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The Science of Story Ideas: How to Awaken Your Brain's Creative Superpowers

The brain is not only designed to think, it loves to think—and here are seven writing superpowers you already have under your thinking cap.

The brain is not only designed to think, it loves to think—and there are specific ways you can summon and maximize your brain’s ingenuity to generate better story ideas. Here are seven superpowers you already have under your thinking cap.

Your brain is capable of many things. Many of these things you likely take for granted because they happen at an unconscious level or because they’ve become so ingrained in how you function that you’ve lost awareness of what it took to get to this phase and any effort you have invested. Still, your brain is very active behind the scenes, and in terms of preparing to write, one of its most important capabilities is cognitive processing.


This article is excerpted from FIRE UP YOUR WRITING BRAIN by Susan Reynolds (WD Books, 2015).


The brain is not only designed to think, it loves to think—and there are specific ways you can summon and maximize your brain’s ingenuity. Let’s begin by clarifying the various abilities and functions the brain performs, and how each will serve your writing.

1. Perception

Your brain recognizes and interprets sensory stimuli (what you taste, touch, smell, feel, hear, see, intuit, and so on). Just think of how much “raw material” this function contributes! The more your magnificent brain perceives at a minute level, the better you’ll be able to write fabulous scenes. Luckily you can both train your brain to be even more perceptive and you can enlarge your hippocampus, where all those lovely memories are processed, just waiting for you to call them up when needed.

2. Attention

Your brain has the ability to sustain concentration on a particular object, action, or thought. It also has the ability to manage competing demands in your environment. The more you train your brain to focus, and to sustain said focus, the stronger these skills will become. Remember to limit distractions when sharp focus is required—and to tackle one task at a time. Truly dedicate yourself—and all the brainpower you possess—to the task at hand, such as plotting your novel, and your brain will take your quest seriously and “serve up” gems.

3. Short- and Long-Term Memory

Your brain is capable of juggling short-term/working memory with limited storage (it helps you juggle ideas and information while working—but usually only about seven pieces of information at once), and long-term memory with unlimited storage (that you can call upon when writing scenes and characterizations culled from your own experiences, from stories you’ve read in the past, or from your imagination). Obviously we have to call on our memory in every level of writing; it’s crucial to our ability to craft stories, empathize with characters, and re-create events to illustrate emotional truths.

Memories don’t become long-term unless you purposefully assign them importance or generate enough sustained neuronal involvement for the hippocampus to know these are memories you wish to store. Writing or speaking about memories helps your brain assign them meaning.

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4. Motor Skills

Your brain coordinates the ability to move your muscles and body, and to handle objects. It’s the smooth coordination of motor skills that leads to facile typing. Motor skills are also imperative for walking and exercising—essential to keeping oxygen and blood flowing to your
brain. I’m so glad I learned to type while in high school, and if you’re a “hunt and peck” typist, it may behoove you to bolster your typing skills.

I am known, within my writing circle, for saying that whatever “genius” I have for writing flows from my fingertips, because when thoughts are flowing, my ego leaves the room, and my fingers fly over the keyboard (seemingly with little interference from my brain). It’s when I do my best writing.

5. Language Skills

Your brain’s facility for language allows you to translate sounds into words and generate verbal output. With writers, these functions may be—or will become—more highly developed than people who don’t write on a regular basis. Reading and playing word games are fun ways to bolster these skills. To bolster your brainpower, don’t take your verbal skills for granted. Find ways to challenge your brain—read and analyze works that require massive concentration or engage in wordplay that requires you to think creatively.

However, be aware that skills might not transfer—building a better vocabulary won’t help you use those words appropriately unless you train your grammar centers, too! By the way, it can be beneficial to your writing to review grammar principles occasionally. Books about grammar often hold many useful suggestions, such as limiting adverbs and adjectives, and writing in active rather than passive voice.

6. Visual and Spatial Processing

Your brain has the ability to process incoming visual stimuli and to recognize the spatial relationship between objects. This ability also includes visualizing or imagining images and scenarios, which is crucial to being able to craft stories. This internal “GPS” helps you remember what certain settings looked like and how people moved within the scene. This also has some effect on how you combine words, though most of that will happen on an unconscious plane.

7. Executive Functioning

Your brain is capable of high-level cognitive processing, commonly called “executive functioning,” as it involves the “thinking” functions that allow you to accomplish goal-oriented behavior, such as the ability to generate and recognize story ideas, organize your thoughts in terms of all the elements of storytelling (plot, characters, setting, theme, tone, scene creation, etc.), create a game plan for completion, and do what it takes to reach your chosen goal. Without these functions, you’d never be able to write anything cohesive, much less a novel. The specific abilities involved in executive processing include the following:

  • FLEXIBILITY: the capac ity for quickly switch ing to the appro priate men tal mode; from resting to “fight or flight” would be the most dramatic representation.
  • THEORY OF MIND: the ability to possess insight into other people’s inner world, their thoughts, their likes and dislikes, their behavior. It also allows for introspection. It is the part of our brain that allows us to think about our self: our mind separate from our brain.
  • ANTICIPATION: the ability to make predictions based on pattern recognition, what’s worked or hasn’t worked in the past, in specific or familiar situations. Anticipating pleasure has been shown to be a reward in itself (more on this later).
  • PROBLEM SOLVING: the ability to define the problem in a way that allows us to gen erate solutions and (often spontaneously and instantaneously) choose the right solution for the problem. Obviously this task is crucial to the process of writing, when you are constantly solving minor—and major—problems related to crafting the story.
  • DECISION MAKING: the ability to make decisions based on problem solving, even when dealing with incomplete information and emotions (ours and those of others).
  • WORKING MEMORY: the capacity to hold and manipulate information in our mind, in real time, which is essential to the ability to write stories. It allows you to hold thoughts about what you’ve just written, while mining your long-term memory for more input related to what you’re writing. This happens both unconsciously and consciously.
  • EMOTIONAL SELF-REGULATION: the ability to identify and manage one’s own emo tions for optimum performance. This is a very important function, as it helps you set aside distracting emotions long enough to stay focused on your goal—and writing.
  • SEQUENCING: the ability to break down complex actions into manageable units and prioritize them in an effective manner. Much of this is done unconsciously, but you can choose to do it consciously simply by mimicking how your brain sequences when making a plan about how you’re going to execute a task (such as writing a novel or screenplay, or even crafting a scene). Just break down the steps and proceed to address each task in a sequential manner.
  • INHIBITION: the ability to withstand distraction and internal urges. Learning to consciously use this skill improves the ability to meet goals. This, of course, has everything to do with your ability to concentrate, and it’s a “muscle” you can develop over time.
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