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Don't Miss a Thing: Brainstorming for Writers

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Presented at the 2019 Sleuthfest conference in Boca Raton, Florida

Brainstorming is more than just a jump-start of inspiration. It can help you:
--explore alternatives for your plot
--develop your characters more deeply
--make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to tell your story a different way

AND the audio of this 90-minute brainstorming presentation (which tracks nicely with the slide show) is available in MP3 for $5:

http://vwtapes.com/brainstorming-mp3sleufest2019.aspx

or CD for $10:

http://vwtapes.com/brainstorming-cdsleufest2019.aspx

  • A live audio version of this workshop, along with the live audio for three more of the presentations I have posted on this site, are available for purchase from VW Tapes: Conference & Seminar Recording. If the link below doesn't work, please go to the VW Tapes webpage and type my name in the Search box. http://vwtapes.com/search.aspx?find=Vincent%20O'Neil&fbclid=IwAR0SkwWW5izLbBFvZHKhqOI953GMXhhsFBsg749We3dvq4-43BcFj_S-aMU
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Don't Miss a Thing: Brainstorming for Writers

  1. 1. Don’t Miss a Thing Brainstorming the full potential of your story, your characters, and your plot Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil) www.vincenthoneil.com
  2. 2. Mystery and Horror as Vincent H. O’Neil The Frank Cole / Exile Mystery Series Supernatural HorrorTheater Mystery Mystery Anthology
  3. 3. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil www.vincenthoneil.com
  4. 4. Purpose Brainstorming is more than just a jump- start of inspiration. It can help you: • explore alternatives for your plot • develop your characters more deeply • make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to tell your story a different way Brainstorming is an ongoing process
  5. 5. Outline • Standard brainstorming • Brainstorm the “Who” and “When” • Ask “Why?” and “What if?” • The High Points • The Jump Start
  6. 6. Benefits of Brainstorming • Even if you have a full-blown story in your head, ready to be written, take the time to brainstorm it • Brainstorming lets one good idea lead to another • It really pays off
  7. 7. Standard Brainstorming • Write phrases and words on a sheet / sheets of paper in random order • Jot down everything that comes to mind, no matter how irrelevant it might seem • Don’t try to connect the ideas yet
  8. 8. Brainstorming for Inspiration Let’s say you haven’t chosen a topic for your work What interests you / what do you like? What’s currently on your mind? Write it all down
  9. 9. Story Inspiration Example Write down everything that comes to mind Turn the paper as you write, to keep ideas separated Pottery Murder Mysteries Cars Jack & Jill Romance Novels Sunny beaches Sports Ham sandwich
  10. 10. What Grabs You? Does one of these ideas interest you more than the others? The reason doesn’t matter Pottery Murder Mysteries Cars Jack & Jill Romance Novels Sunny beaches Sports Ham sandwich
  11. 11. Brainstorm That Idea Write the topic in the center of a new page and then brainstorm around it—in this case, you’re considering possible story ideas based on the Jack and Jill rhyme Quest tale? Action / adventure? Human interest? Mystery? The Jack & Jill Rhyme
  12. 12. Develop the Brainstorming Expand on each idea Quest tale Action / adventure Human interest Mystery The Jack & Jill Rhyme Accident No other sources of water? No adult supervision Rescue Why did they BOTH fall?Who sent them? What ELSE is up the hill? Orphans? Race against time
  13. 13. Brainstorm Each Development What would Jack & Jill as a quest tale suggest? Obstacles Stakes Inciting IncidentMission Jack & Jill as a Quest Tale
  14. 14. Brainstorm Deeper Obstacles Stakes Inciting incidentMission Jack and Jill as a Quest Tale No other sources of water? Why did they BOTH fall? Who sent them? What ELSE is up the hill? Sets everything in motion Race against time? Why a pail?
  15. 15. • This is a motivational poster generated by artificial intelligence • Although it’s not very motivational, it does apply to brainstorming • At some point, you will end up deleting quite a few of your ideas • Follow your instincts and let the brainstorming guide you
  16. 16. Follow Your Instincts Obstacles Stakes Inciting incidentMission Jack and Jill as a Quest Tale No other sources of water? Why did they BOTH fall? Who sent them? What ELSE is up the hill? Sets everything in motion Race against time? Why a pail? Jack and Jill as a HORROR story
  17. 17. Restart the Brainstorm Jack and Jill as a Horror Story No other sources of water? Why did they BOTH fall? Who sent them? What ELSE is up the hill? Race against time? Is the pail significant? Why is it just the two of them? Is it a monster? Jack badly injured Jill stays with him Is anyone coming to look for them?
  18. 18. Brainstorm the “Who” and “When” Create a matrix to see who does what—and when It can suggest missing pieces and alternative actions Monday Morning Monday Afternoon Monday Evening Jack Asked Jill if she would go with him to fetch a pail of water Went up the hill with Jill. Fell and hurt himself In the hospital Jill Agreed to go with Jack Tripped while running for help Explained what happened Characters Time Missing from original story
  19. 19. See Who’s Missing What characters should be added to the story? Monday Morning Monday Afternoon Monday Evening Jack Asked Jill if she would go with him to fetch a pail of water Went up the hill with Jill. Fell and hurt himself In the hospital Jill Agreed to go with Jack Tripped while running for help Explained what happened Doctor Seeing routine patients Summoned by Jill Treated Jack Characters Time
  20. 20. What’s Being Overlooked? Review the actions assigned to each character to see who’s underutilized—it might suggest good plot changes Monday Morning Monday Afternoon Monday Evening Jack Tells Jill he’s been sent to fetch a pail of water Went up the hill with Jill. Fell and hurt himself In the hospital Jill Felt Jack should not go alone—it’s dangerous Gave Jack first aid; fell helping him down the hill Explained what happened Characters Time
  21. 21. Who’s Missing NOW? Review the changed story to see if it needs another new character or additional plot development Monday Morning Monday Afternoon Monday Evening Jack Sent to fetch a pail of water Went up the hill with Jill. Fell and hurt himself In the hospital Jill Felt Jack should not go alone Gave Jack first aid; fell helping him down the hill Explained what happened Villain Sent Jack to get the water knowing it was dangerous Dismayed Jill went along and might talk Went to the hospital to learn more Characters Time
  22. 22. Ask “Why?” and “What if?” Using these two questions while brainstorming can help you: •create a plausible storyline •develop your characters more deeply •explore alternatives for your plot
  23. 23. Why Ask “Why?” and “What if?” No matter where you are in your story— early brainstorming or actually writing: Ask “Why?” to ensure your plot, characters, and story make sense Ask “What if?” to mine the potential plot twists and character traits your story contains
  24. 24. Example • To demonstrate these techniques, I’ve chosen Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel The Silence of the Lambs • I have no idea what process he followed to develop this masterpiece, but its storyline and characters are excellent examples of “Why?” and “What if?” • WARNING: Some spoilers follow
  25. 25. TSOTL Was Highly Original • The FBI’s profiling department is helping in the hunt for an active serial killer … • By consulting with the convicted serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter … • Using an FBI trainee
  26. 26. “Why?” Makes Sure It Makes Sense • The FBI’s profiling department is helping in the hunt for an active serial killer … No need to ask why • By consulting with the convicted serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter … Why? Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist who has “helped” them before • Using an FBI trainee Why? Lecter has toyed with (and endangered) other FBI agents; by using a trainee the FBI leadership hopes to trick him into helping them catch the active serial killer
  27. 27. “What if?” Explores Possibilities • Trainee Clarice Starling has the necessary intelligence and education What if? She is also carrying deep-seated childhood trauma that explains her joining the FBI, and Lecter finds this intriguing? • Starling is sent back to see Lecter more than once What if? Starling confronts her FBI boss about the real reasons she’s being used—and this leads to her inclusion in the hunt for Buffalo Bill?
  28. 28. “What if?” Can Provide Plot Twists • Lecter cooperates somewhat, while prying into Starling’s psyche What if? Dr. Chilton, the psychiatrist running the institution where Lecter is being held, wants the celebrity of helping catch Buffalo Bill? • Chilton cuts a deal with Lecter, but on Lecter’s terms What if? Lecter has been withholding key information from Starling and is planning to leverage what he knows about Buffalo Bill to get a better deal from Dr. Chilton?
  29. 29. “What if?” Can Fill Out a Character • Lecter later offers Starling a key clue—but only if she reveals her secret What if? Starling’s childhood trauma is so tied to her desire to save Buffalo Bill’s latest abductee that she feels compelled to answer Lecter truthfully—knowing it will give him leverage over her? • Starling deciphers Lecter’s clue about Buffalo Bill What if? Starling has to go after Buffalo Bill alone, if she’s to save his latest victim?
  30. 30. The High Points Approach High points can be sequences that: • elicit emotion • take the story in a different or unexpected direction • resolve the central conflict (the climax) High Points Beginning End
  31. 31. Start With the High Points If your brainstorming took you immediately to the big moments in your story, run with that. Perhaps even write those parts. Imagine these key points of your story as the high ground in an area inundated with water. As you imagine the story around those high points, the water recedes and reveals more detail. Visible High Points
  32. 32. As you consider the events that could generate the high points, the rest of your story begins to emerge. While the biggest high point (the climax) generally occurs near the end of the tale, that doesn’t mean the rest of the story lacks big moments—don’t be afraid to add them. Ask “why?” and “what if?” Lead-Up to the High Points
  33. 33. After you’ve developed a complete storyline, make sure that the portions connecting the high points make sense, mesh with the big moments, and keep the reader’s attention. Make Sure the Story Flows
  34. 34. The Jump Start If you’re really having trouble getting an idea, try this: •Think of a phrase that might work as a slogan, or as a movie tagline (for example, the movie Alien’s tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream) •Keep it simple You run—you die Trust no one Beware the perfect plan Make your own luck Stay in the light Your mileage may vary
  35. 35. Brainstorm Each One Pick one, and ask questions about it You run—you die Strange predator? Local saying? Is it all a lie? DO you die? Annual competition?
  36. 36. Explore the questions you’ve raised You run—you die Strange predator? Local saying? Is it a lie? Annual competition? Toxic environment outside a certain boundary? Survival race? Can be outsm arted? Escape is good? All-night hunt? Actually an advantage to run? Lacks one of the 5 senses? Communal safety rule? Develop the Ideas
  37. 37. Pick the parts that work for you You run—you die Strange predator? Local saying? Is it a lie? Annual competition? Toxic environment outside a certain boundary? Survival race? Can be outsm arted? Escape is good? All-night hunt? Actually an advantage to run? Lacks one of the 5 senses? Communal safety rule? Follow Your Instinct
  38. 38. Research as Inspiration • The Complete Idiot’s Guides • YouTube (how-to’s, interviews, documentaries) • Online imagery (Google, Bing, etc.) • Keep your mind open to what these sources are suggesting to you
  39. 39. Conclusion • Get an idea by brainstorming deeper and deeper • Review your characters’ assignments to see if anyone’s underutilized • Ask “Why?” to make sure the story makes sense • Ask “What if? to mine potential plot twists and character developments
  40. 40. Mystery and Horror as Vincent H. O’Neil The Frank Cole / Exile Mystery Series Supernatural HorrorTheater Mystery Mystery Anthology
  41. 41. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil www.vincenthoneil.com

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