Brainstorming & Outlining: The Foundations to Building a Novel

Trying to describe a brainstorming process is trying to outline the way the brain works: an amorphous cloud of mush and neurons and sparks out of which, somehow, entire worlds and lives and stories are spun. Every writer has a different brainstorming process – hell, writers do everything differently in all colors and shades of the spectrum available. There’s definitely no right way and no wrong way, but I’m going to share a little about how I brainstorm and outline my ideas for books.

For me, the brainstorming process begins with a spark. A picture, or a concept, a song’s lyrics, a poem, a scene … and with that first seed planted in my writer’s mind, I begin to nurture a small tree from it. Today, I’ll tell you how I grow my “story tree.”

It starts from me asking myself: Who are the characters?

CHARACTERS

Every book should stem from the character: who is this character, what is his/her goal, and what prevents him/her from reaching that goal? And perhaps the most – or one of the most – important things a writer must achieve is to get the reader to fall in love with their characters. That doesn’t mean the character is an angelic, selfless, brave saint who does everything right. No – the best kinds of writers will be able to take any type of a character and get us to empathize with them … by effectively showing us the character’s POV.

How do you effectively write deep POV for your character? By understanding him and becoming him.

This isn’t by any means exaggeration. Someone once told me that writing is a lot like acting, and I can really understand that now. We are role-playing our characters and projecting their voices, their thoughts, their feelings, and their desires onto the page as written word. That’s why you see so many of those character sheets, so many guides to help you flesh out your characters. Because getting to know your character is the first step to getting to know your book. It’s their story, after all, and they must exist in your mind as a fully-formed, three-dimensional, live person who walks and talks and sasses and snobs. You are only the scribe to the adventure that will befall them. 

Spend time brainstorming your characters first. Use those character sheets if necessary. What do they desire? What do they fear? What prejudices do they have? In what societal construct were they raised? How did their background and backstory lead them to the person they are today? What quirks do they have? How do they speak?

It’s impossible for me to tell you when you know the character well enough – and oftentimes, it won’t be until your first, second, or even third draft (I will explain, in a subsequent post, why the First Draft is for the writer, the Second Draft is for the editor, and the Third Draft is for the reader). But all I know is that, at some point, your character will leap to life within the vast confines of your mind, as vivid as Harry Potter or Katniss or Percy Jackson. But it takes time. So let your character stew and form, and remember that they can change throughout the (long) course of your writing journey.

And remember — you’ll have your main characters, but you’ll also have side characters — and each of these side characters should all be the heroes of their own stories. That’s what makes the story interesting and alive: when each character acts out of his/her own drive or agenda, instead of pandering to the needs of your story arc and your protagonist’s arc. Flesh these guys out as well. What do they want in life, what are their stakes, and why are they involved in your story?

THEMES

One of the most important aspects of a book, to me, is the theme. This is the component of the book that makes it more than the sum of all its parts, and it’s difficult to find a place/rank for it among all these components, but I’m going to stick it here, early on, because it’s something less tangible that you’ll have to think about throughout the brainstorming process. 

Brainstorming the themes is one of my favorite steps, because I’m always searching for ways to make my books meaningful, for it to be more than just a simple story. I hope the messages from my stories will carry on and not be forgotten, and I continue to try to explore new meanings I can derive from the stories I tell.

What are the themes to your book? What does your hero’s journey represent, what messages do you want your readers to take away from it? In the Harry Potter series, some of the themes include choosing the light over darkness and choosing love to vanquish hatred. We see this repeatedly in the choices the characters – both protagonists and antagonists – make that lead them to their separate fates.

Remember, the theme should be integrated closely with your character’s physical journey and character arc. Your character’s development should reflect these themes. In Blood Heir, for example, one of the themes I chose was that your choices define who you are. This is apparent in my protagonist, Anastacya Mikhailov: a young girl born to a monstrous power and raised in fear and hatred. With her Affinity to blood, she can easily kill and maim anyone who stands in the way – yet she chooses not to. She chooses to struggle with her powers and grapple with the line between what defines good and evil. And she ultimately chooses to fight for the good side, for the light. This theme is embedded throughout her physical journey and tightly intertwined with her development throughout the book. It’s reflected in my other characters, too: the deuteragonist is a crime lord who has an even darker history and made even worse choices – yet despite the shadows of his past, in the end he, too, chooses to turn to the light and fight for the good side. 

When I was going through and brainstorming, these themes didn’t come to me until I was done with the first few drafts. Your story tree will change a lot throughout your drafting process, but it’s good to have the roots of these messages firmly planted in your mind so you are conscious of them as you go about brainstorming. Because, ultimately, all the components that you brainstorm will tie in to each other, and to the story’s themes.

So, think carefully, and write these down on your brainstorming pad. What are the themes in your book? What are the messages you want to get across to your readers, and how will your characters represent those messages each in their own ways? How will their journeys reflect that? And … next, how will the world you build set the stage for the issues that will be resolved with your themes?

WORLD 

While I’m brainstorming everything, bits and pieces of the world might dredge up through my subconsciousness. That’s why I always have multiple pages open, and I jot down whatever comes to mind. Now … the world you build is going to be integral to your story, because your characters must live and act and die within its realms.

The world I speak of is not only what kind of food or housing or streets or transportation they use. It goes way deeper than that. As I already stated before, any meaningful story will have a theme, and all tangible aspects within the story world must tie in to those themes, or set the stage to underline those messages. The world you build must give rise to that, and act as the stage for your characters’ journeys, complete with props within easy reach to send a clear message.

I tend to brainstorm my world in several stages, with the process comparable to creating a painting. First, I jot down the sketch – a vague outline of what kind of a world it will be (fantasy? dystopian? medieval? futuristic?). This is the very foundation of your world, the super-rough brushstrokes from which all details will sprout.

Next, I move on to solidifying the line-art: giving all of the different components a crude definition: religion, economy, political structure, time period, gastronomy, clothing, technology … all the components of a real world, you have to think of. This is influenced by my “sketch,” because everything must align with the overall feeling I want my world to have.

This is not so you can info-dump. No, do not, I repeat, do not spend large chunks/paragraphs describing your world and the intricacies of how it works. If you haven’t read my post on worldbuilding by now, go and read it. I write about how worldbuilding must trickle in to your pages. Think of it as a beautiful lake. Don’t just cannonball-throw your reader in. Let them dip their toes first, and then their feet, then their ankles … and so on. Your world must come to life as your characters experience it and go through it.

The final stage of my worldbuilding often comes in through my drafting process. I’ll be describing a character walking down a street, and I’ll think, what do I need to make sure this world comes to life and belongs to my world and only mine? I write this in my post about worldbuilding, but think of the ways to make your world unique. Instead of the standard medieval cottages, for example, is there a specific detail that makes them unique to your world – i.e. hobbit holes in The Hobbit, or my very own red-bricked dachas in Blood Heir? Instead of just wine, is there a special type of wine that’s unique to your world, or do they drink brandy because of the climate, or rum because it’s a sailor culture – and if so, what type of rum?

Do you see how details like these make your world come to life? A single object can define a universe. I love using the example of a cup of coffee. A businessman who tosses down a home-brewed espresso before dashing off to work each morning is very different from a lady who swipes her venti double-shot vanilla latte with almond milk from a Starbucks counter. Don’t make a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee. Brainstorm all these unique aspects of your world, write them down, and steep your story in it.

PLOT

This is where everything you’ve brainstormed thus far ties together. Your characters, your themes, your world, and every random idea and scene you’ve jotted down on the page must come to fruition as you plot.

I tend to brainstorm plot in three large chunks. I start off by writing the following:

  • Act I: Beginning. How I want my story to start off, the state of life that my MC is in before the Inciting Incident pulls him/her into the adventure.
  • Act II: Climax. What I want the climax to be – the ultimate confrontation between my protagonist and antagonist.
  • Act III: Ending. What is the end state of my MC?

These three Acts will be your lifelines, your rocks in a very tempestuous sea. Cling to them … yet also realize that they can change if you figure out that the theme of your book changes, or you need a different ending.

Next, I flesh them out:

  • Act I: Beginning. How I want my story to start off, the state of life that my MC is in before the Inciting Incident pulls him/her into the adventure.
    • What is normal life like for MC? This is a great way to show off parts of your world, too.
    • What are some subtle (or not) desires or dissatisfactions brewing within MC or within the world?
    • How does the societal construct encourage or pave the way to these dissatisfactions or desires?
  • Act II: Climax. What I want the climax to be – the ultimate confrontation between my protagonist and antagonist.
    • How does MC get here?
    • How can I explore the world throughout my MC’s journey (whether physical or non-physical)?
    • How does this reflect MC’s character arc and, very importantly, development?
    • How does this reflect the themes of my book?
  • Act III: Ending. What is the end state of my MC?
    • What subplots are resolved? Which ones remain open?
    • What kind of message does this send my readers?
    • Does this leave any possibilities for the next books (if you are planning a series)?

And usually, once I answer those questions, I’ll start brainstorming plot points. These are individual points connecting Act I to II to III – the actual events that happen. My process is that I’ll write down a bunch of potential events or random scenes I was imagining for this book, and I pick and choose: which ones make most sense? And which ones are the hardest for my MC to overcome, both physically and mentally?

I also give myself “candy scenes.” I remember reading about these from another guide, but basically, these are the scenes that you are dying to write. You reward yourself with these once in a while, just so you have something to intensely look forward to during the drafting process. It could be an entire chapter, one scene, or even a single moment (several lines), but these are the ones that will keep the drafting process “fun” throughout.

A lot of my peers have pointed out that pacing is one of my strengths — and that just comes easily to me, because I’m a really picky reader and I cannot stand books where nothing happens or there isn’t enough tension. So throughout my outlining, I keep asking myself: A) Is there enough tension? Are things moving at a fast pace — and not just comprising of characters wandering aimlessly about or chatting without purpose? B) Do I keep building up the stakes? Am I revealing more and more subplots and plot-points in a way that makes the stakes higher and higher (which also drives tension)? But also, C) Do I have some “break” scenes, where, after a super-action-driven or intense scene, there’s a little pause for the reader (and my characters) to take a slight mental break?

So, while you should already have been doing this throughout your brainstorming process, the next step is building a comprehensive outline for your novel! You’ve already partially filled it in with all of the above aspects, but head on over to my post How To Outline Your Novel & Basics of Story Structure — à la MOANA for tips on creating a foolproof outline and, while we’re at it, structuring your story (using Disney’s MOANA as an example).

With that, good luck! Brainstorming is one of the fun parts (it’s all fun! Or, meant to be) so get creative, pour out everything you’ve had stored up in your mind, and create your world, your characters, and your story.

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