Storm the Brain! 15 Methods to Get Unstuck, Prompt Ideas, and Solve Problems

I feel like 80% of my writing life is actually brainstorming, so I’ve gathered lots of methods and tricks over the years. Today I’m sharing them with you so that hopefully you can add a few new techniques to your options to pull yourself out of a rut, squeeze through a rock and a hard place, or bounce back from hitting a wall.

1. List What You Know

Where to start? With a list, of course. But maybe not the one you think. I want you to write down everything you do know, not everything you don’t. Sometimes when we’re stuck it’s because we’ve focused on a single problem so long and so intensely that we’ve developed tunnel vision. The fixation on being stuck—and that this is the problem—sometimes has a compounding effect. To combat that, and possibly wiggle something loose, listing all the things about the project/chapter/poem/whatever that you do know can be very eye-opening. It also forces you to clearly delineate which things you’re missing. Sometimes we think we’re missing a lot, when really we’re just missing one little step between A and C. Writing it down shows us we’re solving for B (Or B, C, and D, or what have you).

2. List What You’re Missing

If that doesn’t work, go ahead and do the opposite: list exactly what it is you’re stuck on. Whether that’s a lack of ideas, a lack of knowledge, a lack of plot points, or a lack of cookies, go ahead and write it all down. Type as explicitly as possible what the issues are, no matter how silly they sound or how many there may be. You can’t really work toward solving the problem if the problem remains a nebulous void in the old noggin. Speaking of which…

All of those fears? They’re information. Data.

3. Write Down What Scares You

Those things you’re hiding from even in your own thoughts? It’s time to shine the flashlight on them. Often when we feel stuck, stalled, or stumped it’s actually because we’re afraid of something, not because we don’t know something. So if listing what you don’t know doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to list what you’re scared of. This takes incredible bravery—the more important the project the more bravery required—but can be unbelievably helpful. So go ahead and admit to those fears; write them in a list. I’m afraid this project doesn’t have enough of a message to make it of value. This is too boring. I’m scared no one will understand what I’m going for. All of those fears? They’re information. Data. And once you’ve admitted them and seen them for exactly what they are, you can begin working to solve them.

4. Change Something Big

Speaking of things that scare us (what is it with us horror writers, anyway?), let’s try another one: fuck some shit up. In your project, I mean. Whether it be a poem that flopped, a novel that stalled out in the middle, or a short story whose ending just doesn’t make sense, there’s a good chance the problem isn’t so much that there is no solution as it is that the solution is too hard to acknowledge. Reconceive. Rewrite. Revise. Trunk. Start over. Oof, right? But sometimes that’s the freaking answer, you guys. Sometimes we have to turn our epic literary mermaid ten-book saga into a single short story, and it will absolutely hurt like hell, but if that’s the only way to solve the problem, we have to do it. To see the solution, we have to be willing to change something big. Write down ten ways you could change something huge to fix your problem, even if you know you won’t do some of them. Delete a main character, switch protagonists, change the world, shift your whole theme, etc. Did any of them feel unnervingly right? Think on it.

5. Word Storm

So far we’ve focused on big-picture issues and coherent steps, but what if you’re stuck at an earlier phase? Or are working on something much smaller, or much harder to define? It may be cliché, but sometimes that’s just another word for tried and true: word storm it. This is a form of creative association. Start with a relevant word, then say or write down words that it makes you think of, and words that those words make you think of, and on and on down the rabbit hole. Let yourself go "off course" as needed; that’s kind of the point. You can also do this exercise with phrases, sentences, even concepts. You might be surprised by where association takes you, and by how relevant seemingly irrelevant things might become in the right light.

6. Map It Out

What goes beautifully with a big list of random words? A mind map. Mind maps are about using visual connectors to spark mental connections. So if you’re struggling with a few pieces, characters, storylines, etc., write them down on a blank piece of paper. This can include scenes, themes, places, motifs, anything and everything that strikes you. Start drawing lines between the things that share a connection, whether in your work or just in the world. Keep going. Draw line after line until that sucker looks like A Beautiful Mind. Once you get past the obvious connections and start drawing the secondary and tertiary ones you might get some good ah-ha moments out of it.

7. Talk It Out

Okay, you’ve done a lot of solo work. If you’re still stuck at this point, it might be time to take it to another human being. Sometimes the act of explaining everything is enough on its own to jog some ideas or solutions. Sometimes your talking buddy will say something that triggers one, or have an idea to offer fully-formed. Different people are good at different things and for different projects/problems, so don’t give up if one talk doesn’t solve all your woes. Reach out to writing friends, non-writing friends, or family members who are willing to listen. Tell them all about what you’re struggling with and see what they can offer.

Write down as many questions as you can think of. The point here is that the answers don’t matter yet.

8. Ask Questions

This is another you can do on your own. The point here is that the answers don’t matter yet. All you have to do is write down as many questions as you can think of. More, more, more. Dozens. Fill a whole page—two pages. Keep asking questions about your project, and eventually you’ll unearth the questions you didn’t know you had, and those will point you toward new answers.

9. Answer Questions

If asking your own questions doesn’t help, you can always beg barter or bribe someone else to ask them for you. Caveat: this time you actually do need to try to answer them. The most powerful question in any writer’s arsenal is “Why?” My character does this. Why? My theme is this. Why? My problem is this. Why? Have your question buddy continue to ask you annoying questions until you snap. That thing you snapped over? Probably the secret issue. Look closely at that.

10. Keep a List

This one requires a little setup time, but once you start it (if you haven’t already), you’ll never not have it going. Keep an ideas file full of every random story/poem/novel/article concept, snippet, or quote you ever think of. Not only will this show you that there are always more ideas waiting for you than you may think, it becomes a cool connection tool. Try pairing up random items from your list and see what cool new concoctions spring up. There’s special magic when two seemingly unconnected concepts come together.

11. Go For a Walk

I probably should’ve put this first, because it’s my favorite. My go-to. My hardly-ever-fails solution. Go for a walk. No headphones, no cellphone, no dog or distraction. Just you and a problem and some really good shoes. Try to keep your mind on track and walk fast enough to breathe a little heavily but not pant. That’s the best brain zone.

12. Go For a Drive

Similar to a walk, but different enough to be worth mentioning. When’s the last time you drove without the radio on? Without talking to someone? Just you, silence, and the road. There’s something cool about the cocoon of a car with no noise; it’s the perfect environment to think. You’re busy enough driving that your primary censor sort of turns off, but not so busy you can’t concentrate. So get behind the wheel and start solving. The best news about this option? You can drive right to the bookstore…

13. Read a Craft Book

…to buy your next craft book. I’m not a huge believer in "the right way" to write—I know what works for me—but I am a big believer in new perspectives, and nonfiction books about writing offer that in spades. Each teacher brings her own spin on the old classics, and each new spin gives you a potential avenue to unstick your problem. Collections like Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Lisa Cron’s Story Genius even come with interactive exercises, which are sure to shake out a few new thoughts.

It’s not copying; it’s learning. There are shelves full of teachers waiting for you to learn.

14. Read a Book Book (but Treat it Like a Craft Book)

Hopefully you’re already reading books all the time as part of your writing life. Novels, short stories, memoirs, poetry collections, whatever. Reading is why most writers do what we do, and it’s invaluable to continue reading for pleasure. But it’s also a powerful lesson on craft to read a non-craft book and treat it like teaching material. Study it. Read it twice. Break apart what works and why, and how you can do that too. Take notes in it (or in a notebook, you goody goody) and study the best parts. If you can find a book that accomplishes what you’re hoping to accomplish, all the better. It’s not copying; it’s learning. There are shelves full of teachers waiting for you to learn from them.

15. Play Your Own Antagonist

Last but not least, sometimes it helps to be hard on yourself. Do you have that one beta reader who always hurts your feelings? The critique group member who constantly plays devil’s advocate? The editor who tears apart your work no matter how good you get it first? Pretend, at this earlier stage, to be that person. Imagine all the harsh things they’ll eventually say, including about the part your stuck on/struggling with. But don’t stop there: address all those points before they ever see it. Don’t just “no but I want it that way” address it; really do something about it. Even some of those issues that don’t seem related to your primary stuck spot will affect it once you change them. Move one domino and the rest often fall in line.


There you have it, my 15 best brainstorming methods. What works for you? Anyone have more tricks to share?

Image of Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
Author: Donald Maass
Price: $12.19
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Image of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
Author: Donald Maass
Price: $13.63
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She has work appearing in over fifty venues, including Black Static, Apex Magazine, and Fireside. She’s the webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for discussions, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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Comments

T.D. Brooking's picture
T.D. Brooking from California is reading Short Story Collections (Everything here is the best thing ever & Kissing in Manhattan) November 11, 2017 - 1:37pm

So many great ideas I've never used!  Love that you added the "why" for each idea.  Very helpful, thank you :-)

Ashley B. Davis's picture
Ashley B. Davis from California is reading Confessions of and English Opium Eater November 11, 2017 - 1:46pm

I love the idea of writing down what scares you so you have a tangible problem to address and solve, and the word storm seems like a great way to access abstract thought. Great suggestions!

Also, it's good to know that it's not just my mind that tries to wander when I go for a walk or a drive with the express intent of brainstorming/problem-solving. :)

B.B.Blondie's picture
B.B.Blondie November 15, 2017 - 8:32pm

Thank you for sharing those ideas

Bellbird's picture
Bellbird from Virginia, USA is reading Blindness, Jose Saramago November 19, 2017 - 5:30pm

I love the specificity of 2,3,5,6 and 8 - exactly what I've been stumbling around in the dark looking for. Thank you!

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman November 20, 2017 - 12:54pm

Shared these with a Nanowrimo group. They loved them. Thanks!