Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brainstorming in "Real Time"

by Debby Giusti

Last week, I asked my critique partners, Harlequin Super Romance author Anna Adams (photo-middle) and Grammar Diva Darlene Buchholz (photo-left), to join me in a brainstorming exercise. We frequently use the technique to fine tune our stories, but I wanted to determine what we could come up if we started from scratch. As we bounced ideas back and forth, I typed the comments on my Alpha Smart—or at least as many as I could keep up with—and thought you might enjoy seeing how the bare bones of a story took shape.

Brainstorming works on the premise that two heads are better than one. Articulating ideas without a censor overrides the negative voices within and allows creativity free rein. Earlier this year, I posted a blog entitled, “Brainstorming Your New Bestseller.” If you’d like more information about the process, check out the archives for January 21, 2009 ( The post included guidelines for getting started and other how-to details about the technique.

Now back to our “real time” brainstorming. Here’s how the session played out:

I came up with a couple of hooks to get us started and threw out small town secrets and returning hero to the group. A helicopter and small plane had crashed a few days earlier so I added a plane crash into the mix as well. From there the discussion took off.

Anna: Maybe the hero survived the crash. Should he be the pilot?

Darlene: Maybe not the pilot but just onboard.

Debby: He’s in the small plane, flying with his friends perhaps.

Anna: Or was he with his family, and they died in the crash? He and his wife were giving the children a last vacation before the parents separate.

Darlene: Because he’d met his soul mate.

Debby: She lives in the small town.

Anna: But they know they can’t be together.

Debby recaps: The hero’s family died. He returns to the small town to reconnect with the woman he loves.

Darlene: He’s moved back to the small town because that’s home.

Anna: The town is Heartwood, GA. After the crash, everyone offers him condolences, and he feels like a fraud.

Debby: What about the other woman?

Anna: The soul mate is avoiding him.

Darlene: She feels like a fraud as well.

Debby: They had a relationship, which ended years ago before he left town. He married and has brought his family back to Heartwood, but why?

Darlene: To de-clutter their lives and return to small town life and basic family values.

Debby: Were they living in the fast lane?

Darlene: The good life.

Anna: But they were disconnected.

Darlene: And too busy.

Debby: That’s why the marriage was floundering. They returned to Heartwood to save their marriage and their family. Now the hero has nothing except his business. Which is what?

Darlene: He’s an investment broker and worked from home.

Debby: The economy turned bad. He lost a considerable amount of money so they had to return to the simple life for financial reasons. The vacation had been paid for before they lost their wealth.

Darlene: They have two children. Ages 4 and 6.

Debby: What if the children were at home with a sitter? He and the wife were the only ones onboard. She died in the crash. Now the hero husband has to care for two little ones.

Darlene: He should be the pilot.

Anna: There’s more inner conflict if he is the pilot.

Debby: Folks in town are compassionate. The plane crashed and burned. He tried to save his wife and was burned doing so. People call him courageous.

Anna: The other woman, the heroine, is the doctor who handles his burns.

Debby: That’s the homecoming angle. He’s been in a burn center in Atlanta, and he’s coming home to face his children. Where have the kids been?

Darlene: With the grandmother. The wife’s mother has cared for the children. They adore and trust grandma.

Anna: Her daughter told her things weren’t good so grandma wonders if the husband killed her daughter.

Debby: Let’s see what we have. Internal conflict: The hero blames himself for his wife’s death. (Moderator directs the group to key elements needed in the story.)

Anna: He’s been living a lie…still is living a lie. Everyone feels so bad for him.

Darlene: He doesn’t deserve their trust and compassion because he’s not who he seems. He’s wearing a mask. Although he was trying to make the marriage work, his heart wasn’t in it. He was trying for the sake of the children.

Anna: Now the burns are on his face so he really does have a mask.

Debby: The children are afraid of him because of the burns.

Darlene: If his injuries were severe, would his mother-in-law still be against him?

Debby: He did maintenance on the plane, but with money being tight, he failed to fix something he didn’t think would be a problem.

Anna: So when the mother-in-law accuses him, he feels guilty.

Darlene: He wonders if his oversight caused the crash.

Debby: What if someone sabotaged the plane and caused it to crash? The mother-in-law thinks the hero did it. That’s the external conflict: He has to prove he didn’t kill his wife and find out who sabotaged the plane and why.

Darlene: Others may have wanted him to die because they had invested with his company and lost their fortunes. They wanted to kill the hero, not his wife.

Debby: Time check: We’ve worked for 25 min.
(Moderator keeps track of the time and introduces new elements or characters that need to be considered.)

Debby: Let’s move to the heroine. She’s a physical therapist, and he needs therapy for his burns. They both grew up in Heartwood. He left, married and then moved back. His mother-in-law--the children’s grandma--came back too.

Anna: Why did the heroine stay in town?

Darlene: Both the hero and heroine had moved on from their past relationship. She’s not a risk taker. Hearth and home are important. She wanted to stay in Heartwood because she likes small town values. He was the one who needed the glitz. She was the small town girl.

Anna: She knows who she is.

Darlene: She’s anchored in what really is important and is happy in Heartwood.

Anna: She’s made friends with the mother-in-law who needed some type of physical therapy, although the heroine didn’t want to get involved with the hero’s family.

Debby: The more the mother-in-law talked about the family--the happy family--the harder it was for the heroine. Hearing about the hero’s happy family made her realize what she didn’t have.

Anna: The mother-in-law continues to need help with the children.

Debby: The children like the heroine.

Anna: She’s an outdoor person. Lots of fun. Perky.

Debby: The hero’s been receiving rehab in Atlanta for three months.

Darlene: He doesn’t know the heroine is so closely involved with his family. She’s falling in love with his children.

Anna: She instinctively knows how to take care of the children.

Darlene: He’ll be frustrated at times because she’ll know what to do and he won’t.

Anna: The mother-in-law tells the heroine something was wrong with the marriage. One of the children overhears the conversation and asks the hero about it.

Darlene: “Didn’t you love, mommy?” the child might ask.

Debby recaps: The heroine is falling in love with his children and also loves him. What’s the conflict?
(Moderator directs the discussion back to the conflict.)

Anna: The heroine knows the hero's not ready to love again.

Darlene: She knows he won’t stay. He left her and left Heartwood before. He’ll do it again.

Debby: What if the mother-in-law builds up the marriage to the heroine and tells her it was perfect.

Anna: Building up the marriage brings comfort to the mother-in-law.

Debby: The mother-in-law and daughter had an argument prior to the flight.

Darlene: The heroine feels she could never take the place of the wife, especially after everything the mother-in-law has told her about the happy family.

Debby: What’s the external conflict?
(External and internal conflict are key elements needed for character development.)

Darlene: The FAA and the local sheriff would investigate and find something is at fault with the downed plane and so the hero is accused of killing his wife.

Debby: The external conflict is the heroine can’t trust a man who’s killed his wife. Could there have been something in his youth that’s questionable and underscores his possible guilt?

Darlene: What if he’s just taken insurance out on both he and his wife. That looks bad. He’s been preoccupied with his work. Right before the crash, he realizes they need insurance, which plays into the motive for murder.

Debby: The conflict should be more than what people in town think.

Darlene: Right now, it’s just two people not allowing their emotions to get through.

Anna: What if she’s the sheriff, and she’s investigating the crash.

Darlene and Debby: YES!!!
(Anna has come up with strong external conflict for the heroine. As the sheriff, she has to investigate the crash. The hero is the likely suspect.)

Darlene: She was the kid who came from the wrong side of the tracks and felt her station was below the hero’s. What if she had been abandoned?
(Darlene refocuses the discussion on the heroine’s internal conflict.)

Anna: The heroine’s mother abandoned her so she feels drawn to the mother-in-law. She also knows what the hero’s children are experiencing and knows they need a mother.

Debby: Time check: 54 minutes.

Debby: Six minutes are left. Can we go deeper? What would Donald Maass tell us?

Darlene: Let’s think about the villain. Maass says villains need to have likeable qualities.

Anna: The villain has to be someone they both care about. It’s got to be mother-in-law. She knew that hubby and her daughter weren’t getting along, and she decided to get rid of the hero.
(Anna has provided a good villain, hopefully one the readers won’t suspect until she is revealed in the climax. Red herrings will be established to deflect attention away from the mother-in-law.)

Darlene: The mother-in-law lost her fortune in the hero’s investment company. She was afraid he was gong to leave her daughter.
(Darlene goes more deeply into the mother-in-law's motivation.)

Anna: If she kills him, the mother-in-law gets to stay with the kids. She didn't think the wife was going to be on the plane.

Debby: Hero and his wife were going to meet at the vacation spot. The wife was going to drive.

Anna: So when the husband is alive, the mother-in-law is even more upset.

Darlene: The mother-in-law has been a good person, a good mother and grandmother, but she’s let her bitterness and anger get the best of her.

Debby: She’d worked so hard to establish a nest egg that’s gone now.

Anna: More important is her daughter’s happiness.

Debby: What if the mother-in-law’s husband had left her, and she had nothing. She’d been abandoned and didn’t want that for her daughter.

Darlene: The mother-in-law had been talked into investing with the hero’s firm.

Anna: She was afraid of money and didn’t know how to handle it because she had so little.

Debby: She was being the loving mother in her mind, trying to protect her daughter from divorce and destitution.

Debby: Time check: 60 minutes. End of session.

In one hour, we went from small town secrets and returning hero to the beginning of a story. The hero was a financial broker who lost his own fortune as well as the fortunes of those who invested with him, including his mother-in-law.

The hero moves his family back to his hometown of Heartwood, GA, in hopes of saving his marriage. He and his wife take a vacation they arranged and paid for prior to their financial ruin. The wife planned to drive and meet her husband at the resort but at the last minute decided to fly with him.

The plane had been sabotaged and crashed. The hero tries to save his wife from the burning wreckage and is burned doing so. He spends three months in rehab in Atlanta while the mother-in-law cares for his children.

The story opens as he returns to Heartwood. Because he took out a huge insurance policy on his wife shortly before the crash, he is suspected of murder. His children have trouble accepting him back into their lives because of his burns. They gravitate instead to the heroine who has helped care for them over the last three months. The children have grown to love her, and the hero soon realizes he still cares about her as well.

The heroine came from the wrong side of the tracks and never felt equal to the hero. Her mother abandoned her, as did the hero, so she has a natural fear of being abandoned again. When the man she once loved--and realizes she still has feelings for--is suspected of murder, the heroine, who is also the town’s sheriff, needs to uncover the truth. The hero’s children have stolen her heart, and the old feelings she had for the hero soon resurface.

The mother-in-law has lost the nest egg she worked so hard to build after her husband left her. She struggled to raise her daughter and doesn’t want her child to suffer the way she did. Knowing the son-in-law will leave her daughter with nothing, the mother-in-law sabotages the airplane so her daughter will receive the hero’s insurance. She never suspects her daughter will be onboard.

Yes, the story needs more work, but we came up with a strong beginning packed with conflict. Further brainstorming can enhance the plot even more. If you have a suggestion, leave a comment, and we can continue to work online.

Hopefully the “real time” example shows how effective brainstorming can be. The process increases creativity. Inhibitions are put aside, allowing fresh ideas to emerge.

If you’d like to improve a story you’re working on, gather a few friends and see where brainstorming takes you. Remember to keep comments positive as you plow forward. There’s never a wrong response, and one idea always feeds another.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti


Terri Reed said...

Debby, this sounds alot like how my critique partners and me brainstorm. Its good to have lots of brain power working to bring the stories to life.
Thanks for sharing.

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Terri,
We all love brainstorming. Inevitably we end our sessions enthused and ready to go home and tackle our own stories.

Anonymous said...

Two heads are better than one, in this case, three. There's counsel in the midst. Great girl-timin' too!

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for stopping by! Yes, it was great fun! I love brainstorming and am always surprised by how the story takes shape.

Alexandra said...

Hello! I read your post on Seekers and came by to check this out.

I could use some advice on a WIP...

My current WIP is a sequel to my recently finished manuscript. In the first book, my heroine was tricked by the antagonist in the first book. She thought she was in love with him, ran away with him and almost lost her life, only to find that he was nothing he said he was and was only using her for a revenge tool. She’s left feeling like she can never trust herself again. Six years later she turns down a man who truly loves her because she’s afraid of hurting him…she just feels like she can’t trust herself, whether or not she knows what love really is because she was so mistaken before, etc. Is six years too long? Does anyone think she might have gotten over all that by then? The only reason it’s that long is that I wanted the sequel to start at the beginning of World War One.

Alexandra said...

Brainstorming is one of the toughest parts for me. I have a few close friends who have patiently spent hours of time brainstorming for my books instead of chatting like they wanted to. ;-) Love them.

Debby Giusti said...

Hope you stop back today. I logged off last night before you posted. Six years would work, if your heroine was hurt deeply. Some folks never open themselves to love a second time because of a bad "first" relationship.

The man she now refuses into her life may have sent mixed signals to her. She fears he'll hurt her the way the first guy did. She can't trust her own ability to judge character. In her mind, she knows he's a good guy, but she won't allow her heart to be hurt again. Something needs to happen in the story to prove he loves her. He's willing to sacrifice his own life for hers perhaps. She realizes nothing comes with a guarantee, and she has to embrace love now without fearing what may happen in the future.

Something like that. Does that help?

Alexandra said...

Thanks! It helps alot.

She knows the hero from the first book and she likes him "as a friend/sister"...etc. She thinks the world of him and she wouldn't want to hurt, she wakes up one morning and realized that she misjudged again and now they're miserable. And yes, it's all about trusting and letting go of the future, so to speak. I was thinking about having him MIA in the war, at which point the heroine realizes how wrong she was, etc. Is that too cliche? I know that's done alot.

Thanks so much for the help!

Alexandra said...

In the above comment, I meant that she doesn't want to wake up one morning and realize that she doesn't love him...not that she actually did. Hope that wasn't confusing.