BRAINSTORMING & NOTE-MAKING
Prewriting: Before You Write "Fade In" -- Part 3
by Jeff Newman
(This is the third installment of the series on Pre-Writing (for screenplays). To start with the first article, go to http://www.hollywoodlitsales.com/cf/journal/index.cfm?intID=51 and scroll down to the bottom article, "Create and Consider Your Concept.")
BRAINSTORMING: A LONG LIST OF POSSIBILITIES
Brainstorming and note-jotting should be a fun, mentally stimulating activity. "Brainstorming" is where we unleash our brains and let them run wild. More precisely, brainstorming is the mental and imaginative process of generating ideas and possibilities for your story. We let our thoughts wander, unrestricted. We think out loud. We pursue some "what if" or "maybe" suggestions that we provide to ourselves. We travel down some story paths to see where they might lead: dead ends, barren deserts, overly long detours, or fruitful valleys and challenging but climbable hills? We imagine, speculate, daydream, and ponder.
In short, this is when we create a long list of possible events, developments, obstacles, tasks, scenes, sequences, bits of business, gags, and moments. It's also a list of possible characters and themes.
This doesn't have to be done in one sitting. In fact, it usually shouldn't be; it's better to dip into your creative river on a number of occasions. So spend several hours at this, spread out over a few days (at least). Enjoy the process; it can be quite heady. And when you're not involved in active, "directed" brainstorming, your brain will still be providing you with suggestions. There will be times in between your dedicated sessions -- while you're driving, preparing a meal or eating, shaving, showering, or paging through a magazine -- when ideas for scenes will suddenly jump out at you, or bubble up unexpectedly from your subconscious. Welcome those ideas, and be sure to have a small notepad handy at all times (or a pocket recorder, etc.).
If your idea is one that requires some research, you can do some brainstorming prior to plunging into the research, then do your research, or the main, most-needed part of it. While doing so, some of what you read, observe, or hear about will trigger ideas for characters, bits of dialogue, and events. Be sure to record those ideas. Warning: don't get bogged down at the research phase; you rarely need to become an expert, and you can investigate needed details later on. Give yourself a flexible time limit, find out what you need to know and some things that may be helpful to know, and then move on.
Then, when the bulk of your research is over, return to general brainstorming -- generating ideas and possibilities, and exploring story options.
What's next is very, very important.
When you are in brainstorming mode, be kind -- to yourself and to the ideas you generate. At least, for a while. The creative spigot will go from a generous flow to a miserly trickle if you subject the outpouring to logical scrutiny and to criticism. You want lots and lots of ideas on your list, so you can sift through them later for the gems. So at this point, don't be selective. Turn your internal editor-analyst-critic off.
This is mostly a right brain activity -- the imaginative, creative, intuitive part of your brain. Instruct your logical, analytical left brain to switch off for a time, or to go into "idle" mode. After a while, you can alternate between right- and left-braining thinking. And still later, you will put the left brain in charge for a while. But not yet. For now, you're creating and listing ideas, not critiquing them.
And so: Don't edit. Don't critique. DO ... NOT ... JUDGE. Just keep saying "thank you" and "got it," and let the ideas keep coming.
You may have learned from experience that your very first thoughts and ideas often turn out to be too obvious. That's generally true, but even so: don't censor them. Sometimes, especially if you have a highly trained or advanced creative sense, they will be good. And if you get into the censoring, critical mode, some good ideas will never present themselves.
There's another reason for not letting yourself be critical while brainstorming, besides wanting to encourage and accept a gusher of ideas, hoping that some of them, upon later consideration, will be good ones. The other reason: you don't want to close off potential story paths too soon. By committing to an early, "fairly good" story direction, you might never hit upon the "great" approach that would otherwise present itself later. This should be a "create possibilities and explore options" phase. Defer decisions until later. Right now, it's idea-generating time.
While brainstorming, never assume you'll remember an idea. Dictate it or write it down.
EXPANDING THE LIST
So let's say that you've spent several hours over several days doing this kind of directed, dedicated brainstorming, in a non-judgmental, non-critical frame of mind. You now have lots and lots of ideas listed -- possible scenes and events, etc. -- for your overall story concept. Now it's time to put your left brain to work. But we're going to keep it on a leash, for now. We're not starting the winnowing and decision-making process. Not yet.
Instead, use your analytic brain to work with your list of "raw" ideas -- not to eliminate any, but to create a few additional ones. That is, now that you have largely depleted your store of possible story angles, developments, plot directions, problems, and so on, go through your list in analytic mode and see if some ideas or possible events can be revised, or some new options added. Consider the following questions.
* Can some of the possible events be "flipped"? That is, can they be revised and made into the opposite or nearly or partially the opposite of what you originally had? Consider "the reverse" or "the opposite" (or nearly) for some of your "first-thoughts" ideas. (Note: don't discard the original version -- keep both it and the flipped, reverse, opposite version on your list.)
* What problems might also be opportunities for the main character(s)? That is, what problems, difficulties, opposition, and challenges might turn out to be blessings in disguise?
* What opportunities might be turned into problems: a double-edged sword? Give the roses some thorns (and make them poison-tipped, so to speak, to up the negative ante).
* Can some of the ideas be exaggerated or made more extreme? More dire?
* For some of the ideas/events, how can the stakes be increased?
* Can some characters be combined?
And now, go through the events, and see if one or more themes are presenting themselves. Often times, the very nature of the story and its major events will suggest one or more themes ... statements or observations about life, humanity, society, or existence.
Assuming you are able to identify one or more themes, can the themes themselves be used to suggest still more ideas -- ideas that help illustrate those themes?
Just as theme can help you develop your plot, so too can structure and (when applicable) genre. If you are aware of some of the basic structural milestones in traditional stories (Catalyst, End of Act 1 Turning Point, an optional Midpoint reversal or shift, an End of Act 2 Turning Point, Final Ordeal and/or Confrontation, Resolution Climax, etc.), then you can see if any of the ideas/events you've generated so far would seem right for such structural events. Even if some seem to fit the structural bill, try to conjure up a few more events that would seem fitting for each of these commonly seen structural developments.
If your story fits into one or more genres (action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, crime, western, romance), then study a few movies you admire from each relevant genre and identify some developments or story "beats" that are seen in most stories of that genre. This may take a few days or more.
Having done that, then see if you can create some events for your story that would fulfill (or defy, or in some ways riff off of) those commonly seen genre events and expectations.
A consideration of "character arc" can also lead to plot possibilities. By now, you've worked with the story quite a bit. Is there a clear character arc yet for one of the major characters? If not, could there be? That is, could one or more of the characters change -- learn, realize something of importance, fulfill an inner need, conquer a key flaw, and/or be able or willing to do something he or she was unwilling or unable to do earlier?
It may still be too soon for doing more than pondering some possibilities for a character arc. You may not know enough yet about your character and the overall development of your story to make the decision of "who gets the arc, and what is it?" But at least give it some thought at this time.
If you are able to settle upon a character arc at this time with a high level of confidence that it's an interesting and effective arc, could be a credible one, and is right for this story, then think of events that can occur that can help cause the arc to occur. What events might open the character's eyes, or encourage, almost demand, change? What dilemmas might he or she be faced with, what situations might need to be experienced, what fears faced, what ordeals endured? Think of events that can help create change in the character -- events that can motivate and help cause growth, insight, evolution, or (if it's negative change) deterioration.
Also think of other characters who, by example and/or exhortation, intentionally or otherwise, might inspire or otherwise influence a character to change. This could be a romance character, an antagonist, or some kind of mentor (or two or all three of the above).
So spend some time "playing with" some of your early event possibilities -- see if some of them can be "turned on their head" -- reversed or done the opposite way, or nearly. See if others can be made more extreme.
Then see if theme, structure, genre, and character arc can generate plot possibilities.
By now, you've spent several days where you've set aside some time for "directed daydreaming." The results achieved during these hours of active, dedicated brainstorming have been augmented by stray thoughts and ideas gleaned during odd moments while you've been doing other activities.
Then, you went over your list and played with some of your listed scenes, events, characters, moments, etc., and found new variations for them.
Finally, you've given consideration to theme, structure, genre, and character arc, to see if thinking about these story elements might generate still more specific ideas for your story.
Now (finally!) it's time to start making choices. Time to fully unleash your left brain, and to bring the editor-judge-critic-analyst on board. And that means it's time to start evaluating what you have, and start making some decisions.
This can be exciting but also sometimes scary: you are, after all, finally closing off some options. Because a story can only go down so many paths. If certain possibilities really excite you but just don't seem to belong, highlight them and save them -- you may be able to use them in another, future story.
But right now, you may need some criteria to help you decide which events (etc.) to keep, and which to discard, and which story options to close off, and which paths you should start proceeding down.
There is no strict set of guidelines for this. This becomes a matter of creative judgment, instinct, common sense blended with story sense, personal preference (what kind of movie would you like to see?), and a sense of oneness with the audience (what would be intriguing, fresh, and compelling for many in the audience?).
So go through the list and cross out (or cut and paste elsewhere) those ideas that just don't seem to belong with the others (the styles clash, or it would just lead the story into a whole other direction you're not interested in taking it). Cross out those ideas that just aren't that inspired -- because they are too obvious, too "ho-hum" in nature, too cliched, too similar to others you've decided to keep, and so on.
Now is the time, if you haven't done so already, to finally nail down the concept, beyond its original broad stroke. Is the major complication or additional element in place -- the "and then" or "but then" factor?
Some themes will emerge as you write the first draft. But others can be seen at this point, as ideas that the story seems to be illustrating. Give preference to story ideas that illustrate theme(s).
If you've decided on a character arc for one (or more) of the major characters, then events that motivate, promote, and illustrate the arc can also be given preference.
There are some genre "musts" that need to be observed, and others that may not be required, but which you desire to employ. Select events from your list that match up with those broad genre events. And then do the same for major structural turning points and developments.
Eventually, you will wind up with a list of 25-35 events. Since some events require more than one scene to play out, this number will generate an ample number of scenes.
Of course, you may not choose to make use of a full-fledged outline. Instead, you may decide to highlight just the half-dozen or dozen events that, at least as of this point, you definitely want to include in your first draft -- events you will be "aiming" for and writing toward. In effect, these are guidepost or milestone story events. Not all of them need be big events or major developments. They are just those moments, events, sequences, bits, moments, and characters that you've decided you really want to make use of, out of the much larger, longer list that you generated during the brainstorming process.
But before you proceed to your first draft, or to drawing up a more complete story outline or treatment (should you elect to do that at all), there is still one more prewriting activity you should engage in (two related ones, actually).
Before plunging in (unless you enjoy writing exploratory drafts prior to your actual first draft), spend some additional time on designing your characters, and on the orchestration of characters.
This is one of the most important steps in writing, and it's really a prewriting step (although it can be a rewriting step, if it wasn't addressed earlier).
For those who find they discover a character best by actually writing scenes, there is a prewriting approach that can incorporate that preference (a step that can benefit all writers).
So let's assume you've "worked your list" of brainstormed options, as discussed above. If so, set aside your list for now. Now it's time to focus on characters and their orchestration.
We'll go into that in the next article or two.
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Copyright 2006 by Jeff Newman
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