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Monday, February 1, 2016

The REAL Key to Brainstorming: Restrictions

If you're like me, you probably learned how to brainstorm in a classroom. Some teacher gave you some methods, like this mind map or just told you to write down everything that came to mind. Maybe you connected them with lines. But for a lot of people, like me, it just wasn't really that effective. Sure, I might get a great idea eventually, but the truth is, there are more efficient ways to get better results, faster.

Here is why I wish my teachers didn't tell me I could brainstorm anything.

You brainstorm better with restrictions.

I know it sounds like the exact opposite of what should work . . . because it is. But it works, and it works better.

The problem with the "anything can go" approach is that nothing really ends up going. In this post, I'll explain why restrictions are so important and effective in brainstorming quality work, and give you some restrictions to get you brainstorming a fantastic character in minutes, as an example.

The Problem with Brainstorming "Anything"

If we don't set any kind of limitations or restrictions when we are brainstorming, we can actually make brainstorming harder. You're in this big, ol', vast world, and anything can happen. You can start anywhere and end anywhere. So which direction do you go? Which way will give you the highest quality storytelling stuff? Can you tell?

Now before I get too far into this, I want to acknowledge that this approach can work, and it can work well for some people. Maybe it works well for you. Awesome. But I would argue that most (not all) people would brainstorm better if they gave themselves limitations--as long as they are smart limitations.

Author Austin Kleon talks about this in his bestselling book Steal like an Artist. He writes, "Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities." 

 He also gives a great example. After Dr. Seuss wrote Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, his editor bet him he couldn't write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back with Green Eggs and Ham. It became one of the bestselling children's books of all time.

The problem with anything goes is that it's not structured. It's like what the Cheshire cat says to Alice, if you don't know where you want to end up, it doesn't matter what direction you go.

If you give your brainstorming limitations and goals, it will help define your brainstorming session and give you better results, faster.

But you have to give yourself smart limitations. These are supposed to be restrictions that help you brainstorm better, not worse. So saying things like, "None of my good guys can have a dark side," won't be a helpful limitation and it will weaken your story. I'll give you an example of some good ones at work.

Brainstorming with Restrictions: How it Works

I once attended a workshop with #1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, where he had us brainstorm several characters as a class. But he didn't just turn us all loose, saying "anything goes." He gave us these character guidelines:

   Has an interesting job
   A unique passion or hobby
   And a secret they don’t want anyone to know about

He also touched on the fact they needed to have one of these three character arcs (a character arc is how your character grows throughout the story)

Incompetent --> Competent (example: Harry Potter grows more competent in spells)

Not Proactive --> Proactive (example: Katniss Everdeen becomes more proactive about changing Panem)

Unlikeable --> Likable (example: Sherlock becomes more likeable as he learns how to socialize better.)

In the workshop, we were able to brainstorm three fascinating characters that just about anyone would want to write about.

For me, I would recommend adding this guideline, which I've been blogging a lot about the last year or so:

Give your character an interesting contradiction.

Then explore it. The logic and gray area that explains this contradiction can give you a lot to play with and give your character depth and complexity.

If you follow these guidelines, you'll probably brainstorm a better character, and you'll do it faster. See, instead of restrictions keeping you from discovering great characters (or a great anything), they actually help you find something better.

But you can use other restrictions instead of the ones I mentioned. I know when I'm brainstorming a scene in my story, I already have certain restrictions in play because of the criteria that needs to be met. It gives me direction and definition, and I always end up with better results than if I said "Anything is fair game." Yes, think of a lot of things! Think outside of box! Expand your options! But don't expand them so much you don't have anything to grasp onto. Instead say "anything can go--within these restrictions."

You can create restrictions for anything--a setting, a plot twist, even a theme.

Now go brainstorm!


  1. Very good reminder, limitations or boundaries are essential from designing a building to crafting a story.


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