Brainstorming an Idea into a Story

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We’ve had a few good posts here recently about coming up with solid ideas. JJ had a really good post about idea generation here. I also posted on this topic here.

But what does a writer do once they have a kernel of an idea? How does a one-sentence seed grow into an 80,000 word novel?

I’m a planner (meaning I outline my stories, as opposed to a pantser, who writes from the seat of their pants.) I never start a new story if I don’t know (or think I know,) how it will end. But how do I discover the story within a new idea? How do I take an idea like, “It’s about a boy and girl trapped in an elevator during an earthquake,” and find the beginning, middle, and end?

One method you can turn to when it’s time to flesh out an idea is to brainstorm. If I have a new idea I think has potential, I’ve probably walked around thinking about my characters and their situation. I try to find the main character’s voice, to connect with something that the character is trying to tell me. Sometimes this works, and I begin to discover a real story within the idea. Something starts to form without force. When I feel this way, I begin to think I may have discovered an idea for a story worth telling.

In October of 2013, Kat Zhang and Savannah Foley hosted an online event they dubbed NaNoWarmUp. They invited writers to “warm up” for NaNoWriMo in November by writing about half the NaNo word count in October. I had only the spark of an idea for a NaNo project that year, so I decided to use NaNoWarmUp to try to find my story.

Each day I had a word count goal of about 800 words. I had an idea I called “Prehistory Story,” which was really just a few characters and a premise. I had a vague idea for a plot. But I still felt very far away from the characters, their world, and the core of the story. Sometimes when you’re early in the story discovery process, it feels as if your story is a diamond that has fallen into a barrel of flour. You need to sift (and sift and sift) to find it. In October 2013, the process of brainstorming helped me with all that sifting to find the story that eventually became my novel, Ivory and Bone.

There are probably as many ways to brainstorm as there are writers, but here’s what works for me:

  • I open a blank file and give it a name (like Elevator Story if I were going to write about the premise I mentioned above.)
  • I begin writing an informal narrative about my idea. I don’t worry about the prose; I just tell the story. If the first thing that comes to mind is a character, I start there. Amanda got on the elevator in a hurry, since she was running late for her interview. Her high heels were killing her feet. Or I might start with the setting. The highrise was an ugly mishmash of concrete and steel. No one in the lobby smiled or acknowledged Amanda as she dashed for the elevator. Everything about this place felt cold.
  • I keep writing, introducing everything I know so far about the story. I bring in all the characters I’ve been thinking about. If I have an idea for the start of the conflict, I write about that event. My main interest at this stage isn’t to make it good; it’s to get it down. If something new comes into my mind, I’ll add it in, but I’ll probably do something to set it off as something I’m just beginning to test out, like type it in italics or red. I also might type out questions to myself in bold or another color, so I can go back later and deal with issues that pop up without having to interrupt myself as I put the idea down. How many floors does the building have? Do all the elevators go to the top, or do different banks of elevators go to different floors?
  • The next step is the most difficult to describe. I guess the best way to say it is I read over what I have and look for the truth in the story. I’ve started brainstorming a lot of ideas. Most of them end when I see that the story is something I’m forcing. This might sound ridiculous or pretentious, but I look for the idea that feels like I’m relating a character’s true story, rather than making it up. If the character’s voice is clear and real to me, I start to hope that maybe I’m on the right track.
  • If the brainstormed idea on the page doesn’t pass the above test, I start sifting. What’s wrong? Am I listening to the wrong character? Should I let the boy tell me the story? Am I in the wrong place or wrong time? If I change the source of the conflict, does the real story here begin to reveal itself?
  • Once I have a sense for a tweak that might get to the truth of the story, I start again, but without deleting a word. I just move down the page, type a line or write in bold type: OR, what about something like this: and keep going. I might copy and paste from above what I want to keep, or I might start from scratch.

I repeat this process until—if I’m fortunate enough to be on the right track and there really is a story inside this idea—there’s finally a breakthrough. It might take 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 words, and I may end up with just a collection of paragraphs, but if things are working, I begin to see why this story matters. (If not… back to the drawing board!)

Brainstorming can be an incredibly powerful tool for sifting through all the scattered thoughts and bits of other stories to find the true story you are trying to tell. It also can be maddening and frustrating! So far, though, it is the technique that has worked the best for me.

What are your thoughts on brainstorming? Have you ever tried this technique? Do you think this would work for you, or do you have a completely different approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


9 Responses to Brainstorming an Idea into a Story

  1. Katie Mar 2 2015 at 12:21 pm #

    Wow, I use a similar method when brainstorming!! I open a new document and just start typing and telling the bare bones of the story, with any random ideas or details or questions thrown in as I go. Usually it’s just me explaining what the plot would be like (very much like the summaries I used to write in sixth grade, when I didn’t understand what “summary” really meant and wound up just retelling the whole plot of the book).

    I love this way of brainstorming, because it really helps bring the whole picture together. For me, when it’s all down on paper, I can more easily see where things don’t connect, or if they sound goofier on paper than they did in my head, or any other manner of issues.

    Plus, plotting and brainstorming are two of my favorite parts of the writing process. I’m definitely more of a plotter than a pantser, and its during the plotting process when I do a large portion of the creative thinking to try to find ways for characters to resolve their issues in a meaningful way. Plus it’s fun to see where there are connections between themes or characters or subplots that I hadn’t noticed while it was all jumbled up in my head.

    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

    • Julie Mar 2 2015 at 12:36 pm #

      Oh my gosh, Katie, you and I use such similar methods! And, like you, I’m a big fan of plotting and brainstorming (not as fond of revising!) I really like the discovery process, though, for a lot of the same reasons you mention. Thanks so much for your comments!

  2. Marianne Sippel Mar 2 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    That’s how I wrote research papers and post-grad assignments. With fiction, however, writing by the seat of my pants has been more productive. The stories, seemingly, take on a life of their own and characters show ME who they are…just saying…organization is swell but doesn’t necessarily work for everyone as you mentioned.

    • Julie Mar 2 2015 at 3:33 pm #

      Hi Marianne! I completely agree that not all methods work for all writers. So glad to hear that you’ve discovered a method that works well for you. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Abby Mar 3 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    I definitely do something very similar to this, but in a notebook that becomes my bible for the story. I collect images, character profiles, scene ideas, song titles, plotlines, you name it, and I keep going back to it as I collect more ideas. I also do a lot of free writing about my “ideal” for the story: what do I want this book to look like in my head?

    The other thing that I’ve discovered I have to figure out before I get too far into the story is the narrator’s voice. I’ve rewritten so many first chapters and beginnings while trying to nail down an engaging, true voice. I always stall out before too long if I haven’t found the voice, and once I’ve figured it out, that also helps generate even more ideas.

    Thanks for sharing your process!

    • Julie Mar 3 2015 at 4:16 pm #

      Hi Abby! I love what you say about your habit of free writing about your “ideal” for the story. This is such a great idea; I think it may be something I want to try. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thank for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Susan Mar 4 2015 at 9:03 am #

    LOVE this post. Love it. Some of these steps I actually follow too, but some are totally new. Can’t wait to try!!

    • Julie Mar 4 2015 at 9:17 am #

      Hi Susan! I’m so glad you like the post! It’s interesting that our processes overlap a bit. (I’d love to learn the rest of your process… :D) Let me know if this works for you! Thanks for commenting!

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