Thursday, October 14, 2010

Brainstorming; Part One

All writers must discover their own process for developing the stories, and naturally the process varies from writer to writer. The idea of having a process seems to add credibility to the idea that an author can do it again; otherwise, the writer may flounder hopelessly in a sea of trail and error—thus, the need for the term one-book wonders?

I’m a big fan of the bubble map (vein map) in the early stages of brainstorming, and I’m guessing most writers use the Donald Maass Breakout Novel Questions. Knowing each writer has to find the process that works for him or her, I offer two of my brainstorming tools in hope others will find a tidbit they can tailor to fit their personal style. I’m guessing the idea of following a process may even cause some pantsers to hyperventilate, but here goes.

One step in my brainstorming process is the “The Playmaker Strategies” which I gleaned from “The Elements of Influence” by Alan Kelly. This book was written primarily for managers, business leaders and campaigners, but it has given me some great strategies for my characters to use and move the plot along. The book is out of print, but you can still get an inexpensive used copy from Below is a brief summary of a few of the playmaker strategies.

The Pause Strategy
The playmaker (character) remains silent and allows the competition (other character) to talk until they talk themselves into a corner (or reveal too much information).
The author cites the example of an important meeting when Winston Churchill and his political counterpart were both called to a meeting with the current prime minister. During the meeting Churchill remained silent and let the competition (who was more qualified) talk himself out of the job. I’ve used this strategy to have my female character to talk endlessly and thus reveal more information than she intended while the brooding male listens quietly.

The Ping Strategy
The playmaker (character) drops a hint or dribbles out important information to evaluate the response from the opposing team. It’s a low-impact way to check on the competition’s pulse on a given situation. This is often used at poker tables where the players lightly rib their opponents to watch for their reactions. Story characters can use this strategy to test the response of bad news or some secret a character fears will get out.

The Filter Strategy
The player (character) allows some information to get out and holds back other info in order to control which facts might be used to his or her advantage. For example, a soldier is killed during battle, and the army paints him as a hero as it draws on the patriotism of family and friends, not revealing the full truth—his death was the result of friendly fire. A story character might make a serious mistake and knowing he or she is about to get caught, but uses the situation as if it was planned, while at the same time hiding bits of the truth.

The Deflect Strategy
An attempt to divert a rival’s attack, either to avoid or minimize its impact. Also known as dodging, and passing the buck. Example; A famous baseball player on trial was asked about his use of steroids, and his response was; “I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself.” Instead of answering the question, he cleverly diverted it.

The Pass Strategy
Typically used by a player as a means of bailing out of a marketplace to preserve resources or focus elsewhere. The book uses the example of IBM selling its PC business to China’s Lenovo group—in order to focus profits elsewhere. Likewise, a story character might withdraw from his previous agenda under the cover of “the good of others” while in reality he has to focus his energy on a more pressing or more important issue.

The Lantern Strategy
The deliberate preemptive disclosure by a player of its own flaw, mistake or some source of potential embarrassment or controversy. Thus, the character volunteers to confess his mistake before someone else can do so. IE—report the bad news on your own terms before someone else can report it on their terms. The book uses the example of the 1952 Richard Nixon Checker’s Speech when he had to fend off accusations that he had accepted illegal campaign contributions. Nixon surprised his detractors by doing the unexpected. Instead of dodging the charges, he confronted them directly, point by point—even to the extent of the gift of their dog Checkers.

The unsolicited parading by a player of a novelty to generate attention in a marketplace. Peacocks usually hinge on a novelty or unusual action—to spur market talk. Good peacocks have staying power and are remembered for years. Example; Oprah and the 7-million dollar car giveaway. It shows who has the power. How many times do we see a story where a wealthy character gives so generously, even to the point that it diminishes the sacrifices the main character makes, causing us to dislike the big giver?

The book explores twenty-five of these playmaker strategies, which it breaks down into precise moves and countermoves by which the competitive advantage is won and lost. I go through each strategy and try to come up with a way in which each one might add something to my story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it has worked enough to be worth the effort.

Perhaps you have a brainstorming strategy of your own. Care to share? Next month I’ll give an overview of George Polti’s thirty-six dramatic situations.


  1. Wow, what great information. Thanks for sharing.



  2. I've been stuck in brainstorming mode on my next story idea, so I'll have to work through this list and see if it propels me forward. Thanks for sharing, Kenny!

  3. I love brainstorming but I never knew there was a method to brainstorming to get better results. Interesting concept.

  4. This is great, Kenny. Thanks!

  5. Michelle WeidenbennerOctober 19, 2010 at 7:47 AM

    This post is a keeper. How creative!