Brainstorming: How I Use Lists to Generate Better Ideas

This week's Blaugust theme is "brainstorming topics" and I'm going to start out with my favorite method of brainstorming, which is the simple act of listing things.
So boring, right?
Stick with me, though. Sometimes boring and simple is exactly what you need.
I primarily write fiction, so I'll focus on how I use list brainstorming for that, but I'll also have some examples for using it to come up with blog post topics.

Lists for Plot Details, Character Traits, Etc.

We create memorable plots and characters by doing something out of the ordinary. I primarily write romance, several subgenres of it. One of the criticisms less-informed people like to make about the genre is that it's formulaic, you know the couple are going to end up together. And yes. Without a happily ever after, a book is NOT a romance.
But it's not about knowing the couple will end up together. The thrill is in how they get there, how they navigate both their own internal issues and the things in their life that make it difficult to be with the person they want. How two people work together and overcome challenges to make love work, despite the odds. It's in how a hero shows his affection for the heroine. It's about the heroine's little quirks that the hero finds both adorable and maddening at the same time.
Yes, there are a good number of cookie cutter, forgettable romances out there. The same can be said of any genre. But you can always tell when a book manages to grab you. You keep turning the pages. You're sad when the book ends. You might find yourself thinking of the characters long after you finish reading.
In those cases, the author has managed to make their story feel so real, it becomes part of you.
They do this through detail, both in plot and in character. It feels like more than words on a page, because the author has taken the time the make it feel alive.
This happens via well-chosen, unique details.

So how do lists help with this? We'll take one of my heroines, Molly Brooks, a vigilante telepath (among other things) as an example. I knew she'd be your sort of typical urban fantasy badass at first glance. But I also knew I wanted to make her feel like more. Because one dimensional characters are boring. So I just wrote lists. Fears she might have, food she likes, hobbies she has, weird shit she might collect. And in the end, I had Molly Brooks, telepathic vigilante who has a weakness for hot chocolate and collects vintage stuff, primarily 1940s/1950s milk glass, and these details, for me, allude to the fact that at her core, Molly wants safety. Security. The milk glass might be something that reminds her of an old movie or something where everything seemed perfect. Hot cocoa is comforting. So she goes out and she kicks ass but when she's not that, she's curled up in her house, surrounded by all of this stuff from the past that gives her a sense of peace and safety, sipping hot cocoa.
I wouldn't have come to any of those details without making lists. The traits I gave her would have most likely been common, the types of things one things of off the top of their head.
Those, by the way, are hardly ever unique ideas.

How to Use Lists to Come Up With Unique Ideas

So top of the head thoughts usually are bland, because they're familiar. Familiar, at least in fiction, can be boring.
So taking the example above, start listing ten things Molly might collect, for example. The first five will be throwaways. Common. The next couple might be better. By the time you get to number ten, or go beyond to number 15 or 20, NOW you're coming to more unique ideas. Choose one of those later ideas and run with it.
The same can be done for plotting. Say your hero is going to get caught by the villain. He has to escape.
List ten to twenty ways he might do that. Idea number ten will, I promise you, be more original and surprising than idea number one was.

How to Use Lists to Come Up with Blog Post Ideas

You can do the same thing for blogging. Say your blog focuses on gardening (something I used to blog about). You can only do so many posts about "what's blooming in my garden today," "Hey, look at this tomato!" before you bore yourself and your readers to death. Keep those occasional "hey, look at this!" posts, but add in some helpful or informational or more essay-type posts in there too. So you might make a list of basic blog post ideas:
  • how to grow roses
  • how to grow tomatoes
  • how to deal with aphids
  • remembering my grandmother's garden
  • etc...

The grandmother's garden one is a good idea to expand and write about. The how to grow/how to deal with posts... there are hundreds of posts just like that out there. What will make yours unique?
Time to make a list.
Let's look at "how to grow roses."
You make things unique by making them more detailed and personal. And don't be afraid of this! More people have similar situations to yours than you think. So for the "how to grow roses" topic, I might come up with:

  • growing roses in sandy soil
  • growing roses in areas with harsh winters
  • why rugosa roses are a good option for new rose growers
  • roses for a night garden
  • the most fragrant roses I've grown
  • using rose petals in soaps and lotions
  • rose petal crafts
  • what to grow with roses if you have sandy soil
  • growing roses organically for northern gardeners

So you can see that the ideas end up getting much more detailed, and therefore more useful, and most importantly, more specific to YOUR own experience, which is automatically going to make your posts stand out from the crowd of "roses need fertile soil and full sun blah blah blah" posts.

I hope this has been helpful. Listing is far and away my favorite brainstorming tool, but I'll write more about some other methods I use over the next couple of days. Do you ever brainstorm using lists?

This is my 6th post for #Blaugust2019, which is an annual celebration of blogging, hosted by Belghast. Learn more and check out the other participants here!


  1. This is a pretty good idea! I will need to give it a try (more soon, than later as I am already running out of topics. XD)

    Thanks for sharing it! :)


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