How to Brainstorm for Your Next Novel

If you’ve never written a book, you might think the first step in writing a novel is putting chapter one down on paper. You may be right (writing is, after all, subjective), but for most authors, writing a book is a lot like sex: You’ve got to start with the foreplay. Er … brainstorming.

There are likely some writers out there who don’t need any sort of warm-up. They’re in, they’re out, and voila! They’ve finished … an 80,000-word book. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Face it: Most of us need a little assistance—in the form of lists, timelines, webs, character maps, and notes. These methods of preparation keep us on track, guide us through our writer’s block, and remind us of the happy ending we’re shooting for. Sure, you’re not likely to have all the little details sorted out prior to page one, but thinking ahead to at least chapter ten will help you keep your characters straight.

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If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, you’re in good company—so are we! But if you haven’t sat down yet to think about what kind of book you want to write, you’d better get going! It’s not too late to set down a few key notes prior to writing your first 1,667 words. Remember, a good book is built on a solid foundation. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your NaNoWriMo novel. Having some idea of its beginning and end will help ensure the 50,000 words in between are all moving in the right direction.

Here are our favorite brainstorming tips to help you make the most of your month of novel writing, and remember—if you get stuck, we’re here to help!

Storyboarding

If you’re a visual person, storyboarding may be just the brainstorming strategy for you. Imagine, for instance, you’re writing a 1920s mystery novel. Your job is to cover a wall in pictures that will bring your story to life. Group them however makes sense. Photos or drawings of people who look like your main characters over here; sketches of clues and red herrings over there. If you have some visuals of the main plot points, use thumb tacks and a piece of yarn to string the whole thing together like in The Flash and Riverdale—you know, like real detectives do. The objective here is to get more than just a mental picture of your book.

Interested in putting together a storyboard? Check out some more tips and tricks in this article for Writer’s Digest.

Story Web

This is another more visual form of brainstorming, though I would argue it’s more writing than drawing! It’s possible you learned this tool in elementary school, in preparation for those fussy DWA essays. The best part about webs is they can have as many threads as you want. Your only limitation is the size of your paper. For me, I like to put my first circle in the middle, filled in with the unofficial title of my book or chapter. Then, I work my way out. Maybe I draw three circles around the first and label them beginning, middle, and end. Then around each of these, I draw several smaller bubbles, each noting a key plot point for that section. From there, I can draw connections between bubbles in various places on the page to show how a plot point in the beginning might come back in the end, or how one character might be linked with another.

For more tips on story webs, check out this post from The Pen & The Pad.

Timeline

For very linear thinkers, timelines make the most sense. Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like. The simplest method is to turn your paper hot-dog style and draw a horizontal line across the page. This is your timeline. From there, jot down a few notes about the major plot points you’ve thought about for your book, placing them along the timeline in the order that they’ll occur. If it’s helpful, make a note between the points regarding how long each gap should take. Some books, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Sun is Also a Star take place in the span of just twenty-four hours. If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Nicola Yoon were the types to outline by timeline, the time between plot points would only be minutes or hours. Given how much story is packed into each of these amazing reads, such an outline likely would have been helpful, reminding the author what’s already happened, what’s still to come, and what the rest of the world is likely doing simultaneous to the characters’ actions, given the time of day. In books spanning months or years, this kind of outline is particularly essential.

Of course, timelines don’t have to look like the back page of your high school history report. As published author Mindy Klasky writes in her blog, some authors go so far as to create detailed spreadsheets.

 

Whatever your organizational style, the main takeaway here is to give brainstorming a try! Chances are, you’ll find that the more notes you take, the more story you’ll uncover. If your idea is truly a good one, that story web will almost write itself.

Already done with your brainstorming sesh? Tell us your tips and tricks below!