Brainstorming: The First Step to Writing When You Don't Know What to Write

Brainstorming: The First Step to Writing When You Don't Know What to Write

A Lesson by Fae

This lesson will teach you the first step of writing from nothing, of course if you already have ideas you may want to skip this lesson. These practices are all used by me and come from personal experience. I use Theme, Characterization and Setting to help me begin writing.


Ideas are the fundamental building blocks of any writing piece. Without them you have no idea what your story will be about, the message it will convey, or how to form any description about it. The bottom line is that your story will go nowhere without concise ideas to start.

Of course you can always have a vague idea to begin with and if you start to write it feeds itself and becomes something great, but more often than not this is not the case. As I can attest, if you write with only a vague idea and have your mind set on writing a book, you'll barely get past the first chapter.

The way I see it, a piece of writing uses three main elements to make a great story: Theme, Characters and Setting. To brainstorm, you can take one of these and let the other two come in accordingly.

So here's how to form some great ideas that your story will stem off of:

1. Theme. An easy way to start is to pick a theme. If you want to center your story around a specific event, time period or person you can come up a theme and keep all of your brainstorming inside a smaller and more organized umbrella. It is easier for some people to not have the whole world open to them while brainstorming, so limit yourself with a theme. What will your theme be? 

The thing to do is ask yourself what you are most interested in. Is it the future? The past? Fantasy, a world that only exists in your imagination? Science fiction? Non-fiction? History? Creatures which are not human? 
The possibilities are endless, you just have to come up with something that you enjoy writing about and are interested in.

The next thing to do once you have picked your theme is to start asking all the difficult questions within it. Say your theme is the future, now you start to think, how far in the future will I go? Where will the human race be in 100 years? Are we running out of water? Has Global Warming continued? Who is in power, what is our government like? Are we controlled? Have we discovered another place to live or another race altogether? What technological advances have we made? Are we even dealing with 'us' here? Maybe you don't want to talk about humans.

As you begin to construct this entire futuristic world, you will start to place people in it too: Characters. What do they look like? Are they happy? What economic state are they in? What do they wear? What is a typical day for them? Is there something they don't know? What do they want to do?

As you ask yourself about your characters, you construct their personalities. For there to be a conflict, a climax in the plot one of these characters, or the environment they live in will have to provide a challenge, something to overcome and hopefully resolve. Maybe the word gets out that the government is using censorship to control the people. Maybe an epidemic in illness causes most of the human race to become infected.

Ultimately, you have to make a situation where a character is unhappy enough to change something around them, and this will be your plot.

2. Characterization. Another way to make a story line is to come up with the characters first and later place them into an appropriate setting. Making characters is a difficult thing. It's easy to make them ridiculous and unbelievable, even if you are writing science fiction. The easiest way to make characters is to base certain characteristics off of people you know, or speculations about people. You can combine them to make a character people will relate to. 

Now, there will probably be multiple characters in your story, and they will be divided into two distinct groups: stock and unique. 

With both types, there are different approaches to characterization. Characterization refers to character development through appearance of the character, the character's actions,the character's thoughts, the characters dialogue, and people's reaction to the character.

Unique characters are usually the ones we remember. They are usually very opinionated and have something distinct about them which sets them apart from other people. This can range from appearance to the way they think. They are usually unpredictable and very deeply described in all aspects of characterization since they are commonly arcane. The main character/characters are usually unique, since unique characters are more relatable and interesting to read about, or from the point of view of.

Some examples of unique characters are Katniss (The Hunger Games), Harry Potter (Harry Potter Series), Jim Williams (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), The Giver (The Giver), Lenny (Of Mice and Men), Eragon (Eragon Series), and Kate De Vries (Airborn, Skybreaker, can't remember the others...). 

Stock Characters are usually the ones that blend into the background and provide supporting roles. They are still very important in a book, and can still teach us little lessons and provide little moral dilemmas, like Neville (Harry Potter Series). They are usual average looking and think in the same way as everyone else and rarely remembered. Their actions are usually predictable and they fit in easily with stereotypes. Sometimes stock characters are not even named.

Some stock character examples are a damsel in distress, a mad doctor, a drug addict, I can't even remember the names of some stock characters I can think just goes to show what I've explained above.

Now to construct a character is a very difficult business, but they are the bones of the story. It is important that your main character is memorable and has a personality. You have to know them inside out, and be able to let make decisions based on their way of thought. I have even heard of writers who are so good at characterization that while constructing a scene, they have the character come to them and say 'I wouldn't say that here' or something similar. That's the level I want you to achieve. 

I find it easiest to make your main character first, especially if they will be your narrator. You can take things you've noticed from other people to construct them, I usually use a a lot of things I've learned about myself in all my characters. Sometimes only certain things will come to you about characters. Sometimes you know exactly what they look like, but don't know how they would act in public. You just have to milk it until everything comes to you. 

Another exercise is to make a stock character in appearance, but then have an extremely colourful personality. The deceptiveness is confusing to people and makes them all the more unique. This approach rarely works in reverse, when a person has a very strange appearance and way of being, but a very stereotypical/stock personality. 

Something that I like to do is people watch. You can look at strangers and use their physical appearance and clothes to make inferences about their entire character. You can stay surface deep with descriptions to make them stock, or go deeper to make them unique. I really love looking at people on the bus stop. Why do they have to take the bus? Where are they going? Who do they miss? How does this ride fit into their day?

After you have made a character you can fit them into their routine and pick a unique setting where you think they would live. A climax will probably emerge from a disruption in their day to day life, or a change in setting or lifestyle.

3. Setting. The final way I know of to brainstorm is with setting as a first step. I rarely use setting first, since setting is never a major feature in my writing, but it works for some. You have to think of a specific place that your story will take place in. It could be a specific city or town, or it could just be a landscape or appropriate environment. It could be a totally made up world, or it could be a world from the past or the future. The setting is very similar to a theme, but you focus intensely on the small details of the place where your character lives. This could be their house, or their entire society. 

You may want to do some research into the type of setting you want. If it's Victorian England, then the class system will come into play. Learn a lot about transportation at that time, what people did for fun and their day to day lives. Later you can pick characters to fit into the world you have created. Maybe they were a prince, but they were driven out of house and home since they eloped, and now they are left with nothing; living in the slums. 

The important thing to remember when creating a setting is to remember that everything must have a purpose and a reaction to make your story seem realistic. An event without an explanation is useless. Maybe your world has no oxygen, but how can humans live there? It's these how questions that make the details of your story interesting. Maybe people are forced to carry an oxygen tank everywhere they go, causing back problems early on in their life, and making life expectancy shorter. The reactions and explanations are important. If you can't explain it, take it out. 


And there you have it, the three ways which I use to brainstorm for story material. Of course there are variations which I will be speaking about in later lessons. I hope this helped you! Please comment on what I can do better, maybe what lessons you want to see. 

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Added on October 25, 2012
Last Updated on October 25, 2012

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