First of all, don’t get too hung up on the details. Don’t let your mind run away in panic at the sight of index cards, or whatever you use to plot. Treat this as a fun exercise — a different way to engage the other side of your brain. A new way to think of your story. You’re still going to write it YOUR way — this is just to help you get some ideas down.
Depending on your comfort level, grab some pens or pencils (I prefer colored pens), notepads, index cards, sticky notes, etc. For me, this is bonanza time. I love office supplies — I’ve been caught drooling in Staples — so I get to drag out all these cool supplies I’ve bought but hardly ever use. If you want to stick to paper and pen, cool. Personally, I can’t start right off with sticky notes — they cost too much and my brain can’t just let go and mess up. Index cards are cheap and I don’t mind blasting through a whole pack.
At this point, don’t make the process too analytical. This is brainstorming – fun. Just let your mind loose and write down any idea, no matter how crazy it is. You can always throw those wild ones out — but who knows, that may be exactly the right way to add surprise and make the story fresh. What we’re going to do is think of your story from several different directions. Like facets of a gem, each exercise will reveal a different layer of your story and/or characters. Some may work better for you, or for this story, than others. That’s cool. Again, don’t worry if you don’t get much from this particular exercise — a different one may work better for you.
Since there are a lot of different ways to get ideas, I’m going to break this post down into pieces. Today, we’ll play the What If Game.
All you need to begin is the original idea for your story, whether it was a character, a premise, etc. What was your original idea for the story? What gave you goose bumps? What made you determined to devote months of your life to this particular story in order to write, revise, polish, submit, and endure countless rejections just because the idea was that cool? This is definitely the place to start!
Now using all the research, character building, etc. that you’ve already completed, begin to generate ideas with the “what if” game. Jot them down, no matter how crazy. Expand on each idea. Don’t be afraid to take branches or paths that seem really strange or out there. You’re not committed to including any of this in your story. Just have fun!
Try to explore as deeply into the story line as possible. If you can’t see all the way to the end, that’s fine. Skip ahead if you can. If you’re writing a story with an antagonist, think of all the possible ways your protagonist can face them, either subtly or blatant showdown. If you’re writing romance, think of all the ways the hero and heroine can get together, get separated, fight, make love, etc. Some you will keep — some you won’t. Just generate ideas.
Example: I knew all along that Gifted is set on a rather risque cable channel “reality” show. That was the original idea. The more I thought about this, I got the following “ideas” that may or may not make it into the story:
- What if Shiloh took the main role on the show? Originally I was thinking a secondary character came up with the idea and Shiloh had a more passive role as a contestant. What if SHE came up the idea? Why would she devise this show in particular? ahhhhhhh. Lots of ideas came off this one.
- What if there’s a competing company? Victor’s worried about ratings.
- Ohhh, wait, not ratings — what if Victor’s worried about a leak? A spy within his company? This gives me a whole new subplot to carry through.
- I know Shiloh’s mother haunts her and has affected each and every relationship Shiloh has. What if the mother was dead, literally haunting her? Okay, this idea got scratched. Originally I was going to do a paranormal element to match Miss Belle in Dear Sir, I’m Yours, but the general consensus seems to be that the paranormal thread, albeit amusing at times, detracted from the main story too much. So no ghost, I promise, unless Miss Belle and Colonel Healy show up on page.
The “What if” game is one of my favorite ways to expand the original premise. Each time you get a new idea, jot it on the index card, or make a new bullet on your paper, whatever works for you. Some of this will end up in the recycling bin — but that’s okay. For now, don’t throw any idea away, no matter how stupid it seems, although you might make a pile of the “best” ideas for the other exercises. Keep the “other” ideas handy just in case.
Next, we’ll use character to continue brainstorming.