How to Brainstorm: Give Your Brain Free Rein

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It's a new year, and the perfect time to recommit yourself to your writing life. Whether you're still working on your same project, or just opening a fresh notebook or Word document to start a new one, it can be intimidating when you hit a mental block. And that means it's always a good time to do a little brainstorming about your project—even if that's a word that you (like myself) might dread.

Fire Up Your Writing Brain

Below is an excerpt from Susan Reynolds' Fire Up Your Writing Brain, a comprehensive guide for keeping your brain firing on all cylinders at every stage of the writing process. The book will help you identify the type of writer you are, develop writing models that accelerate your learning curve, hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity, learn to edit your manuscript on both a macro and micro level, recharge a lagging brain to gain an extra burst of creativity, and more. This particular passage will talk about specific things you can brainstorm about for your writing, and how to kick off the brainstorming process.

We’ve all heard about brainstorming, and we’ve likely all used it, typically when writing essays and reports in school. You likely had a teacher who showed you how to write down the central idea and then create balloons as offshoots to brainstorm ideas for flushing out, illustrating, or refuting the central idea. It may also spark creativity if you incorporate color and use curved or artistic lines from the primary balloon to the offshoots. Using pictures you found in magazines or that you sketch yourself may also spur ideas. This sort of mind mapping exercise (you can find lots of images online) may feel cliché, but, in fact, it remains effective.

But it’s also true a brainstorm occurs when massive amounts of stimulation (you providing input) produce a tightly woven web of neurons that can be ignited to make writing go well. One way to create a brainstorm and fire up your writing brain is to sit down with pen and paper and start generating as many ideas as you think of related to the story you want to tell.

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Gather Your Brainstorming Tools

First, focus your mind and your brain on what you’re going to write and about—and why you are eager to make a massive brain investment in completing the work. When you make clear your intentions, your brain is ripe for the sort of brainstorming that results in plot, characters, theme, structure, setting, and whatever else you need to contemplate to get this story on paper. There are a number of software programs you could use to facilitate this process (and plenty of writers like them), but there’s scientific evidence that the old-fashioned way—writing with pen and paper—taps into slow thinking, which is beneficial at this stage.

Spiral sketchbooks with big, white, blank pages—with texture and space—can be very appealing to your senses and can leave your brain feeling like it has plenty of space to roam; that is, it can fill those spaces with brilliant ideas. Some, like me, prefer blue ink pens with a fine-tip point that lets the words flow across those big, white, blank spaces. Many writers have always loved pen and paper and probably still enjoy spending time in stationary stores (lucky you, if there’s still one near you) selecting paper and pens.

Go on an Artist Date

Julia Cameron, author of thirty books on creativity, developed the idea of going on “an artist date.” This doesn’t mean you go out with another artist, it means you take the artist in you somewhere special, choosing an activity that stimulates your creativity by bringing your artistic self pleasure—examples would be a luxurious day spent exploring a museum or writing at the New York Public Library. Pilgrimages to the homes of famous writers and attending readings are often inspirational. Some writers love running their hands and eyes over handcrafted papers, leather journals, or delighting over writing accouterments (mini typewriters, plumed pens, paperweights), admiring items that appeal purely to their sense of touch and beauty—and somehow speak to their writing ambitions. If you adore old-fashioned pens and fancy an expensive one, spend a few hours selecting and then gifting yourself the writing tools you deserve—in this way rewarding your creativity. Cameron’s books on the creative process are full of ideas. Some of my other favorites include The Right to Write and The Vein of Gold.

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Create the Time and Space for Brainstorming

Once you’re ready to fire up your brain, begin wherever you have the most heat, the element that has been driving you to write this particular story, that keeps it in the forefront of your mind, whether it’s a compelling situation, a particularly fascinating character, a dramatic and overarching theme, or the climactic and memorable ending. Give yourself at least a two-hour block of uninterrupted time to do nothing more than focus on the expansion of your primary idea. To write a novel, you need an idea that will keep your brain engaged and that can sustain the kind of depth that makes novels and longer works of art necessary, but these ideas often start small and expand as the writer works her magic.

Break it Down and Be Specific

Write down the inciting thought (what attracted your brain to this particular character, situation, or story) and then branch off from there, jotting down any ideas that arise. Don’t overthink, just let the thoughts flow, and write down anything that pops in. I suggest starting with the big picture items, such as the basic premise, theme, main characters (and their relationship to each other), and the genre, and giving each one a full page for an expansion of ideas. Big picture elements to break down include the following:

  • Basic Premise: What is the story about? What happens? What does it prove, or at least illustrate? Why is telling it important? What’s unique about your angle?
  • Theme: Once you have clarified your premise, brainstorm related ideas, extensions, and contradictions. What is the primary message you want to convey in writing this particular story? Which elements (the setting, point of view, the antagonist, the plot and subplot, etc.) will elucidate, amplify, or contradict the theme? What offshoots or subplots are possible?
  • Style/Genre/Tone: Will it be a comedy or a tragedy? Will it be a young adult novel or a high concept thriller? Will it take place in contemporary times or be historical? Will it be told in first person or third person, subjective, with multiple points-of-view, or only one? No need to narrow it down, but do think about it as your brain may serve up a lovely surprise when you do. This is when you might also decide that your novel or prose poem might work better as a screenplay.

[How to Increase Your Writing Creativity by Doing Nothing]

  • Protagonist/Main Character/Hero: Who will be the primary character, the one who propels the story forward? Create a list of this person’s characteristics relevant to what happens in the story. What will serve your protagonist, and what will hamper or sabotage his progression? What is his primary dilemma? What will make the hero unique and unforgettable?
  • Antagonist/Supporting Character/Villain: Who will thwart your hero’s efforts at every turn? Create a list of the villain’s characteristics relevant to the story. What will make this person the perfect foil for your hero? Note: Sometimes the antagonist is the protagonist’s own personality or character failings, such as his inner conflict, a drug addiction, or cowardice.
  • The Ending: What happens as a result of what your protagonist does to overcome his challenges? Knowing how your story ends will not only provide lots of ideas and color everything that happens within the story, it will provide the impetus to write.

At this point, keep asking yourself what the story is about and what needs to happen. Concentrate on the broader aspects, but write down any subplots, characters, or scene ideas that occur—and they will. Avoid falling too deeply into one aspect, as doing so may deflect you from creating the broader strokes. When the session feels complete, tuck all the pages away and think about something else. Do, however, thank your brain for being brilliant—and reward it with a glass of wine, a hot bath, or a piece of chocolate perfection.

Susan Reynolds has authored or edited more than forty-five nonfiction and fiction books. Recently, she co-authored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, Train Your Brain to Get Rich, Healthiest You Ever, and Meditation for Moms. She has also authored Everything Enneagram, and was the creator and editor of Adams Media’s My Hero series, which includes My Teacher Is My Hero (2008), My Mom Is My Hero (2009), My Dad Is My Hero (2009), and My Dog Is My Hero (2010). She also edited Woodstock Revisited, 50 far out, groovy, peace-inducing, flashback-inducing stories from those who were there (2009). Ms. Reynolds has a B.A. in Psychology and has often written about psychological concepts, including a blog for In pursuit of her own happiness, Ms. Reynolds uprooted her life and spent a year in Paris, reinventing herself and her career trajectory. Upon return, she founded Literary Cottage, a literary consulting firm based in Boston, through which she edits and coaches other writers in pursuit of happiness through publishing. She is also currently editor of GRAND Magazine, and serves as a judge for Writer’s Digest’s annual writing contests.

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