How to brainstorm story ideas for your novel

What to do when you’ve got an idea for your story but still no actual story? You start brainstorming story ideas, and you do that by actually jotting down all the ideas you have instead of letting them sit in your brain doing nothing. If you don’t know where to start writing a book, you might just not have enough of your ideas easily accessible in front of you.

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I finished my book last spring and although I did make a conscious decision not to start writing anything until autumn, it still feels kinda wrong to not have something to work on or to even have an idea what I might start working on. I do have some very vague ideas, feels and vibes, but that’s pretty much it.

This is why I made myself these novel brainstorming printables, because if I can’t help myself plan my next novel, who CAN I help? This post is about how to brainstorm your next novel with or without the printables.

Related: All vibes and no plot? Do this.

Moods and vibes

Maybe you have an idea about how you want your story to feel like, and I’ll be honest, this is probably easiest to describe with things other than words. My printables have space for your story’s playlist as well as for what has inspired it (is it like Totoro for adults? Star Wars but not in space?) but the best thing to do at this phase of brainstorming is to make a moodboard.

You can create a moodboard with your own little hands by cutting pictures from a magazine and taping them to a cardboard, but you could go the easy way and create a Pinterest board or use any kind of collage-making app.

How do you want your readers to feel when they read your story? Scared or cozy? Do you have a certain feel about a character or a place? Write all these things down (or use the pictures) and start building from there.

Making a playlist for your story even before you’re totally sure what the story is about can be a powerful tool for getting you in the right headspace of figuring out the rest. The playlists can also be used later on when you’re actually writing the story.

Coming up with your story setting while brainstorming story ideas

Basically, setting is where your story takes place, but it’s also the other details of your story world. What year is it? Is it a real place or fictional? Does winter last an unusually long time? Do they use women just to make babies for other women? These are also a part of your story setting. (By the way, I’ve also written about writing seasons for your story setting and about how to describe places the best way.)

Any ideas that are vaguely related to your setting are worth writing down. You can think of nature and environment, but also specific physical locations like villages or cities. New settings can also bring forth new conflict ideas for your story, which is super important. After all, no conflict means no story.

Things to consider when you’re brainstorming story settings: sensory details, notable past events, who thrives in the setting, who struggles in the setting, is something dangerous, do people try to find something there, how your characters relate to the setting.

Brainstorming characters

I sometimes have ideas for characters in my mind, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I’ve got ideas for how the characters relate to the world and to other characters. In What Birds Are Made Of, my latest finished novel, my protagonist develops an embarrassing obsession on her sister’s brother-in-law. Although the main storyline revolves around my protagonist’s relationship with her sister, the dynamics between Maura and Nathan were something I had an idea about before I had any of the actual plot.

Although you can find countless character worksheets with questions about your characters’ hair colour and childhood pets, those things are not that integral for your story (even if they’re good information for yourself as the writer) so you really don’t have to worry if you don’t know yet what your characters look like or what their hobbies are.

Sure, if you DO know, write those things down, but the characters’ motivations and their feelings about the world and other people are more important for developing your story. In fact, what your character wants and needs is what your story is actually about. My Protagonist Workbook will also help you discover your character in a way that actually matters to your story.

When you’re brainstorming characters, you can think of these things: personality trains, strengths, weaknesses, relationship to protagonist, relationship to other characters, notable characteristics, good things they do, bad things they do, things they want, things they don’t want.

What about plot? Don’t you need that?

Very on brand for me to talk about characters before the plot, but if you’re not quite sure yet what your story is about, plot might not be the first thing you should try to come up with.

See, what any story is really about, is your character wanting something, and then either getting or NOT getting it. Everything else is just details.

Conflict is important, but what even is conflict if not “someone is not getting what they want out of a situation”? Obstacles and complications are the meat of your story, as they are what your characters come across when they’re trying to get that thing they want (or what they think they want).

That’s why you don’t need to worry about plot straight away, but what should you think about when you’re finally ready to do that? My favourite plotting exercise is “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” where you write down everything interesting and exciting that could possibly happen in your story without filtering yourself.

When you can’t come up with any more “what if” ideas, take a look at what you’ve written and highlight the stuff that will be usable once you start the actual plotting process. The best plot idea might actually be something you wouldn’t have initially thought of.

If you have any ideas for beginning or endings, you should write them down as well even if you have no idea about the rest. When you have more ideas for your plot, you will be able to figure your way out into an entire story using your ideas as landmarks.

Should you think of dialogue when brainstorming story ideas?

True, dialogue probably shouldn’t be your first priority at this point, but if you DO have miscellaneous bits of dialogue floating around in your head, you absolutely should write them down.

When you’ve got ideas for other aspects of your story written down, even if it’s just a single character and one imaginary location, those solitary lines of dialogue can be extremely useful. You could even come up with an entire scene with those three things! So don’t get stressed over not having any dialogue ideas, but if you do have something in mind that your characters might say, it can absolutely be used even this early on in the writing process.

Generate endless story ideas

If you’ve got a shortage of things to write about, I’ve got the solution for you. Your Best Story Idea generates you story ideas using your own brain and you’ll never run out of things to write about again. I’m pretty proud of this workbook which is exactly why I want to give it to you for free.

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