks on minor flaws.  These obsessions suck up valuable time.  Be efficient.  Just move on.

Sometimes I find that when I go forward the solution just magically appears.  When you move from looking at a single detail to the whole landscape, your perspective shifts.  You understand where the piece fits into the larger picture and a solution arrives in a flash of insight.

Hindsight is 20/20--make it work for you!

* * *

Next week, I'll continue with the final installment of "Brainstorming Strategies," which is using brainstorming to think up entirely new material.  See you next time.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Good point about turning the critic off, and I'm taking the Ignore It advice to heart.

    Looking forward to the final installment.