Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4 Brainstorming Lists to Beat Back Writer's Block

We've all suffered from writer's block at some point, whether it's during writing or plotting what to write. Maybe even during editing. For me, blocks always come down to two reasons: doubt in my own ability, or a wrong turn somewhere in the story that's left me stumped. Either way, I've run myself into a corner, and I need to claw my way out. As I write this, I am waving to you with bloody fingers, but I'm smiling.

After an amazing run of luck in plotting my current novel, I came to a screeching halt and ended up having to sleep on how to get my heroine out of the mess she was in. Needless to say, I didn't get much rest, and unfortunately, my subconcious didn't miraculously solve the problem for me either.

The amazing Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn) had a post the other day about how to use twenty ideas to brainstorm on the premise that not all twenty ideas will be good, but they won't all be bad either. That's genius, and it works on all sorts of problem types, from novel concepts to scenes or even character types.

I decided to try the twenty ideas brainstorm in combination with a series of trigger lists I came up with during a recent binge of craft-book reading. And I have to say, the combination was a miracle. The cogs in my brain started spinning. Hopefully, these trigger lists can help you when you get stuck.

Scene Type List

Every scene has to have a purpose, a reason it needs to be in the book. Sometimes, kickstarting a scene is as simple as figuring out the type of scene it has to be. That can be one, or ideally a combination, of the following:
  • An action or event critical to the plot
  • A reaction or a decision one of the characters needs to make
  • A character transformation or break-through
  • A twist or reversal that changes the direction of the story
Adversary Type List

To keep tension on every page, as Donald Maass, would say, there has to be conflict. Conflict ensues in adversarial situations, but that doesn't mean the protagonist has to face the antagonist all the time. An adversarial situation within a scene or section of a scene can be created by a:
  • character vs. another character
  • character vs. nature
  • character versus God/Fate/Destiny
  • character versus society
  • character in the middle
  • character versus romantic interest
  • character versus herself
Forcing a Hard Choice List

Many scenes center around a choice, and choices are high drama situations in and of themselves. Often though, it's hard to see the full dramatic possibilities. Consider escalating a choice by making it harder. Make the character choose between:
  • Something bad and something worse
  • Conflicting beliefs
  • Betraying her morals and a person or goal
  • People she cares about or should care about
  • Her own goals or someone else’s
High Drama Situation List

Even if action isn't the main focus of the scene, there has to be action somewhere. The characters have to be doing something, at least in the background. Considering high drama situations can help solidify a scene that doesn't have any tension yet, and the drama doesn't have to occur in the foreground. It can add a great undercurrent or backdrop to the scene's focal point and make the scene even richer. High drama situations include:
  • Abduction
  • Adultery
  • Arbitration
  • Betrayal
  • Call to action
  • Chase
  • Conspiracy
  • Crime
  • Daring enterprise
  • Deliverance
  • Deception
  • Destruction
  • Discovery
  • Dishonor
  • Erroneous judgment
  • Escape
  • Family crisis
  • Hiding
  • Interrogation
  • Introduction
  • Jealousy
  • Loss of loved one
  • Misfortune or disaster
  • Misunderstanding
  • Passion
  • Receipt of message
  • Reconciliation
  • Revolt
  • Rivalry
  • Sacrifice
  • Supplication
  • Tribute
  • Vengeance
Reversal of Fortune List

If a high drama situation doesn't work, or even within that situation, a reversal of fortune can give the scene even greater scope. The protagonist or one of the other characters can go:
  • From good fortune to bad
  • From bad fortune to good
  • From good to bad to good
  • From bad to good to bad
Reversal Trigger List
Rather than creating an external force to trigger the reversal of fortune, having the change occur as a result of something the character did herself can up the drama and make the situation feel more inevitable. Some examples of triggers might include:
  • Miscalculation
  • Desire to keep a secret
  • Tragic flaw
  • Failure to act
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Misplaced faith
  • Threat to something the character can’t sacrifice
  • Something taken away
Conflicting Emotion Lists

Tension in a scene doesn't have to come from the action. If the character is making a choice, or put in a tough situation, the drama can come from two conflicting emotions she feels and the way she works out that conflict. Consider how or why she might feel a positive emotion at the same time she feels a negative one, or visa versa.

Negative emotions: aggression, alienation, anger, anxiety, bitterness, boredom, contempt, defeat, denial, despair, disappointment, disgust, dislike, dismay, distrust, envy, exasperation, fear, frustration, guilt, grief, grumpiness, hatred, homesickness, hopelessness, humiliation, hurt, insult, irritation, isolation, jealousy, loneliness, misery, neglect, outrage, panic, pessimism, pride, regret, resentment, sadness, self-pity, shame, vengefulness, worry

Positive emotions: affection, appreciation, anticipation, amusement, awe, calm, cheerfulness, compliance, confidence, contentment, courage, delight, desire, enthusiasm, elation, empathy, energy, excitement, friendliness, joy, hope, interest, longing, love, lust, optimism, patience, pity, pleasure, politeness, relaxation, relief, remorse, satisfaction, submission, surprise, sympathy, triumph, trust vulnerability, zest

Setting Complication List

If all else fails, or even just to pile on more drama, a setting can complicate a scene and add interest. Consider using the setting to do one of the following:
  • Force the mc into danger by cutting off escape routes.
  • Force the mc into picking the more dangerous option by giving them a choice and a compelling reason to choose the way they don’t want to go.
  • Add innate dangers and additional things that can go wrong for the reader to worry over.
What about you? What do you do when you get stuck? Do you have any brainstorming tips to share?

Happy brainstorming,



  1. Wow - that's a comprehensive list!! :) I am working on not letting my characters solve their issues so easily - so that high drama list is about to come in handy! Thanks :)

  2. Oooh, great list, Martina! I've been kicking around plot scenarios for my Shiny New Idea lately, and this will help infuse conflict and tension from the ground level. :)

  3. Fantastic list. I'll need to bookmark this for future reference.

  4. This couldn't have come at a better time! I got stuck in the middle of plotting yesterday, and your list just got me unstuck. Thanks so much!


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