9 Fiction Writing Brainstorm Techniques

It is inservice week! being a teacher during a pandemic is certainly interesting. That is all I’m going to say on that. My brain is so full and mushy right now that even though I knew it was Friday, I forgot it was Friday. I think you know what I’m talking about. I’ve been working on this post this week, but I’m only just now polishing it and posting it. I hope you find an idea here that you can use!


Do you ever fear that you will run out of ideas? I am not one who has a million ideas jostling for paper time. I have a number of unfinished short stories that could use my attention. But I’m not busting at the seams full of ideas… yet when it comes time to write, I don’t usually have too much trouble coming up with a story.

You might be like me, or you might be the kind of writer brimming full of ideas. Both are okay. Both come with their own set of problems. Often people full of ideas have trouble focusing on one story. They will often have stacks and stacks of unfinished stories. We’ll talk about that another day. Today I want to focus on idea generation and brainstorming.

Often my best ideas don’t come while I’m at my desk; they come in the shower or in the car. If you are curious about why, check out this article. In pre-pandemic days I used to drive to work for 40 minutes with traffic, which gave me a lot of time to think. Exercise is a good idea generator, unless like me, you are allergic to exercise.

What are you Brainstorming?

Maybe you already have some of the pieces. Maybe you have a writing prompt. Here is a list of things you can choose to brainstorm:

You don’t need to brainstorm all of these at the same time, in fact I don’t recommend that. Start with characters, setting, and/or conflict first. Then you can brainstorm and build the rest up from there.

Brainstorming Tools and Techniques

Let’s talk about some tools to help you brainstorm. For the most effective brainstorming remember that QUANTITY is key! Don’t worry about bad ideas–nobody is going to see this besides you. You might also try mixing and combining two methods. Try some out and do what works best for you. 

**Remember: When brainstorming don’t worry about complete or correct sentences. Just get words down on a page. You can more fully form them later.

1 Associative Brainstorming

  1. Pick a word: Dragon
  2. What words do you associate with that? Big, Powerful, Pretty, Old, Ancient, Classic
  3. Start asking questions about those words
    1. Why is it powerful? Is is just size? Or because of its age and wisdom?
    2. Why is powerful important? Is powerful the most important thing? What is greater than power? (possible theme for this story) Intelligence? Wisdom? Peace?
    3. Why do people crave power? Why do some not crave it?
    4. What if there was a dragon that was not powerful? What if it was small? or young? What if this story is not about power, but love? Or growth (not physical growth)?

2 Visual Association

I sometimes scroll through Pinterest, Deviant Art, or Instagram for ideas. There are a ton of talented artists out there to inspire and get those creative juices going. We actually do this in my 6th grade English class with art. Look at the pictures. See what grabs your attention. Write about the story behind the art for about 5-10 minutes. Maybe this will spur an idea for a complete story or maybe you take one aspect of the writing and run in a different direction. This is good for playing with style or voice too. 

3 Word Storm

  1. Set a timer for a few minutes.
  2. Write down all the words floating around in your brain. It doesn’t matter if they relate to what you plan to write or not.
  3. Next you can look and see if anything pops out at you or play with grouping the words into categories.

4 Free Write

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

Louis L’Amour

Write what is on your mind. Sometimes you have to get the drama of the day out of your system before you can focus on your writing. Set a timer if you want and start writing. Don’t stop. (unless, your hand cramps up like mine does)

If drama is not the problem, free-write about story possibilities.

5 Talk it Out

Sometimes I’ll turn the voice memo recorder on and start talking it out. Brainstorm out loud. Ask yourself questions. Wonder aloud. This is especially great if you are an auditory learner. I’ve done this on a walk or in the car. (Turn the recorder on before you start driving! Be safe!)

6 Figure Storming

Think about someone you know or someone famous. How might they go about solving a problem they are faced with in a story. If it helps, visualize your boss being eaten by a dragon. Then move on to something more useful like: Jerry Seinfield vs. a dragon! Imagine Chris Rock as a detective in a murder mystery. Trevor Noah in a zombie thriller story. 

Are you getting any ideas yet?

7 What if…?

This is the most powerful tool, in my opinion. Keep asking what if. You might come up with some boring ones at first. That’s okay. Dig deeper. Play with tropes–turn them on their heads. 

  • What if a princess needed saving? 
  • What if the princess had to save the dragon? 
  • What if a princess had to become the detective and determine who murdered the dragon? 
  • What if a Korean Fox Spirit lived in space? (Like the book: The Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee)
  • What if the Warrior had to learn that might is NOT right? 
  • What if the wise old man had to learn to fight?
  • What if a middle age mom became queen? (instead of the young orphan)

Keep Wondering, Keep Playing!

8 Use a Writing Prompt

There are a lot of different writing prompts out there. Try Googling “Fiction Writing Prompts” and you’ll get loads of ideas. I have a pinterest board with writing prompts if you want some ideas. https://www.pinterest.com/kathrynf0164/writing-prompts/ 

9 With a Partner or In a Small Group

I tend to use this after I’ve done a bit of brainstorming first.

I am an introvert so I love spending time in my head thinking, but sometimes, with the right people, I have success talking it out with another person. For me this is my sister, my best friend, or my writing group. I don’t like too many people at once, just 1-2 is best for me so it doesn’t get too crazy. I usually have a tiny seed of an idea and throw it out there. My sister/friend/writing buddy will throw another idea into the mix, which triggers another thought for me. And so forth until we come up with a few different ideas to play with.

Which techniques have you tried? Which one are you going to try today?

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