How to Brainstorm a Story That Leaves ‘Em Thunderstruck

Abi Wurdeman
January 3, 2023

Let’s talk about how to brainstorm a story, shall we?

Let’s talk about conjuring an absolute thunderfest of brilliance using only flashes of inspiration and the genius hidden in the deepest recesses of your subconscious.

Sounds beautiful, right? 

But let me warn you: as magical as this process sounds, it looks like a hot mess.

Notes typed in rambling blocks of text. Magazine images and bar napkins scrawled with sudden bursts of inspiration stashed between the pages of a notebook. Voice memos you can barely understand because you whispered them into your phone during your kid’s ballet class.

Yeah, it gets chaotic. All you can do is embrace the chaos.

That and try some of these tips for how to brainstorm a story.

I’ll show you how to find ideas, flesh those ideas out, and turn the wreckage of your storm into something magnificent.

So grab your raincoat. The clouds are rolling in.

How to Gather Ideas

A person writes on notecards taped to a dry erase board.

The number one rule of how to brainstorm a story is this:

No judging.

Right now, it’s not about deciding what’s clever or marketable or entertaining. It’s about opening up creatively and discovering what intrigues you. You can’t do that when you’re constantly worried about whether or not your ideas are “good enough.”

Now, here are some of my favorite strategies for brainstorming.

Freewrite

I like to do my freewriting by hand and start by asking my brain a direct question. At the top of the page, I write something like “What should this story be about?” or “What does my character need?”

Then I keep writing without pausing or thinking too hard and see what comes out.

Inevitably, my brain offers me some kind of answer. It may not be a fully-formed story, but it’s a step in the right direction. Most importantly, it shows me what I care about or am curious about. And that’s what matters most at this stage. 

I can find the intersection of my interests and my readers’ interests later. First, I have to find the story that speaks to me. So do you.

Keep an Inspiration File

Save images of places that inspire you or “characters” that intrigue you. News stories that spark your curiosity. Maps, brochures, poems, or anything else that makes you want to build a whole new world around that single idea, event, or image.

Print it out, clip it, scan it, whatever. Put it in a physical file or store it digitally in one of your Dabble folders for easy access. 

Return to this file when you’re ready to brainstorm a story. See what sparks.

Try Writing Exercises

You can find loads of fun story prompts online and in books, including here at DabbleU. We even have genre-specific story ideas for:

I know sometimes using a writing prompt can feel like you’re just running off with a stolen premise. But once you start playing with the original idea, you’ll stumble across something that’s entirely your own. 

Explore New Twists or Retellings

What if the Titanic hadn’t sunk? What if The Ugly Duckling was a story about a little boy who wanted to be a ballerina? Also, what’s King Triton’s backstory? How did this guy become ruler of the ocean while balancing the challenges of being a #GirlDad? And who is his personal trainer?

Try twisting, spinning off, or re-imagining existing stories. There’s no end to the alternate versions you can come up with. (Just ask a fanfiction writer!)

How to Brainstorm Story Elements

Torso of a person writing in a red notebook.

The exercises above will help you grasp onto that initial spark, whether it’s a character you’d like to get to know or a juicy conflict you can’t wait to explore. 

Whatever it is, you’ll eventually have to figure out how to brainstorm a story in more specific terms so you can fill in your missing story elements.

Here are a few questions to inspire your next round of ideation.  

As You Brainstorm Characters…

  • What kind of person would struggle the most with this setting/conflict/theme?
  • What does this character want most?
  • How do they intend to get it?
  • What do they actually need?
  • Why can’t they see that they need this thing?
  • What is their greatest fear? Flaw? Motivation?
  • What are their strengths? Weaknesses?
  • Who is most important to this character?
  • What is the worst thing that ever happened to them?
  • How do they see themselves or the world because of that experience?
  • How will this character grow (or not grow) over the course of this novel?

Here are more resources for brainstorming characters:

As You Brainstorm Setting…

  • What are the defining natural elements of this setting? Think about weather, plants, animals, etc.
  • What are the values and taboos of this society?
  • Who holds the power here? Who doesn’t? 
  • What is the majority culture in your setting? What other cultures exist in this world? How do cultures engage with one another?
  • Do your characters fit in here? If anyone doesn’t, in what ways are they at odds with their setting?
  • Is there anything dangerous about your setting?
  • Is magic a thing here? How does it work?

Here are more resources for how to brainstorm a story setting:

As You Brainstorm Conflict…

  • What type of conflict does each character face?
  • How is their internal conflict reflected in their external conflict?
  • What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to your protagonist? What would it look like to put that in your story?
  • How can you make the conflict even worse as the story progresses?
  • What kind of challenges would force your character to face their fears or do something they swore they’d never do?
  • Which characters will become better people because of their conflicts? Will anyone become worse—cynical, ragey, or downright evil?
  • How will the conflicts be resolved? Will they be resolved? (Pro tip: if you have an answer for this right away, there’s a good chance your conflict isn’t big enough. See what happens if you throw your character a challenge so big you don’t even know how to get them out of it.)

Here are more resources for how to brainstorm a story conflict:

As You Brainstorm Plot…

Plot is the way you tie all of the above story elements together in one satisfying stream of events. Regrettably, I can’t help you crack into your plot with a series of questions because it really all comes down to one big question:

How do you want to structure this thing?

Do you want to tap into the soothingly familiar structure of the Hero’s Journey? The thrilling build of the Fichtean Curve? The Shakespearean symmetry of Freytag’s Pyramid

Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little lost here. We’ve got a comprehensive article breaking down all the best-loved story structures. 

Once you choose your framework, you’ll have a template for how to brainstorm story beats.

How to Organize the Chaos

A big part of learning how to brainstorm a story is figuring out how to make sense of the chaos of inspiration spewing forth from your brain.

Here are a few strategies for keeping your ideas organized and making sure no kernels of genius slip through the cracks.

The File System

Maybe it’s one giant document with every idea you’ve had recorded in rambling paragraphs. Or maybe you keep multiple documents in a single folder on your computer. Or a notebook with tabs. 

You can also try my strategy, which is to go folder-happy in Dabble’s Story Notes. I like this option because I can create as many new notes as I want, add links to relevant research, and upload photos.

A screenshot showing how to brainstorm a story using Story Notes in Dabble.

It allows me to follow my creative impulses (“Wait! What if the ex comes back? Okay, new note about the ex…”) while still keeping those sudden bursts of inspiration somewhat organized.

Now, if you want a hyper-organized version of this system, you can check out the Snowflake Method. It’s a bit too involved to lay out in this article, but if you’re interested, Dabble’s top Snowflake Method advocate has written a thorough guide. You can find it here.

The Mind Map

A mind map is a great option for visual brainstormers. It’s super simple.

You put your central idea in the center of the page. Then you keep track of the ideas that stem from that central idea by drawing lines branching off of that center. You can even create sub-branches off those new ideas.

Now, there are a lot of ways to use a mind map in brainstorming. You can use it to just collect your thoughts, like this:

A mind map with the words "Fantasy Novel" at the center.

You can also use a mind map to create a more organized view of your story elements, like this:

A mind map with the words "Magical Tornado Land Idea" at the center.

And if you don’t have enough page space to really dig into those story elements, you can give them their own mind maps, like this:

A mind map with the word "Characters" at the center.

The Plot Grid

The Plot Grid is (wait for it) a grid that allows you to plan and review your plot points, character arcs, theme development, and more side by side. It’s a brilliant way to get organized and make sure all your story elements are working together. 

Dabble has created its own super versatile Plot Grid feature that’s an absolute lifesaver in the brainstorming process (according to me, anyway). 

See, with the Plot Grid, it’s easy to see where the holes are, as well as edit and move individual cards. You can also customize the Grid to suit your specific needs, which means it can look like this:

A screenshot of a Dabble Plot Grid tracking the locations of characters throughout the scenes of a mystery novel.

Or this:

Screenshot of a Dabble Plot Grid outlining The Hunger Games according to three-act structure.

Or this:

A screenshot of a Dabble Plot Grid tracking character arcs scene by scene.

There’s also a label feature I use to remind myself when I left a scene idea half-baked. Like this:

Screen shot of a Dabble Plot Grid scene with a label reading "Incomplete."

Of course, you can create your own Plot Grid without Dabble. Pen and paper work fine. It just happens to be extra convenient to do your gridding with Dabble, because then all your notes are right there as you draft your novel.

How to Brainstorm a Story, in a Nutshell

Ultimately, you have to do what works for you. Everybody sources, collects, and organizes their genius in their own way. The number one rule here is that there are no rules.

So loosen up, give your inner critic the year off, and let those wild ideas fly. 

Oh! And if you’re interested in brainstorming with Dabble, you can try all Premium features, including the Story Notes and Plot Grid, for free for fourteen days. You don’t even need to enter a credit card. Just click this link and unleash the storm.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.