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Rules for Brainstorming with a Partner

There are as many ways to brainstorm as there are writers. Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of guides on how to brainstorm that work for me. Most provide prompts or expect you to work alone. And while that can be valuable, I find having another person around to brainstorm with is extremely helpful.

Find a buddy

Sure, you could brainstorm on your own but two brains are better than one. Having someone to bounce ideas off of can be invaluable, because they’ll see and think of things that wouldn’t occur to you.

Your ideal brainstorming buddy should:

  • Enjoy stories and problem solving.
  • Not get overly invested in an idea too quickly. Be wary of someone who hits on an idea they like and refuses to be open to changes.
  • Have both imagination and a love for the dramatic.

Note that that list doesn’t say they have to be a writer or even a reader. You’ll get different and no less valuable input from writers, readers, moviegoers, kids, and so on. Sometimes you really want someone who doesn’t think in terms of story structure or stakes, which can be constricting. Maybe that’s your spouse or a friend. Other times you do want to work within that box so you should seek out another writer.

If your brainstorming buddy is a writer, be prepared to return the favor, be it via brainstorming, CPing, or other favor. For your non-writer partners offer to pick up the coffee tab or similar.

The rules

Both partners should agree to the following:

  1. Nothing is fixed, everything can change. You’re throwing out ideas here, not committing to anything.
  2. Both participants are proposing potential options, not dictating. Only the person whose project it is gets final say in how, or if, they’ll use the brainstormed ideas.
  3. If you don’t like the direction the conversation is going in, explain why. This could raise valid concerns, and help your partner to shift focus to something that works for both of you.
  4. When you do like something, say so! If you love it, definitely say so! Be enthusiastic! This should be a space where you can gush freely and enjoy yourselves.
  5. Take lots of notes! You might prefer to record the session or do it over an instant messaging platform that lets you save the conversation.
  6. Everything is grist for the mill–both your mills. No two writers will use the same idea in the same way, so even if you do both walk away with the same nugget, don’t fret. It’s courtesy to avoid taking multiple elements from someone, but an individual concept shouldn’t make or break either one of you.

How to speak

Everything you’re talking about is hypothetical, so you want to phrase your sentences to reflect that.

You are proposing ideas, not dictating. Start your sentences with things like, “Maybe…”, “What if…?” and “How about…?”

Ex: What if Bo Peep doesn’t like her sheep? What if the sheep originally belonged to her grandma who is too sick to take care of it?

Ex: Maybe Bo Peep’s grandmother is actually dying, and losing the sheep is too much like losing grandma.

By prefacing your idea this way you’re inviting your brainstorming partner to imagine the possibility of that idea.

Just like in conflict resolution, it can be a good idea to say back what you heard in your own words, to confirm that you’re on the same page. I tend to preface those with “So…” as in, “So, if I’m hearing you right, this is another way of putting it.”

Ex: So, if Bo Peep’s sheep belonged to her dying grandma, then her grandma gave her the sheep when she got sick.

Your brainstorming partner can then confirm, clarify their idea, or continue building on it.

Often I’ll use a “So…” statement to build on to an idea. “So, if we assume what you just said is the case, then these are implications of that change.”

Ex: So, if Bo Peep’s grandma gave her the sheep when she got sick, Grandma must’ve known that she was going to get REALLY ill and she may even know she’s going to die.

Another great tool is to ask questions! Lots and lots of questions!

Ex: Did Grandma tell Bo Peep she’s going to die? Does Bo Peep know? Is it certain Grandma will die or just a possibility?

Your partner doesn’t have to have the definitive answer to any of the questions, they’re just going to propose potential answers. They should use “Maybe…” statements to give their answers. As you get more comfortable with each other and realize you’re on the same page about an idea you may end up dropping the “Maybe…” and just answer the question.

Where to start

The unhelpful answer is, Anywhere! A better answer is to start with what you already have fixed in place, or to start with what you’re having difficulty with.

When you start from a place of what you already know (in the above examples we have a two characters, Bo Peep and Grandma, and a sheep), your partner can ask questions you may not have thought of. They may ask you to explain something you thought was obvious. This can help solidify your idea and flesh it out.

When you start with a problem you’re having (), your partner can ask lots of questions to understand the circumstances and then propose alternative solutions. Build from there.

Again, there’s no one way to brainstorm, and you’ll find that there’s a different dynamic with each person you brainstorm with. If it doesn’t quite click with someone, don’t be discouraged. There are lots of potential brainstorming partners out there. It’s so worth looking for them, because a good brainstorming partner can help you unlock strategies, see things you missed, and cheer you on when you find a solution.


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