a magic plot-problem solving trick

Filed under: writing

I’ve started to do a little bit of work on my next book. Some people love starting a new book; I find it terrifying. That being-on-the-brink-of-a-precipice-that-could-end-anywhere feeling makes my stomach all churny. It’s like going into a new city without a map, and without knowing a word of the language they speak. Anything could happen, which means there’s a horrifying possibility of it all going WRONG.

But. On Tuesday I bought a new notebook and went into a cafe and sat and brainstormed for an hour. I’ve had the idea for this particular book for a long time; in fact I tried writing it four years ago and I didn’t have much success at it. But it hasn’t let me go and I think it might be time for me to pick it up and start again.

Thinking about it has made me change it somewhat; I’ve re-thought the heroine and her job, and who the secondary characters should be. I’ve invented a completely new hero, and changed my notions about how to structure it the story. But there was one big, major problem. See, I had this little mystery in the story. And I had no idea about its solution. Someone sends an email to the heroine, which propels her into action. But who sent it?

I’ve been thinking about this little problem for four years now. And never found a solution. The same few answers kept on re-occurring…and I’d consider them, again and again, and every time I’d find another reason why they wouldn’t work.

So I sat in this cafe with a cappuccino and did a little brainstorming trick that I learned some time ago. What you do is this:

Write down every possible answer to your question, as a list. Try to think of as many as you can. Don’t worry if they’re stupid answers. Stupid answers are fine. Don’t stop to consider whether they’ll work or not. Just write, and write, and write.

The first few answers will be the obvious ones. Once you’ve written them down, they’re out of your brain and you can discard them. Then you’ll start coming up with more interesting ones. (Usually, with me, aliens will figure in some way.) And eventually, you will find the right one. It will probably be out of left field. It will be something you never thought of before. And you will absolutely know that it’s perfect.

I’ve done this a few times before—for example, the climactic scene in Girl from Mars was a result of my brainstorming in this way. I wrote down a dozen ideas before coming up with the final one, and as soon as I wrote it down, I realised that not only was it the perfect solution, but that I’d unconsciously foreshadowed it in my draft of the book up to that point.

This time, I wrote down a list of eight or nine people who could have send that email to my heroine, and when I wrote down the name of the tenth, I KNEW. I actually gave a little excited squeal. Suddenly a whole dimension of the story opened up to me. Suddenly I could see themes and structure. Suddenly, I was excited about writing this book, instead of being scared.

It was amazing.

Try it.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Cohen, Ann Patey. Ann Patey said: RT @liz_fenwick: RT @julie_cohen: @lucie_wheeler @SCallejo @lisabodenham Your wish is my command, here you go. http://bit.ly/enifFG […]

  2. Julie, Julie, Julie… what would I do without you?! This advice couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. I’ve spent all morning trying to figure out how my secondary heroine and hero are realistically going to get-it-together. Their problem is they think they are polar opposites when in fact they’re very alike and I just can’t think of a scenario on how to change their opinions and feelings for one another. I don’t want them to have a boring argument where they both realise they’re really both on the same side… Right. Notebook and pencil at the ready. Here goes… x

  3. Great advice – I really must try it! It could be the cure I’m needing to fix a tricky scene I’m working on. Thanks Julie. Caroline x

    • I hope it helps with your tricky scene Caroline!

  4. Another fantastic post! Thanks Julie!

  5. […] cards and Post-Its and start plotting different ways that the story might go. Or I’ll do my sure-fire trick of listing everything I can think of. Or I’ll get out the character books, or the craft […]

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