I said it before: All writers are together in the same boat no matter where they are in the writing process. We all share the same sense of pride when we finish a piece of writing. We all have the same feelings of frustration when we enter a difficult stage in the writing process. It’s universal. That said, I stumbled on a problem this past week, dear writer. Since we’re all together in this, I assume you’ve been there too. To spare you the days worth of writer’s block, I’m going to share my two favorite brainstorming activities that I used to help me work through this problem.
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But, first! A quick refresher of all the things you already know because you are awesome and obviously keep up with the reading and follow along.
In the past, we talked about brainstorming techniques you could use when you had no ideas for a story. We talked about the importance of free writing and keeping a notebook or having a really cool and minimalistic notepad app on your phone (Drafts is my favorite because it lets me send my ideas to tons of other apps–Dropbox, Evernote and Gmail–and pretty much anywhere I can think of). You’ve learned that creative ideas don’t spring from nothing–that inspiration is everywhere if you look for it.
Being open to ideas and calling inspiration to you (i.e., looking for it vs. the old school idea of waiting for a Muse to drop by for tea) is where the next stumbling block comes in. I’ve stumbled all week so that you don’t have to, dear writer.
So, there you are. You have all these ideas and crazy-clear images of characters and settings in your head, but don’t know what purpose they serve. You feel these ideas floating around testing the limits of your imagination and looking over your shoulder whenever you sit down to write, but you don’t know where they should go or what they should do. And then you end up staring at a blank page in your notebook for days. Sitting down to write when you have fragmented ideas is like living in an anxiety dream (only with less zombie-tornados and short-changed draws at the grocery store you cashiered at in high school).
So, you break out your Idea Book. You know, that notebook you carry around everywhere full of creative sparks of ideas. You riffle through the pages and find gems like: “Cheers! Poison!,” “library boat” and “volcano cacti forest” (these are some words from my Idea Book–I have no idea about the trails my brain takes sometimes). Like the things in my Idea Book, yours are also 87% fragments from half-remembered dreams and dashes of overheard (eavesdropped!) conversations. But whatever.
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The solution: Brainstorming activities
Making the connection from fragmented ideas to a fully fledged story is tough. Don’t worry, though! You only need a few productive brainstorming activities to get by. Lucky you, I’m sharing my two favorites today.
I measure the usefulness brainstorming activities based on their simplicity and flexibility. The following brainstorming activities are two of the best because they don’t involve complex worksheets and I can twist them so that they fit in for many different kinds of writing. I use these for almost all of my writing–not only for my creative things, but I also used them for the essays I wrote in school.
Read on, dear writer, and find two of the simplest (but most effective!) brainstorming activities to turn your fragmented thoughts into developed writing and dope plots.
Heads Up: I find that it helps me when I use these two brainstorming activities in order. Start with a fragmented idea from your Ideas Book and then follow along with each of these brainstorming activities. When combined, these two brainstorming activities will help you find a direction to go in with your writing.
1. The inquisitive kid
A student I work with inspired this exercise. He has questions for everything. When I start to feel tired by all his questions I remember that asking questions is how we learn. It’s easy to forget that it’s good to ask questions. It’s okay to ask questions when you don’t know something or you feel curious.
It kills me that as we get older, we stop asking questions because we get comfortable with a routine and know how things work. Believe it or not, this turns into a major problem when we try to develop our ideas to write a story. We have a creative spark and then we don’t know what to do with it because, somewhere along the line, we forgot how to ask questions. For this exercise to work, you need to remember the inquisitive kid you used to be.
To get started, pull from the list of questions my student usually asks me. My favorite ones he asks are:
“Whose idea was that?”
“Why is that?”
“Why do we need this?”
“Was [your mom, dad, sister, friend, etc.] happy/not happy?”
These are great questions because they force you to think about the fundamental things you need to know if you want to develop the fragmented ideas in your head into a working plot. When I have a fragmented idea in my head and I can’t make anything work, I ask myself those questions.
It’s pretty simple. Set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and write down as many questions as you can think of. Was there ever a type of question you remember asking as a child? Something you asked over and over again? Add it to the list above. Try not to focus on answering the questions. This exercise is all about asking–return and fill in the answers to them later.
Here’s an example of how this exercise usually goes down with me:
Using the “library boat” fragment from my Idea Book that I mentioned earlier. Notice how I start by asking the questions that my student typically asks. Then, notice how the questions change and get specific as my ideas start to form and take shape.
- Whose idea was a library boat?
- Who built the boat?
- Where does it travel to?
- Why did they need one?
- What happened to the regular library?
- Was it a tragic story? Was someone happy about whatever happened? Who was sad about it?
- Who would need a library boat?
- Do they have cool library cards?
- Could it be a secret society?
- What would the community look like that would need a traveling library?
- Who funds that library boat?
- Is there a “Friends of the Library?”
- What do they do for outreach programs/media attention? Is it something sinister?
- What kinds of programs/book clubs do they offer?
- Why would someone smuggle a book on a boat?
- What would be in that book that would make it censored/what would make people afraid enough to ban that book so that it had to be smuggled somewhere?
- What does that say about the world this story takes place in?
- Who wrote the book and for what purpose?
Those are a few preliminary questions I asked myself for that creative spark I had one day about a traveling library. From asking questions about who, what, where, when, why and how, I was able to map out an entire plot for a short story.
At this point in time, you should have moved from a fragmented thought to a vague idea for a plot. The next brainstorming activity should help you add structure to that vague idea.
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2. The Story Spine/Pixar’s story prompt
It’s hard to know where this next exercise originated from. I’ve seen so many people use it in many different places and for multiple purposes. It’s so flexible that stage performers use it as an improv exercise to come up with ideas for plays on the spot. Pixar also uses this method for most of their movies.
Simply put, the Story Spine or Pixar’s Story Prompt (whatever you want to call it) is a type of fill-in-the-blank prompt that helps you build a plot.
Using the questions and the vague idea you developed in the Inquisitive Kid exercise, fill in the blanks to add structure to your plot.
Once upon a time there was ________.
One day, ________.
Because of that ________.
Because of that ________. (You can add as many “because of thats” as you want.)
Until finally ________.
Ever since that day ________.
This exercise is useful for both pantsers and plotters (people who write “by the seat of their pants” and those who prefer to map out all the details of their plot first). Even if you are anti-plotting and think that in-depth outlining and research kill your ideas, you still need to add some basic structure to your plot. This one is simple enough to keep you on track if you feel planning crushes your creativity. Conversely, if you like planning and plotting out everything, use this exercise as a starting point. It’s a kind of bare-bones outline. Feel free to go back and add as much detail as you want and flesh it out.
These are pretty simple brainstorming activities, yeah? Personally, I freak out when I try exercises and worksheets that go on for 50 pages. I shared these exercises because they work best for me, and I hope maybe they’ll help you go from fragmented ideas to a functioning plot. These brainstorming activities are messy and simple, but that’s how brainstorming activities should be at first. Messy is okay. Don’t stress if your questions have no logical order or your story spine is all over the place. It’s okay if your thoughts jump around in the brainstorming-pre-writing stage. At this point, it more important to get your ideas in order.
Good luck! Follow me on Twitter for even more writing exercises and quick tips!