Non-linear Brainstorming and Story Development

(‘WRITINA’ is not a word in Scrabble, no matter how much you want it to be)

Firstly, I don’t mean for the first part of the title to read like an unnecessarily complicated neurosurgical procedure, nor do I wish to imply that there is yet another allegedly precise, near-algebraic process that will facilitate the generation of meaningful, successful stories. Hopefully, the title will become clearer as I go on; in fact, you may even feel that this article states general truisms about writing stories. However, having spent a few years developing screenplays, whether for my own projects, in collaboration, or for production companies, I feel that some of my observations may at the very least be worth restating.

This article is the result of having to write, from scratch, numerous story pitches in a short period for producers. Early in my career I repeatedly found myself in a catch-22 situation: The speedy generation of these synopses forced me away from the ideal creative approach to focus almost exclusively on creating workable plotting details. Plotting relies on organisational mental processes, rather than the purely creative, so subsequent readers of these short pitches (and critics of Hollywood movies in general, I feel) noted that something was missing and I already knew what it was: lack of insightful character work or the special intangible ‘something’ that makes some stories unique. I’d heard it before and now I was experiencing it first hand: Early plotting oftentimes produces clichés.

I needed a way to be able to create well plotted stories that also optimised the extensive work normally necessary for character and thematic depth. Through trial and error I eventually devised the following technique and I’ve since written several pitches that have been picked up for future development.

In general, there are left-brain writers who wield craft as their primary tool, carefully outlining and plotting their screenplays seemingly ad infinitum, determined to nail down act structures and character arcs before committing themselves to a first draft. And there are right-brainers who, as advocates of the adage “writing is rewriting”, just want to get stuck in, employing instinct as their primary instrument, eschewing a technical view of the story until much later in the writing process, if at all.

The two brain camps, or if you’ll permit a bad joke, hippocampi, often claim that the other’s approach is flawed: The Righties claim that the Leftie method is too clinical, relies lazily on the crutch known as three act structure, lacks spontaneity and risks overlooking the genuine gold waiting to be sifted from our subconscious; and the Lefties feel that the Rightie method is imprecise, leaves too much open to chance and can hinder a project, particularly if there’s a producer impatient for tangible results. In the professional world there’s no room for writers who say things like: “I started a screenplay, but I got fifty pages in and realised it wasn’t going anywhere, or I didn’t know where to take it next, so I stashed it in a drawer where it has resided untouched for ten years.”

It’s possible that the two approaches may be better unified in a way that fuses the positive aspects of each. Irrespective of the method that one may favour, many writers for some reason, at least in my experience, seem to plot in a linear fashion, which can limit the development of the story. By linear I mean the writer invents a scene or beat and, content with it, mentally locks it, then asks themselves, “OK, so what happens next?” and so on and so forth, all the while leaving behind a string of fixed moments. It’s like piling stones on top of each other to make a tower.

Unless you’re prodigiously talented (most of us aren’t) or just lucky (most of us aren’t), this is a potentially risky way to proceed and can lead to the scenario as described above wherein the writer literally hits a brick wall, or to continue my ‘pile of stones’ metaphor, finds a stone he likes but, placing it on top of his tower, suddenly realises that the selection of stones he chose lower down are not best suited to support the new stone. The writer is unable to find the stone that will justify what has come before. After many weeks or even months, if the writer does not relegate the story to the bottom drawer, he may have to resign himself to extensive redevelopment.

Brainstorming and plotting in a non-linear way can completely open up both the writing process and the possibilities for your story. However, because the creative parameters for possibilities do widen – infinitely so - it’s important that some parameters are in place before you begin, otherwise it’s easy to become entangled in an uncontrollable muddle wherein literally any random invention might seem viable. The first important parameter is a solid enough understanding of your characters (ideally, you have not only an understanding of your characters as individuals, but also in orchestration); the second is an awareness of your story’s intended controlling idea. I italicise intended because, though these elements are your anchors, they should not be so weighty as to hamper progress and oppose any kind of directional change.

What is non-linear brainstorming or plotting?
Simply put, it is story invention not determined by pre-conceived ideas about your story’s or characters’ direction.
How does one brainstorm in a non-linear way?
Try not to think about what events or actions occur first and then what subsequently occurs, but about what could happen within the general arena of the character’s world you are investigating. Allow for scenes, beats and actions that might contradict other ideas you’ve had; it doesn't matter if they don't follow on logically.
Invent situations and test your character(s) in them, even if you know you’ll probably never use the material.
Also, try not to think, “this scene is the climax; so-and-so scene is the opening…” etc. Just keep writing, even if you feel you’ve already got several scenes that might be good openers. Allow a character to die in one idea, live in the next; you’re just playing. Permit a character to react differently in a given scenario, according to mood; after all, real people also react differently to the same stimuli, depending on their mood.
Play with character roles. Your protagonist may have a sidekick, for example; invent scenes that support this role, but be free to invent others in which the sidekick betrays your protagonist.
Test your protagonist. Ask yourself, “What would piss my protagonist off the most?” What would it take to push him over the edge? Revel in scenarios that test his resilience and ethics to the full.

Don’t be so sure about the direction of the story; don’t work towards an ending or turning point that you feel is already fixed. The main body of a story, its premise, is a hypothesis to be tested. Yes, at the end of a story one might be left with a controlling idea, i.e. “greed leads to destruction”, but during development the writer’s focus should be on an open axiomatic premise, “Does greed lead to destruction?” or better, “Where does greed lead one?” The screenplay is a dialogue, moving dynamically between the poles of the story’s dramatic question. In many ways, irrespective of the writer’s personal belief about story’s direction, a writer’s role is that of an impartial investigator; the documentary filmmaker of his own fictional world, fairly representing each side of the dramatic hypothesis to an audience.

It should be possible to generate pages and pages of improvised scenes, beats and turns. As I wrote earlier, this isn’t work so much as play; it’s right-brain activity. But, whether you’re a Leftie or a Rightie, you will hopefully experience some creative liberation because you are no longer desperately attempting to invent the only possible moment that can follow your previously invented one in a line or chosen path that is either instinctive (Rightie) or structurally formal (Leftie).

If you’ve played Scrabble, you’ll know that the best way to think is laterally, openly. Before you are your seven letters: W, R, I, T, I, N, A. Those players who resolve to wait for a letter ‘G’ to create the word WRITING, playing only their disposable letter time and time again, limit their chances and often lose because they are only thinking in a linear way. A non-linear thinker will leave her options open and will not fixate on formulating the word ‘WRITING’, no matter how apparent it seems that this should be her next word.
On the face of it, a story may seem to contain all the elements necessary for a great screenplay, just as WRITINA seems to contain most of the letters necessary for the word WRITING, but after extensive work it can be very disheartening to find that you do not have the ‘G’ to complete your story successfully, nor will you ever have. Though many letters are accurate and well placed, WRITINA is simply not passable as a word; it’s no word at all - No ‘G’, no word. Zero points. Screenplay in the bottom drawer.

After brainstorming as many scenarios and situations as possible, the left brain can be switched on and sifting through the many ideas can begin. You may have invented a few moments that seem incongruous, but there’s something about them that attracts you; some plot points might even seem to have come out of the blue, ‘how the hell did I come up with that?!” Playing and shuffling with the invented scenarios, you may start to discover which compliment each other. You might now also begin to be aware of structural possibilities. Some scenes will be clearly expositional, some will contain moments of jeopardy, others high jeopardy. Several moments will be strong transitional moments that send the story in a different direction. All these immediately suggest a place in a region of your story. You might find that you have twenty completely different openings, fifty climaxes, fifty confrontations, but you don’t have to decide yet which one or selection you’re going to go with.

You might even permit yourself to play with your chosen beats by placing them into the classic 3-act paradigm to see what happens. You could create headings: Inciting incidents, plot point ones, midpoints, crises, etc, or even more loosely: act 1, 2, 3, etc. Other category headings might more conceptual, i.e. to employ the often used Wizard of Oz as an example: ‘Beats that illustrate Dorothy’s home life’; ‘beats that demonstrate Dorothy’s struggle with the wicked witch’; ‘beats that demonstrate Dorothy at her lowest’, etc.

Categorise all your brainstormed beats and scenes under the headings. Can your story fit into a 3-act structure? From all your moments of conflict can you construct a selection of beats that, when placed together, creates a line that builds naturally and smoothly to a climax?

If it’s not possible to fit your idea into the 3-act model, it doesn’t matter; there are always alternatives. Note that you have not been slavishly measuring your story against the 3-act from the outset, but you are measuring the 3-act against your story to see if it is suitable or even adaptable – you’re not attempting to squeeze your body into a pre-existing clothing, merely trying on the clothes to see if they are appropriate for your unique body. Your story is not subservient to the paradigm; you don’t want your screenplay to look like everyone else’s.

After some shuffling and fiddling, you might have several skeletal run-throughs of your story. In one version your character’s main trait might be what saves the day; in another it might be his undoing. But your outlines may not be remarkably contrary; the differences may be subtler. One outline might emphasise the tragedy in the tale, another, the dark humour. One may have a completely positive ending, another, though also positive, may have an additional undertone of irony.

Now the right brain lends a hand again: which outline feels right? You can always cross-reference your wide base of material, so if during deeper writing work, you hit a brick wall you already have pre-existing options that can be experimented with, options that you invented during a phase of dedicated right brain creation; you don’t have to flip from left brain plotting to right brain creation and back again. Unlike sculpting, in writing you can keep and reuse all the many bits you cut off.

This process may have only taken you a few days or weeks. It has afforded you the opportunity to rapidly attempt several words with your seven Scrabble letters W, R, I, T, I, N, A, rather than rigidly focusing on completing the word WRITING, and by utilising this method you have investigated if indeed you can find the missing ‘G’ that could make or break your screenplay. It hasn’t cost you months of working blindly out of pure instinct, and it hasn’t forced you to lazily adopt 3-act structure from the outset for the sake of speed; it has given you a position of control over both the inspirational and technical aspects of your material, as well as awarded you a wider view of its options and potential. It has permitted both sides of the brain to work together and to their fullest.



4 comments:

ELI AKIM said...

Speaking as a "rightie" who succeeds in spite of myself, reliant sometimes purely on the muse and prewriting until I discover something worth saying in a fresh way, which is maddening ... a damned fine essay.

Anonymous said...

Good Afternoon

Awesome blog, great write up, thank you!

About me said...

Glad you liked it. A new article about subtext is on in the works and will be posted early next year.

Anonymous said...


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