What is Brainstorming, Why is It Important, and 3 Methods to Pulling Ideas Out of That Magical Brain of Yours!

Ready to start writing a story, but don’t know where to begin?

Not sure how to weave your tale and get those mental gears moving?

Have you been sitting at the computer or notebook for hours now, and all you have to show is this lousy blank page?

Ugh, I’ve been there, too.

It sucks.

But how can we move forward in our writing?

Well, today I’m discussing brainstorming!

I’ll answer questions in this blog post such as: what it is, how do you do it, and why it’s important?

Whether you’re stuck amidst the writing, or trying to begin the process: brainstorming is a good place to start!

So what is brainstorming?

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is any activity where you collect a bunch of ideas for a project.

You might start brainstorming when you have a rough idea of what you want, or no idea at all!

That’s fine.

Brainstorming (in the context of writing a story) is essentially learning what your characters and worlds are all about.

Sometimes this can be going through your day and thinking of ideas.

Sometimes it’s sitting down and freewriting until an idea finally squeezes out of your brain.

Either way, it can take some time, but you’ll eventually get at least enough ideas to start writing.

And that’s all we’re going for right now: find pieces to start building a story.

So let’s talk about some ways we can do that.

How do you brainstorm?

There are many methods to brainstorming, but the main purpose comes down to asking the right questions.

Remember, you’re at the early stages of getting to know your story, you just need enough information to start putting something together.

A big part of writing is gathering, dumping, and refining ideas over and over again.

So let’s look at a few ways to start that process.

1. Stream of Consciousness/Freewriting/Brain Dump/Word Vomit

Whatever you call it, it’s all a similar process: write whatever comes to mind without stopping or filtering.

A couple of approaches to this method of brainstorming is:

  1. Having a page or word goal.
  2. Using a timer for a writing session.

There’re methods out there like “Morning Pages” or “750 Words” that can help with creating ideas, but you don’t have to follow any “designated” rules for brainstorming.

If your brainstorming session is just, “I want to fill out [insert number of pages or words] of ideas,” then that can be your goal.

Whether it’s one page or 1,000 words, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re collecting ideas.

It’s the same with timing your brainstorming sessions. There’re a couple of methods out there.

There’s the Pomodoro Technique to keep you on track, or the FlowTime Technique if you’re looking for only a little bit of structure.
But you can also just set an alarm for 5 minutes and write.

Just get as many ideas down on paper or a screen and stop when time’s up.

Or if you just want to know how long it takes you to write, say, a single page of brainstorming, use a stopwatch. I recommend doing this if you’re following the FlowTime Technique.

I use this website for all my timing needs.

So, moving forward, your brainstorming doesn’t need to be neat or chronological either.

For example, if you’re brainstorming the beginning of your story, and you realize that something in the beginning could be relevant later, write that down!

Put it in brackets, parenthesis, or something so you’ll notice it. Now you have another potentially important idea for later in the story.

Always save ideas in case you can find a use for them.

Now, if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas even with freewriting, I have a post with 20 prompt generators to help move you along.

2. Drawing a Rough Map

I use this method to outline as well, and I’ll talk more about it in next week’s outlining blog post.

Basically, you’re drawing a rough map (you can make it detailed later if you want) of where your story takes place, and then take notes on where they’ll be and what they’ll do within that map.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, rooms and buildings can be simple squares or other shapes.

You’ll wanna keep it simple at first. If you had to redraw a complicated map because it doesn’t fit the story anymore, that’d be a lot of unnecessary work.

When brainstorming with a map, you’ll want some sticky notes or a spare piece of paper to take notes.

I like sticky notes because I can put them in the area the character is doing stuff, but a spare piece of paper is good for when you’re getting all your ideas down.

The map method works for me because I can visually see where the character’s going, where they could go next, and write down what they’ll do in those places.

It’s easier for me to see a scene play out.

Here’s a quick map I made in MS Paint:

Now, along with the map, I could write the following as notes either on sticky notes or a separate piece of paper:

“Okay, so the thief enters the back door of this bakery, but doesn’t know where the owner might be.”

“They see a plate of muffins sitting on the counter, and they grab one.”

“They hear noises coming from the back door they just entered.”

“Worried that it’s somehow the baker, they panic run towards the basement.”

“They close the door as swiftly and softly as they can.”

“When they don’t hear any footsteps or doors opening/closing, they relax and reach for the doorknob.”

“But suddenly, from behind, they hear the voice of the baker. They have flour hoisted on their shoulders.”

“The Thief runs away with the muffin in hand out the back door again. The voice of the baker still shouting and stomping after.”

By having this map, I could see a way to make all these events happen.

And there’re many ways you could have these events unfold.

Maybe the thief comes in through the front door and pretends to make an order, waits for the baker to grab something from the kitchen, and the thief takes this chance to steal some muffins from the case.

Or the thief could break in through a window in the basement, grab a muffin in the kitchen, the baker comes in from the back door after taking out the trash, and the thief runs past the baker and towards the front door.

Maybe it’s the middle of the night, and the thief doesn’t want a muffin. They want the super-secret muffin recipe in a safe in the basement.

You could do a lot with the map, and the options feel more obvious when you can see the entire scene.

The most important thing is that the map can help you ask questions.

But what kind of questions?

3. Asking Questions

If you already have some idea of what your story’s about (such as a thief obsessing over muffins in a bakery), then here are some questions you can ask yourself.

  • What are the character’s goals?
  • What do they need to accomplish them?
  • What will get in the way of their goals?

and so on, and so forth.

You could also fill out a good ol’ “who, what, why, where, and how” questionnaire for each character.

As an example, let’s go back to the bakery story again.

I gave a few examples of how the story could play out, and it’s not a bad idea to save each idea you have, but let’s start asking questions from the very beginning.

Who are we writing about?

  • The thief.
  • The Baker.

Let’s focus on the thief for this example.

So what could be some of the thief’s goals?

  • Stealing a muffin.
  • Stealing the muffin recipe.

Honestly, there are infinite possibilities here, but let’s focus on the muffin obsession.

Why do they have these goals:

  • Because they’re starving.
  • Because the muffins look tasty.
  • Because it’s thrilling to steal.
  • Because they hate the baker and want to exact their revenge.
  • Because they want to start their own bakery.
  • Because they want the muffins for a dying friend or family member.

How will they obtain these goals?

  • By quickly sneaking and snatching.
  • By covertly breaking in.
  • By an overly complicated plan filled with many hijinks, fake identities, and carrier pigeons.
  • By simply asking.

Where will these plans for their goals take place?

  • At the bakery.
  • At the baker’s house.

On a smaller scale inside the bakery:

  • The baked goods display of the bakery.
  • The kitchen.
  • The basement.

This is just an example, but the point is to get yourself asking questions about the world you’re creating.

If you feel inspired by the bakery story, go ahead and write it if you’d like.
And if you’re comfortable, then leave it in the comments below!

Whether you post it on your blog and link it or write it in the comments, I’d love to see what people come up with!

Regardless, these questions are to help you understand your story so you can help the reader understand.

It’s also always a great time to start poking holes in the story.

Like in the first scenario of the bakery story, I had the thief break in the back door and steal a muffin.

I was originally gonna have them eat the muffin in the basement, but that didn’t make sense.

‘Cause I know if I was stealing something, I’d want to get in and out quickly.

So I had to come up with a new reason to make the characters do what I want.

Now, the eating in the basement idea could work if the thief was an employee just slacking off.

Think about what you’re trying to convey, and try being somewhat critical of your story.

If you can’t think of a fix right away, just write the issue on a sticky note, in the margins, or in brackets.

That way you can get back to it later when you think of something.

Remember though, you don’t have to figure everything out now. You just need enough groundwork to start building a story.

And that’s part of the fun of brainstorming.

It’s just a bunch of unfiltered ideas thrown into a pile.

It can be frustrating, but it can also be freeing to not care if the idea is good or not.

It just needs to exist.

This leads me to my next point: why you should brainstorm.

Why is brainstorming important?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to write and had nothing to write about.

And even when I did have ideas, I didn’t know much about how I would go about it.

And I would freeze and feel frustrated.

Having a pile of ideas to sift through to build your story helps SO, SO much.

Even if it’s all garbage, and you end up deleting all of it, now you know what doesn’t work!

Plus, you can save all the unused ideas for another story.

The point is that it’s important to brainstorm so you can have a starting point.

So you can learn about your world without the pressure to make it perfect.

It gives you a ground to work with.

You don’t start building a house by building the second floor first.

You start from the foundation to the first floor to the second floor.

And then you start adding details, like walls and pipes and paint.

So before you go paint your walls, let’s build them first.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

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