Writing Tips & Tools

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lesson 34: Brainstorming

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section THREE: Brainstorming.

Did you ever hear a premise, snap your fingers, and think to yourself, "Now, that is a great idea for a story!" Or maybe you thought, "Boy, I wish I had thought of that one myself!"

Some ideas are like that: They immediately engage. They are naturals. Right away the story begins to write itself in your head. You can see what will happen first and exactly how it will go after that. Strangely, although the story already is familiar, so much so that you have begun to appropriate it, your feeling is not "How common," but "How original!"

What causes that reaction? Why is it that although there are no new stories, some ideas nevertheless feel fresh? I believe that there are several qualities that can invoke that feeling.

First is the surprising new twist on an old idea. Take the murder mystery: The essential story is the same every time. Someone is killed, and a detective figures out who did it. So familiar is this formula that it is frequently reduced to "who-dunit".

Every working novelist must come up with ideas, but beyond the premise, it is developed by brainstorming to develop it into a full-fledged plot. The key to keeping a novel lively and surprising is remembering the principle of reversal. When mapping out a scene, toss your first choices and go the opposite way. Why? First choices tend to be the safest, and most predictable.

Mostly, though, originality is within everyone's reach. Practice the techniques of brainstorming: new twists on old ideas, combining stories, gut emotional appeal, and reversing the expected. These techniques will steer you to some challenging, and definitely interesting, choices for your story.

Step 1: Pick a time and a place. Pick a problem...Brainstorm!

Step 2: Every time you write down an idea, reverse it. Go the opposite way. See where it takes you.

Note: The best villain is often less obvious; someone who is, say, connected to the hero in a personal way. A better choice than "senator" is almost always, "the hero's mentor." You see? It takes work to make that person a credible antagonist, but the conflict between hero and villain is a;already more complex because of their prior alliance.

Go through your folder of story ideas. Pick a check mark on those that offer a new twist to an old idea, or that have gut emotional appeal. Try combining ideas. Also try turning them upside down and inside out. Reverse them. See what happens!

Conclusion: Whatever you do, push your premise and plotlines further. Do not be satisfied with just a good story. Be satisfied with a story that is original, gut grabbing, unexpected, layered, and complex. In other words, stop working only when your story is great. How will you know? It will take longer than you think. Keep pushing!


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