The Making of a Novel: 6 Steps to Brainstorming Story

09/22/2010 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just got back from one of my favorite coffee shops, in El Segundo, California. It's an old fashioned coffee shop, with guys in work boots at the counter, and faded Norman Rockwell reproductions on the wall, and specials of the day that seem to always involve bacon and cheese. The place mats are plain, white paper, which means you can draw pictures and time lines and charts on them, which you can roll up in your purse and take home. They don't take credit cards, and you can sit in the cracked red leather booths for hours if you need to -- and when I'm brainstorming a novel, I need to.

I sat there with my friend Lisa Cron, the brilliant writing teacher and story analyst (sign up for one of her classes at the UCLA Extension Writer's Program, if you can -- she teaches online, so no need to live in L.A.), and we drank a lot of coffee and brainstormed the shape of my new novel idea. I left, believing that if I had nothing else to do in my life, I could write this story all the way through without stopping. I can see almost the whole thing -- the big scenes, the big revelations, the ending, the beginning -- and I love it all. I can't wait to get to it. Want to hear the working title? The Stenographer's Last Story.

There were six things we did while brainstorming. I'll outline them here:

  1. Start with something on paper. We started with six pages I wrote over the last two days -- a title, a paragraph description, and a possible opening scene whose goal was to try to capture the main character's voice. I probably spent five hours on those six pages. I did some historical research. I looked up other books that came to mind. I fiddled around with the timing, the wording, the point of view.
  2. Decide what you like. The first thing we did was talk about what was good about the story. What does "good" mean? In this case, we were looking for things that have depth and weight -- that open the story up rather than shut it down. Since I'm trying to write a story on a bigger canvas than one single family (my typical m.o.), we looked for things that had that "bigness" to it -- things about ideas, and moments in time, and concepts. There were quite a few. It was fun to have another person recognize them. I decided that the things about the story I had liked to begin with, I liked even more because of Lisa's reaction.
  3. Identify the problems. Next, we talked about the problems and pitfalls in the story -- the things that didn't make sense, or didn't fit in, or would force my hand in a way I didn't want it to be forced. There was, for example, a company brand name involved in my idea. We immediately decided that it would be best to fictionalize this company. There is also a plot twist that has to do with human blood. We talked about the problems associate with this -- the undesirable connection to vampires, the possibility of it being too creepy. But rather than just saying, "Oh, that's a problem," we talked about how the blood could be make more intrinsic to the story, more organic, more believable.
  4. Identify the layers of meaning. We spent most of our time talking about what the story means -- because until you know what a story means on every level, your characters will be just hanging there, twisting in the wind. You need your characters to work for the story -- to behave in ways that enhance its' meaning. And if they don't? You change the characters to fit the story. We made some significant changes -- taking ten years off one characters life, yanking the action of the story into her present, and making it so that SHE makes the move that sets the story off rather than having that move arbitrarily made by someone else. This is the heavy lifting of brainstorming. The part where you say, "Oh, I know! She can do this! Or THIS!" It's where you start seeing the deeper possibilities and the deeper connections of what you have sketched out.
  5. Consider the structure. My six pages were written in the first person, spoken by the protagonist. We considered the pros and cons of this. We talked about what would be lost and gained by using third person, or by letting another character speak. We talked about the various ways to structure the story -- which is a secret within a secret. Would one secret be revealed at the start? In the middle at the end? What about the other? Would the reader discover the secret as the characters did, or would the reader be ahead of the curve? The logic of the story -- what we had determined in step #TK -- dictated the answers, and we settled on sticking with first person.
  6. Identify areas to research. As we talked, I made lists of things to research -- historical points, and some chemistry surrounding blood, and certain professions, and particular movies and books. I had to shake my head a few times to clear out the research I had been doing on classical music. It's as if I shut the door on that part of my brain, and opened another. Rather than being confused or upset by the switch, I'm excited about the new pathway; I know the music knowledge will be waiting for me when I choose to return to it. Or maybe it will find its' way into this book.

I love to brainstorm story. It's exhilarating -- like what I imagine it feels like to fling paint on a huge canvas and watch the patterns emerge. I'm lucky enough to have a skilled friend to do it with. But anyone who loves story and can think logically can be a partner in this. People who love to read are a great bet. Invite them out to a restaurant where you can stay awhile, and where you can draw on the place mats. You'll be amazed at how your story will come to life.

There are, of course, as many ways to brainstorm as there are people. The way I do it is just one way. Here are a few more:

  • Business people have to brainstorm, too! Here's an interesting article on brainstorming from BusinessWeek.
  • If theater/movies inspire you, here's a checklist for brainstorming that prompts you to follow a classical dramatic structure, from Alexandra Sokoroff.
  • If none of that is inspiring, type "vision boards" into Google, in a search for images, and just look at all that brainstorming, right there in living color!