Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Free-form Brainstorming for the Novelist

Michael Salsbury
For a science-fiction story I'm creating, I ran low on ideas that fit the plot I.  I knew there wasn't enough to sustain a novel (the goal), although I believed there could be.  I needed more material.

I happened to start reading K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel Workbook soon after.  Early in the book, she suggests while brainstorming your story you should look at every "what if" question that pops into your head.  You don't censor yourself or worry about whether the ideas apply to the story you are telling.  Just get into "the zone" and take down all the ideas you get.  Later, you see if they have value.

The story I'm writing in this case is about risk-taking, and how organizations can become so risk-averse that it destroys them.  Long before the story starts, the main character test piloted experimental spacecraft.  He's used to taking risks, but he's also used to being the only person at risk for the risks he takes.  If he flies a dangerous spacecraft and crashes it, it's rare anyone else would get hurt.  So he's not used to ordering people into risky situations or to dealing with the aftermath when the risky situation kills the person you ordered into it.  On one level, the story's about him learning to accept that his role as captain of an exploration ship includes (to his dismay) sometimes ordering people to their deaths.  Another piece of the story is that he realizes, based on some traditions starting to take root within the space fleet he's part of, that the fleet itself is becoming increasingly risk-averse.  If it it continues down this path, he can see where it will end up... and it's not a good place.  Those are the points the story is going to make... Risk is important, and not always pleasant, but as long as it's managed and used appropriately, it's valuable.

To give some context on this list, it's important to know a few things.  The story focuses on Captain Paul Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Garrick had captaincy somewhat forced on him. They've just encountered an alien spacecraft of a type never seen.  Alliance directives require Garrick to attempt to make first contact.  They also require him to give aid if the crew seems to be injured, ill, or in need of assistance.  There is a lesser-known directive that requires him to acquire any potentially useful alien technology he encounters.  The alien ship has very faint life signs all over, with a slightly stronger (but still vague) cluster in one area.  They could be dead.  They could be injured.  They may just not register well on the scanners due to unusual biology.  There's no way to know, and the ship isn't answering their hails.  Garrick's required to approach this ship and board if possible.  

In the list below, "Garrick" refers to the captain.  "Prospect" is his ship.  "Slave" is the name of the artificial intelligence which controls the alien ship.  "Melkons" are the aliens who created the ship.  "The Ark" is the name tentatively given to the alien ship, which contains the seeds from which the Melkons plan to establish an empire in our galaxy (after losing their own in another galaxy).

To build this list, I tried to turn off as many of my mental filters and censors as possible.  I wanted a huge list of possibilities I might be able to use in my story.  I intentionally allowed silly and story-ending ideas onto the list.  

Below is my uncensored list of story ideas:
  • The Prospect is destroyed instantly.
  • Slave lures them in by being friendly then blasts them.
  • Slave hacks their computers.
  • All the Melkons are defrosted and there is a huge fight.
  • The entire boarding party is killed.
  • Garrick has to go along because no one will volunteer among the crew.
  • Melkons get aboard the Prospect.
  • Melkons capture the Prospect.
  • Humans carry a disease that kills the Melkons.
  • Garrick gets marooned on the Ark.
  • Slave joins Garrick in his efforts.
  • Garrick chickens out and goes back to the Prospect.
  • The Melkons conquer the Alliance.
  • Garrick sends the Ark back home.
  • The Prospect destroys the Ark.
  • The Ark is marooned on a remote uninhabited planet.
  • Melkons carry a disease that kills humans.
  • Slave self destructs the Prospect.
  • Garrick uses the Ark weaponry to take control of the Alliance.
  • The Ark starts attacking another Alliance ship.
  • Garrick and crew kill all the Melkons and take the Ark as a prize.
  • As Garrick takes the Ark, Slave starts self destruct.
  • Garrick falls in love with a Melkon.
  • The Melkons surrender to Garrick.
  • The Melkons recognize Garrick as a famous historical figure in their universe.
  • Another alien race comes along to claim the Ark.
  • The Ark begins landing on an inhabited world.
  • Garrick calls in help from the fleet.
  • The Ark calls for help from the other Arks.
  • The air on the Ark is unbreathable.
  • Automated defenses on the Ark prove too much for the crew.
  • The first boarding party is killed and no one will join the second.
  • The Admiral let's Garrick resign but he rejoins when things go bad for the crew.
  • The Melkons turn out not to be so violent and only came here to dance.
  • The Alliance orders Garrick to destroy the Ark.
  • Garrick brings the Ark to Earth and the Melkons escape and take over.
  • The Melkons have a power that lets them brainwash humans.
  • Melkons turn out to be afraid of mice and Garrick uses this to advantage.
  • Garrick's pet iguana is sick and the disease is lethal to Melkons.
  • The Melkon chambers are defective and most of the crew can't be revived.
  • Turns out this was all a test on Garrick by the admiral.
  • After having into the computers on the Prospect, Slave joins the Alliance.
  • Melkons find humans sexually arousing.
  • Human weapons can't hurt Melkons.
  • Humans can't use Melkon weapons.
  • Slave is senile after too many years in deep space alone.
  • The Ark is surrounded by several cloaked fighters.
  • This is the second trip of the Ark. Melkons are already here.
  • The aliens who conquered the Melkons show up and demand the Ark.
  • Turns out all the time in suspended animation has wiped the Melkon brains.
  • Melkons see humans as food.
  • Melkons see humans as potential slaves.
  • Boarding party is captured and tortured for secrets to the Prospect.
  • Slave cuts off communication between boarding party and Ark.
  • Prospect crew thinks boarding party is dead and leaves them.
  • When Garrick defeats the Melkons they make him their leader.
  • It's all a reality show and not a real alien Ark.
  • An Alliance ship from the future arrives and wipes out the Melkons.
  • Other Melkon ships show up from a nearby colony.
  • The Ark flies into the sun to avoid capture.
  • Garrick convinces Slave to take the Ark back home.
  • The Melkons decide to join the Alliance.
  • The Melkons become Garrick's personal slaves when he beats them.
  • One of the boarding party sides with the Melkons and leads them back to Prospect.
I have no idea if I'll use any of these, or if so, how many of them.  But it was a fun and useful exercise to do.

Weiland suggests that when I've grown the list as big as I can, that I start picking out the few ideas on the list that could work, and creating tangents around those.  That is, I ask the question "If this happened, then what if this other thing also happened?" or "What if this thing happened instead?"  

It's proven a worthwhile experience that I expect to try again.  I'll also probably come back and revisit the list as new ideas come to me.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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