Brainstorming, clustering and listing

Oh my! Ways to expand on ideas and thoughts

by Robbi Hess

You’ve narrowed it down. You are going to write about (drum roll, please) butterflies or, possibly, vampires. Thank goodness! Finally you have an idea with possibility… ideas that will (excuse the pun) – fly.

Whether fiction or non, these ideas, while appealing, are much too broad in scope. They need to be cut back, pared down, and their focus needs to be reined in. The act of brainstorming, clustering, listing or any of the myriad other names this exercise goes by can help you:

1) Bring the focus of your writing in to a more manageable range;
2) Target the markets you may be considering writing for;
3) Or, offer up a whole realm of connected ideas and various writing angles.

To “cluster” your idea, write it in the center of a large sheet of paper. Draw a circle around it and come up with any ideas dealing with that larger topic. Say, you chose vampires as your idea. Once you have vampires written on your paper, let your mind roam and see either what closely connected, or not even remotely connected ideas that word spawns. When you come up with your ideas – vampire bats, what if my heroine could only survive in the tropics where she was drenched in sunlight 24/7 and my hero (the vampire) can naturally only survive in a darkened, drafty castle – how will their love overcome, Dracula, the vampire who was afraid of the dark, gothic mansions, Vlad the Impaler, transfusions, garlic, aversion to daylight, etc. etc. write these words down and circle them, off of these words more ideas will cluster until your paper looks like a splatter painting.

The word, garlic, might spawn the ideas of: cooking with garlic, vampires’ fear of garlic, growing and harvesting garlic, medicinal purposes of garlic, or love among the garlic cloves. As you can see, the possibilities are endless and the ideas countless.

Some of you may not like the untidy look of a clustering session, so you may prefer listing. This essentially works the same way, but is much neater (it kind of looks like the old-school outlines with the capital letters followed by Roman numerals). Topic A begets Roman numeral I, and so forth.

There are those of us out there who prefer to talk out loud. Yes, I will admit it. I talk to myself… but only for the benefit of my craft! On my nightly treks through the frozen tundra that is the Erie Canal bank I will spout off the word butterfly, I will then brainstorming that idea on my walk. (I have discovered that I am quite the conversationalist when I have only my tape recorder to talk to) and I will come up with ideas such as: is it true that butterflies can no longer fly if you touch them and the powdery stuff on their wings comes off; what is the powdery stuff on their wings; how can I get butterflies to come to my garden; where do they go in the winter; what if the protagonists’ life cycle was tied in with that of the butterfly he was charged with protecting, what species are indigenous to my part of the world; what is the biggest/smallest species of butterfly, the love affair between the butterfly and the ladybug, etc. etc.

When I hit upon an idea that is particularly intriguing I will whip out my trusty pen and paper and jot it down. But the rest of my ideas are saved on the tape for future reference. Remember I told you… never discard an idea.

For any would-be writer who has ever asked any published writer, “where do you get your ideas from” brainstorming may be the way to get yourself from, wanna-be to actual writer. Everyone has hobbies, hopes and dreams. For any writer who has wanted to fulfill the dream of writing but can’t come up with an idea, these brainstorming techniques could be the way to go.

Take a topic near and dear to your heart and simply let your mind wander to the myriad ideas that are floating around out there. Your original topic may be one to which you are truly connected and knowledgeable about but your brainstorming sessions could take you down paths never imagined.

This month’s exercise: Let’s practice what I’ve just preached. Take one of these ideas, or one of your own choosing, and brainstorm it. Remember, it may take you a couple of tries to find the method that appeals to your personality. Your topics are: lighthouses, fairies/faeries, a diamond ring you found lying in the trash, or a child sitting in an airport repeating the mantra, “My daddy will be here soon…”

© 2003-2004 by Robbi Hess

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