14 Strategies For Invention Writing / Story Brainstorming
Learn several strategies for kickstarting your creativity and building the foundation of your novel.
The Ancient Greeks had the Nine Muses, the goddesses of inspiration. Today, some of us have to look to other sources beyond divine intervention to find the spark of creativity for our stories. Maybe you have an idea and need help to flush it out, or maybe you don’t know where to start.
Invention writing is a fancy way of saying brainstorming - the beginning of the writing process, where you’re collecting your thoughts for what you want to write, and what the story should contain. This process can be as in-depth or minimalist as you want it to be. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, invention writing can help stimulate creativity, and possibly show you a way out of your predicament.
In this article, we’ll present some invention strategies to get those creative juices flowing and inspire some story ideas. National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) kicks off in a few weeks, making now a great time to sit down for some brainstorming sessions, to turn vague ideas into something compelling enough to write about.
Tailor the strategies below to your creative writing process. No brainstorming technique works well for everyone. Feel free to mix and match from the suggestions below to create your own brainstorming routine, and you’ll have novel ideas flowing in no time!
What is Invention Writing?
Sometimes called pre-writing, this is the stage of the writing process before writing a first draft, where writers discover potential ideas and decide what they will write about. Before planning a book, identifying your key concept or theme is required first. Finding that spark of inspiration or collecting, organizing and relating ideas in a way you can move to the plotting phase is what invention writing is about.
Brainstorming Vs Plotting
Brainstorming is a free form of concepts, including events, traits, settings, and other elements that make up a story. This is not to be confused with plotting. Plotting, or deciding on a book’s structure, is about determining the sequence of events within a story. It’s a description of what happens and why it happens.
Pro Tip: For an example of plotting, read What is a Five Act Story Structure.
1 - Pick a genre
Emotions are the backbone of any story, but how they are portrayed depends on the type of novel you want to write. Think about what you like to read, what stories appeal to you, what types of scenes or feelings you enjoy writing. Use those indicators to point you toward a genre or a combination of genres. Love space and love stories? Write a soap opera in a galaxy far, far away. Fascinated with the paranormal and history? Craft a ghost story that occurs in ancient china. With a genre and setting chosen, consider what kind of person your main character would be.
2 - Use a writing prompt
Many people look to writing prompts to spur creativity. Having the theme or topic of your story selected for you can take the pressure off and cause inspiration to hit. By narrowing the thought process down to a specific sandbox to play in, guardrails are created that story ideas must live within. These guidelines help keep you focused and on task.
3 - Freewriting
Developed by Peter Elbow in 1973, freewriting is a writing strategy where you throw all the conventions of writing, grammar, sentence structure, style, and form out the window. Instead, you jot down your thoughts as they come to you during short writing sessions. This invention exercise allows you to tap into your stream of consciousness and keep words flowing uninterrupted. Let one thought lead you to another. Even if the events you write don’t work out, you're figuring out what you do and do not want to write.
4 - Play “What if”
Neil Gaiman suggests typing the words What if at the top of a page and listing twenty scenarios. They can be related to your character, your theme, or an event. For example, what if:
I suddenly developed a super power
I discovered a secret room in the building I work in
A magic spell turns all the writing in the world into Sumerian cuneiform, or Egyptian hieroglyphics, which only a few people can read.
A race of aliens develops a written language of pictographs which are essentially just cat memes.
A peer reviewer reading a research paper about Mesopotamian artifacts discovers the writings contain an apocalyptic prophecy eerily similar to modern events…
Follow any of those that interest you with “and then” jotting down what might happen next.
5 - Take a page from History.
Diana Gabaldon’s highly successful Outlander series was born of the concept of trying to prevent one of the greatest massacres in human history. By wrapping the events of her story around a true historical event, the author has a starting point to start inventing plot points and characters. Phillip L. Dick took this a step further in The Man in The High Castle by speculating what the world would be like if Hitler had won World War II. History abounds with moments ripe for the picking.
6 - Fix a plot hole
A few years ago HBO’s Game of Thrones ended in a way that left many viewers unsatisfied. While some of us took to the internet to share our thoughts, others sat down and wrote the ending they wanted. E. L. James was a fan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight but thought it could be spicier. Fifty Shades of Grey was the result. The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare was inspired by Harry Potter. This list goes on and on.
Fanfiction is a great invention technique because you can play in an existing world with established characters or create new ones. Or, in cases like Wicked, tell the story from another character’s perspective. The possibilities are endless.
Pro-Tip: Fanfiction is not about copying other people’s ideas. That’s plagiarism. Depending on how close your final manuscript comes to the original source, crediting the author for the inspiration is always a good idea.
7 - Visualize it
Either manually with a sheet of paper or a computer program, or mentally with a mind map, put all your ideas in one place and try to connect the dots or arrange them into groupings that naturally fit. Seeing the main points of the setting, characters, and concepts come together on a page can help form the structure for your story.
8 - Double Entry Listing
Maybe you have an idea of what you want to write. More linear than the mapping up above, try a version of word association. Create two columns. In the first column, write a word or a phrase that relates to the theme or concepts you want to be in your story. In the second column, list the detailed evidence or ideas that can support those themes and concepts.
9 - Take a personality test
Typically, we think about the hook, the actions or events that inspired our characters to make the life-altering decisions that propel them toward change. But take a moment to think about the characters themselves. Determining the fine details of a character can inspire plot points. For example, if the character has red hair and an Irish background, they may not enjoy spending all day at the beach without sunscreen.
But the exterior of a person is only the tip of the iceberg. Fleshing out the personality or backstory can influence your story’s core themes, your character’s motivations, and your story beats. Consider figuring out their Enneagram or Myers Briggs personality types to use as a guide on how your character might react to certain situations.
Pro Tip: Do a character interview and answer questions about life, love, and goals as your protagonist or antagonist. Here’s a template you can pull from if you need help coming up with questions.
If you’re writing the story from a first person point of view, this might be a critical part of the creative process, as you hone in on the character’s voice. Consider writing a short story to get to know this character for the first time, to make sure you’re comfortable with it before committing to writing their perspective for hundreds of pages.
10 - Listen to music
Music and feelings go hand in hand, and melodies and lyrics can not only move us, they can transport us to another time. Use this powerful way to tap into emotions and explore. Take the lyrics of a song that speaks to you and craft your story around them. Or imagine the story you are about to write is a movie, and the song is the soundtrack. What scene would it play to?
An added advantage here is down the road when you are writing your book, you can listen to this song to get you back into the groove (pardon the pun) that inspired you.
11 - People Watch
Stepping away from the keyboard and venturing out into the real world to visit a public location like a coffee shop, a sporting event or even a doctor’s office waiting room can be a rich source of inspiration for stories. A casual conversation can lead to an interesting line of dialogue for your new character. Pick a person and create a backstory for why they are there that day, how they got there, and what motivated them to make the decision to stay.
Don’t feel like going outside or observing people outside of your immediate area? Hop on YouTube and search topics that interest you. A virtual tour of a resort on an exotic island might spur story ideas.
12 - Navel Gaze
Have you ever wished you had a do-over? Could have said that one thing to that one person? Made a different choice in life? Sandra Cisneros said, "Writers always live their lives facing backwards, [considering] things we said or could have said, or things we wish we could take back. The work we do is precisely about trying to clean up the mess we made, the kind of emotional footprints we leave behind, or the mess we inherit."
Why not use the chance to redo your own history as the inspiration for a story? Explore the consequences of an alternate reality.
13 - SWOT Analysis
Got an inkling of an idea and need a way to figure out the details? Try this well known strategic planning technique that goes beyond a pros and cons list. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Take your concept and fill in each category. For example, if your idea is about a frog hero:
Ability to jump across gaps
Can breathe in and out of water
Small size - they have to be careful not to get stepped on!
Struggle in dry environments
Frogs are not typical hero material
In fairy tales, frogs tend to turn into princes
Might be hard to create empathy for a frog
Can you make a frog look heroic?
14 - Act like a journalist
When researching an article, a good reporter asks six essential questions. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Apply these questions to your own story to figure out what angle you want to take with it, or what gaps you need to fill in. For example, sticking with the frog hero story idea above:
Who is the frog?
What kind of frog is he or she?
Where does the frog live?
Why is the frog a hero?
How is the frog exposed as the hero?
Let the brainstorming begin
Whether you’re looking for a new idea to write about or just after a way to organize your thoughts, invention writing is an important stage of the writing process. Try one or more of these brainstorming methods to see what stirs up your inspiration!