Brainstorming Plot

WinR MK Johnston talks about brainstorming plots.

Two-thirds of Writers in Residence met last Wednesday to try something new – a brainstorming session to help one of us clarify plot points in a new novel. The one was me. I’d been struggling with the outline for the sequel to my first novel, A Petal In The Wind. I knew where to start and end the book, but I had too many ideas and not enough clarity to get me there.

Since it was the first time we tried to brainstorm, we free-formed the meeting. I’d been to brainstorming groups that had limited effectiveness, but the Wednesday session was extremely helpful to me. When I returned home, I thought about how it progressed, what worked and what didn’t, and why this was more successful than past efforts. I’ll share my thoughts with you.

I don’t believe brainstorming is the most effective way to stretch a germ of an idea into a full blown story. It can work, but when you ask people to take aim at a problem, it’s much easier to hit a specific target than scatter shots at the sky and hope something falls to earth. If a writer has the basic story fleshed out but is having trouble with some aspect of it – weak ending, sagging middle, critical scene – the chances of success are more likely than if the writer is vague about the premise or the problem.

If you’re in a critique group and would like to hold a brainstorming session, begin by having the writer clarify what she hopes to achieve. If she doesn’t understand where and why her story needs help, no one else will.

Open the discussion with a free exchange of ideas. Anything goes. Sometimes you have to get past the obvious, trite and just plain bad to get the creative juices running. The writer should listen and take notes; but shouldn’t interrupt the flow if she hears something she doesn’t like unless that thread is picked up by the others. Then she can simply say, “I don’t want to take my story in that direction”. That will alert the others to drop the idea and move on.

Allow around 20 but no more than 30 minutes for this part to avoid straying too far off-topic. The writer should have enough to work with by now, so take a brief break and let her digest what’s been said. She must settle on which ideas worked best for her vision of the story.

Once she’s decided, focus the brainstorming along that narrow path. Let her direct the conversation so she can get what she needs. If anyone has ideas outside the box, no matter how brilliant, hold them until the end or email them to her later.

If the writer can’t determine a direction by now, the session wasn’t successful. It could be that she wasn’t clear about what she wanted or needed, either in her own mind or in expressing it to the group. You might be able to salvage the session by having her explain why she rejected all of the suggestions, or if there were any ideas that might hold promise with further exploration.

Ultimately the key to successful brainstorming lies in the writer. She has to have some idea of a direction. Otherwise the best suggestions won’t help. It’s one thing to ask someone to dig up a potato from your garden. It’s another to plant a seed and expect others to grow it for you.

3 thoughts on “Brainstorming Plot”

  1. Our first Brainstorming session showed the value of having a fairly good idea what your story is about before you get too far along. Being too vague in your direction only allows the others to drive off in opposite directions.

    One of the most valuable aspects of these sessions is understanding the motivation of the main characters. If the character doesn't know why he or she is doing something, nobody else will.

    These sessions allow the writer to reevaluate the “why” in his or her character's motives. If you know where your character comes from, you will nail their actions and they will be believable.


  2. MIriam's having technical difficulties. This comment is from her:

    In answer to Kathryn Lilley's question, at first I got what I asked for – ways to make my convoluted plot work. But by the end of the session, I got what I needed and it had nothing to to with what I originally wanted.
    Whenever I submit a first draft for critiquing, the response is “we need more”. So I add more, but that doesn't work, either. Then I realize that I don't really need more, I need better. I thought my original plot wasn't dramatic enough, so I added a dramatic sub-plot to ramp up the tension. However, it began to take away from the heart of the story, which shined in the earlier, simpler version. All this came to me after the brainstorming session.
    Now I have refocused on the primary characters; their relationships will generate all the drama and tension I'll need to make the story work.

    MK Johnston


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