Kick-start my brain!
June 21, 2006 3:30 AM   Subscribe

How do you kick-start creative brainstorming?

I have a little time on my hands at the moment, and I want to get brainstorming on short-story and novel ideas. I've never been all that good at this part of the creative process, my stories normally arise from random stimuli like magazine articles, MeFi etc. But a lot of writers I've read and/or worked with say to me that the imagination is a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the more you'll come up with.

So what techniques, skills, habits, software or other methods do you use to get on a creative roll? I'm not looking for a magic creative bullet here that'll give me a hundred great ideas for a book, just something that'll help me do some mental 'reps' and spark off a few ideas.

One thing, I'd rather avoid those cheesy idea generator websites, where you auto-generate a person/situation/outcome and have to come up with a story. Anything else is cool though...
posted by Happy Dave to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My only "trick" is giving myself permission to come up with wretchedly bad ideas without judging myself. I just start writing down whatever comes to me, and it's usually pretty bad, which is okay. After a while, I have a page half-filled with bad ideas, and a few okay ones. By that time I'm rolling.
posted by ROTFL at 3:38 AM on June 21, 2006

you might check out the idea generation techniques described here
posted by gage at 4:09 AM on June 21, 2006

Sketch or write on anything lying around. Does that piece of paper have some blank space? Draw on it! Write on it!

Don't try and do anything too complicated. Just a quick doodle or a line that's funny.

That, or get yourself a whiteboard.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 4:12 AM on June 21, 2006

I have a theory that my best ideas come from cross-pollination (so to speak) between different pieces of information, so I try to read a wide variety of stuff (history, science writing, etc.) in the hopes that some combination of ideas will spark a story.

I've never been great at just sitting down and brainstorming so this thread will hopefully help me too.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:49 AM on June 21, 2006

Here's a simple technique my Dad taught me when I was a kid: gather, screen & arrange. First, just write down anything that comes to mind in the order it comes to you. No filters at all, don't bother judging if it's good enough to put down. If it comes to you, that's good enough. Then when you have enough ideas, start to cross off ones that aren't so hot or didn't cascade into other ideas. Finally when you've narrowed the field enough, put the remaining ideas into an orderly structure, either by rank of usefulness or order of presentation depending on what your objective is. Simple but effective.
posted by scalefree at 5:06 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Before you do any conscious brainstorming, the first thing you do is research. Whenever you're coming up dry, it's because you haven't done enough research. Research, research, research, until you have an idea which makes the hair on the back of your neck go up. At that point, brainstorm.

I'm a big believer on tools. My tools are:

research:, DEVONAgent, DEVONThink

brainstorming: Novamind, blank sheet of paper, notebook

Outlining: OmniOutliner Pro

Writing: Any decent wordprocessor
posted by unSane at 5:35 AM on June 21, 2006

Some people think Dr. Edward de Bono's work on creative thinking techniques is quite useful. But there are lots of opinions concerning de Bono, and some think his methods are quite mechanistic. Still, if you're having trouble getting your muse to alight long enough to be helpful, you could do worse than something as admittedly procedural as Six Hats.
posted by paulsc at 5:40 AM on June 21, 2006

Think about your friends that are more successful than you. Think about the girl in high school whose mother thought you weren't good enough. Think about impending death. And fight back.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:50 AM on June 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Stop thinking. Start writing. Sit down with your notebook, lap top, whatever, and just start working. Don't worry too much about content - essentially what you're doing is clearing brush. Need a structure? Keep asking yourself "What if?" over and over again. Pursue any idea that feels interesting to you and write "around" it, filling in gaps until it starts to flesh itself out. There, you've got an idea.

Now chase down whatever research you need to do to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge and then write the story.

Can't get started at all? See StickyCarpet's excellent post above. It's a good kick in the pants.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 6:10 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

The two techniques that work best for me are freewriting and mind-mapping (with something like Freemind). I sometimes have trouble getting myself to do these because they feel stupid at first but...they ALWAYS work.
posted by underwater at 7:11 AM on June 21, 2006

The book The Artist's Way advocates a strategy of "morning pages," where you just sit and freewrite for 30 minutes every morning. Nothing very useful ever comes out of these pages for me, but I find during the times when I do them -- just writing about work, worries, errands, any crap that's cluttering up my headspace -- my brain comes up with a ton of creative ideas at other times of the day.

This is probably related to the Getting Things Done idea of "closing the loop," i.e. that small, unfinished tasks which haven't been written down and prioritized take up a lot of mental energy and make us less productive. Somehow, writing about the fact that I need to pick up the dry cleaning and buy a birthday card for my Mom closes the loop for me, and allows my subconscious to cogitate on creative, imaginitive ideas rather than all the obligations I might be forgetting.
posted by junkbox at 7:36 AM on June 21, 2006

A friend of mine used to write a short story every day based on a clue she read in a crossword puzzle. There are enough strange short snippets of text and ideas that something would trigger her imagination. It's the routine that helps too. Once a day, come up with an idea, write the story and wrap it up - all in one sitting.
posted by fcain at 7:46 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

i read up on the latest ideas and articles and think "how do i adapt that idea to a different industry"?

f'rinstance- someone asks a question about "how do I brainstorm"? I'll think "maybe there is a need out there for a good book on how to brainstorm"?

then i morph the ideas like putty and change them and combine them with other ideas until they make sense.

works for me.
posted by Izzmeister at 8:36 AM on June 21, 2006

I also visit sities like Idea a Day to help juice up my brain cells.
posted by Izzmeister at 8:37 AM on June 21, 2006

Best answer: I. Try The MetaFilter Writer's Group. Each week, you're handed a theme and you have to write something based on that theme. Sometimes the theme is enough to get me started.

II. My work in the theatre has helped me immensely as a writer, and it can help you too if you write character-based stories. You need to learn a little Stanislavsky-based theory. A great way to do that quickly, is to read A Practical Handbook for the Actor, which is very short (you can read it in an hour).

The basic theory is that a character has an objective, which you should be able to express as a verb phrase, like "to seduce a pretty girl" or "to steal money the bank." So you come up with an objective and that's your story so far:

John wants to steal money from the bank. He does so. The end.

In order to reach his goal, John must use tactics. A tactic for robbing a bank might be pointing a gun at the teller. (Tactics are also usually verb phrases.)

John wants to steal money from the bank. So he points a gun at the teller. The teller gives John money. The end.

This story is boring, because there are no obstacles. Throw an obstacle at John. Obstacles can be other people with conflicting motivations or "acts of God." We'll start with one of those:

John wants to steal money from the bank. But it's five miles away and there's a transit strike.

To overcome this obstacle, John must create a subgoal. In acting theory, the main goal ("robbing the bank") is the character's Superobjective. But there can be mini-objectives that are based around overcoming obstacles that keep a character from meeting his Superobjective.

John wants to steal money from the bank. But it's five miles away and there's a transit strike. [Mini-objective] John needs to get to the bank.

John now employs tactics to meet his mini-objective.

John wants to steal money from the bank. But it's five miles away and there's a transit strike. [Mini-objective] John needs to get to the bank. He stands by the highway and sticks out his thumb.

More obstacles:

John wants to steal money from the bank. But it's five miles away and there's a transit strike. [Mini-objective] John needs to get to the bank. He stands by the highway and sticks out his thumb. But by 3pm, no one has stopped to offer him a ride, and the bank closes at 4:30.

John needs to try another tactic:

John wants to steal money from the bank. But it's five miles away and there's a transit strike. [Mini-objective] John needs to get to the bank. He stands by the highway and sticks out his thumb. But by 3pm, no one has stopped to offer him a ride, and the bank closes at 4:30. John stops a car at gunpoint.

At some point, other characters come into the story. They need to have their own goals. It helps if their goals conflict with John's. Then John's goals become obstacles for the other characters and vice versa.

Martha and her son are in the car. The son is running a fever of 103, and Martha needs to get him to the hospital ASAP. Obstacle: John is pointing a gun at her and demanding she drive him to the bank.

As you're going through this process, all sorts of other things will occur to you naturally. Character traits, sense-detail, location detail, etc.

The story is over when the main character achieves or completely fails to achieve his objective. Of course, as you're working, you may discover that the main character is Martha and not John.
posted by grumblebee at 10:35 AM on June 21, 2006 [5 favorites]

incidentally, I once heard and interview with Ang Lee in which he used a similar method to stage a car chase. Each car was a "character" trying to achieve some goal, met with obstacles, etc. If it was boring, he'd throw more obstacles in.
posted by grumblebee at 10:40 AM on June 21, 2006

Smoke weed.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:44 AM on June 21, 2006

Since you mentioned technique I've had some luck with is coming up with sixty self-contained first lines. After I had all sixty, I went back and wrote second sentences for each, then third sentences, etc. As stories did or didn't take shape, I went on or I trunked them.

The dropoff rate was big, but the few stories that made it to the end were worth the exercise.

I can't take credit for the idea, and I'm having a hell of a time tracking down the book where I saw it. I am pretty sure it's an anthology of authors' anecdotes about their stories, mostly by Warren Wilson MFA program faculty members. Amazon is not much help. An AskMe within an AskMe....
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2006

I'll second the recommendation for Freemind.
posted by lunchbox at 5:40 PM on June 21, 2006

Try hitting random on Wikipedia a few times.

I love riffing off a historical or legendary event and taking it out for a spin.
posted by Megafly at 5:17 PM on June 22, 2006

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