How to go from Brainstoming to Story Building

Got words on a page? You do? Well, that qualifies you as a writer with ideas.

The writer’s game drives me a bit nuts at present because the available advice is mostly about overcoming writer’s block and finding inspiration. Even in guides by seasoned, professional authors, you’ll find more about overcoming resistance than about their actual writing process.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any more damn inspiration! I’ve got ideas for fiction stories, three memoirs, a one-act play, more travel articles than I can count, and a series of writing guides bursting out of my brain.

Screw the writing prompts and timed free writing exercises. What I need and what you probably need are useful tools to help structure the ideas you already have on paper. Even if you’ve only got a sentence written down it proves your ideas are bubbling to the surface.

Now what?

You’re well past high school and/or college English lectures, but probably didn’t retain everything from your school days. Do you crack open those old textbooks and try to regain some insight on the 5 paragraph essay and the present perfect tense?

No? I didn’t think so.

Even as a high school English teacher, I have to admit I would scribble tried and true advice in the margins of papers like “Show, Don’t Tell” or “Use Active Voice” without actually describing how a student could do those things. Shame on me! And as a writer today, you may be hearing that same guidance from well meaning critique groups or editors. That stops here.

It’s my goal to break down all the different nuances of the writing process. From brainstorming beginnings to a finished, publishable work, I aim to get us all on the right (write) track!  

In my last blog post I described how you could develop a daily writing practice. Now, let’s take all those bits and pieces floating around your house or in your Smartphone and start to structure them.

Back in 2013, I was working with LGBT youth when I met and started mentoring Bobby. Bobby loved all things Disney. And who was I fooling, he was the great teacher, not me. He introduced me to a style of brainstorming used by Disney Imagineers called the Blue Sky Process.

I’ll give you the gist. The goal is to not limit your ideas. Think: the sky’s the limit.

I’ll add to it:

  • Convince yourself that nothing’s off the table. Write down anything you think or feel, no matter how unworthy or bizarre it seems.

  • Writing is fine, so is doodling, coloring, and graphs. Use any method to get your ideas down.

  • Going solo works well as does a multi-person brainstorming session.

  • Walking away when you get tired can actually be effective. Go take a nap. That time between sleep and wakefulness can be the catalyst for some of your best ideas.

Start with this open-ended brainstorm and don’t stop yourself.

At some point you’ll be ready to move that material into a structure. I can’t tell you what kind of story you should write, but let the material speak to you. While I never fancied myself much for fiction writing—I like real life stuff—some ideas are just better placed within the confines of a fiction story.

For instance, I had a bullfighter continue to show up in my brainstorming sessions. No matter what I wrote, he wouldn’t let go of me. I could tell that he was a perfect metaphor to describe the macabre and grotesque in life. He didn’t belong in my memoir, so he wound up as the protagonist of a short story.

This happened again when I started working for the airlines and was so broke I worried about running out of food! A married couple materialized—they were poor farmers in a post-apocalyptic place after all their crops had died and they were starving. Despite never envisioning myself as a playwright, I came up with a one-act play about them. I had studied the play format again and again as a theatre student. It fit. And the play nearly wrote itself.  

After I brainstorm, that material gets thrown into one of two "buckets." Then I break them down into more specific genres. You can do this, too.

Here’s an example:

Real Life Stuff About Me

(non-fiction)

  • Short personal essays for magazine articles

  • Travel writing pieces

  • Book length Memoirs

  • Interesting anecdotes to add to my biography & blog posts

Big, Shiny Images & Metaphors That Are Not About My Real Life

(fiction)

  • Short stories

  • Plays

  • Erotica

  • Mysteries

  • Historical fiction—places I’ve travel where I want to incorporate elements of history, but still have enough wiggle room to write without limitations.

In upcoming blog posts, we will be tackling some tedious revision techniques.

For now, start to categorize your writing.

Ask yourself some guiding questions:

  • Is this my personal experience or am I trying to say something bigger about the world around me?

  • Do I use the first person point of view? For instance, do I use “I” when I’m describing the scene? Or does this story feel more like it should be told from someone else’s perspective?

  • Is there a vivid and glaring, large-than-life place, character, metaphor, etc. that keeps showing up in my brainstorming? Is it something that works more on a subconscious level that I don’t know much about, e. g. a bullfighter, a giant egg, a turn of the century vampire, etc.?