From Idea to Finished, Step 1: Brainstorming & Research

Posted on: 4th Sep 2014  /   Categorized: Writing Tips

BAM—You Have an Idea!

It’s usually something small. A character starts speaking to you in the back of your head, wanting to tell their story. Or you’re sitting on the bus one day, daydreaming, and a movie starts to play out in your head. Just a single scene first, but you want to know more. Or maybe it’s a concept. A What If. What if a comet hit the Earth right now? What if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct at all and still roamed around in our modern world? What if, what if, what if…?


I’ve heard of writers who sit down one day with the intention of coming up with a new story idea. There are plenty of brainstorming techniques for this. (James Scott Bell lists some great ones in his craft guide Plot & Structure.) But I, personally, have never done this. Every story idea I’ve ever had  popped into my head when I wasn’t expecting it.



With Cinder, the idea of Cinderella turned into a cyborg came into my head as I was falling asleep one night and bam—head instantly full of possibilities.


With Heartless, it came in the middle of a conversation with my agent. We were talking about villains and fairy tale retellings and I off-handedly mentioned that I wanted to read a book that told the back story of the Queen of Hearts and—bam. Idea.


With the superhero series that I hope to start drafting this winter, I was on my way to a book signing and caught a construction sign out of the corner of my eye—one of those “Coming Soon to this Site: Another Strip Mall!” signs. But with my quick, disinterested glance, I thought the sign said something about superheroes. It didn’t, upon closer inspection, but . . . no matter. Bam—a light bulb went off.


So that’s where ideas come from. Anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I never know when they’ll hit, but I’m always ready to jot them down and explore them when they do.


Probably 80% of my ideas are written off as dumb, cliché, or overdone within the first day or two of having it. Those ideas get relegated to the back pages of my idea folder. Another 10% or 15% might hang on for months, even years, always one of those “I would like to write this someday” ideas that somehow always gets surpassed by something brighter and shinier and more of-the-moment. Maybe I’ll write them someday, maybe I won’t. I think of them as my back-up ideas—the ones I’ll write if the idea file otherwise runs dry.


And then there are the diamonds. The ideas that take hold and hang on. They keep coming back up in my imagination, again and again. Somewhere in the back of my thoughts, they start to percolate.


Eventually I know that this idea is going to be my next project. Then the fun begins.




Once I have my heart set on turning an idea into a story, I start to dig a little deeper.


I ask a lot of questions: Who is the protagonist and what do they want? What other characters are needed for the story? Who is the love interest and how do they factor into the plot? What is the main conflict? What is the world like that the story takes place in?


There are no right or wrong answers. I write everything down, knowing that 75% of what I come up with at this point will probably be scrapped later when I come up with something better. I’m just exploring, poking at the idea to see what it does.


Those what if questions start to creep up, too. (The What If questions factor significantly into my whole process, so be prepared for a lot of them!)

– What if this cyborg Cinderella wasn’t a house servant, but a talented mechanic forced to earn money for her stepmother?

– What if her best friend wasn’t a mouse (Disney) or a bird (Grimm), but a robot?

– What if being cyborg was considered a bad thing, and the prince didn’t know what she was?

– What if there was an evil queen who wanted the prince for herself?

– What if, what if, what if . . .



Cinder brainstorm

Brainstorming notes for Cinder.




Research Part I: Inspirational / Market Research

I’ll have to keep looking things up until the day I turn a book over to my editor, but the bulk of my research happens right up front, in these first planning stages. While I’m asking all those What If questions in my head, I’m also actively gathering ideas from elsewhere in the world.


If the story is inspired by an existing story, I’ll go back to the source material. I’m reading it with a different eye than a reader wanting to be entertained. Now I’m on the hunt for inspiration.


With The Lunar Chronicles, I not only went back and read the Grimm versions of the stories, but I also read a few versions of the tales across times and cultures, along with modern adaptations. A lot of writers refuse to read anything similar to their WIP because they don’t want to be influenced by it. I get that, but I tend to take the opposite approach. I like to see what’s out there. What’s already been done, what might be veering toward the cliché, so I can see start thinking about what I want to do differently.


For example, as I was planning out Cinder, I went back and re-read (or re-watched? I can’t remember now) Ella Enchanted, one of my all-time favorite Cinderella retellings, and I discovered that some of the plot twists I had in mind were veering dangerously close to those in Ella Enchanted—and not just in a “they’re both Cinderella retellings” sort of way. So those plot twists got scrapped and I started looking for different directions I could go with it.


With Heartless, one of my first steps was to re-read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, looking for every tiny little detail about the “before” so that I could apply it to my Queen of Hearts-based prequel.


With my Superhero story, I’ve been watching all manner of superhero movies and marathoning the TV show Heroes. Always asking: What do I like about this? What don’t I like? What is it about superheroes that grabs me? What can I do differently? What would I have done if this was my story? What’s been done to death?


I take notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes. I make lists, too. Right now I have a list in my journal of “Superhero tropes I love” and “Superhero tropes I hate.” I’ll reference this list often as I start outlining to make sure I’m writing a story that I would also want to read.




Research Part II: Factual Research

And then there’s the type of research where I’m not looking so much for ideas, but authenticity. I start reading non-fiction books and articles and watching documentaries in an effort to populate my story with as many real-world details as possible.


For The Lunar Chronicles, I read many issues of Scientific American magazine to start building a foundation for the technological advancement in my futuristic world (which led to a lot of ideas about Cinder’s cybernetic parts!). I also read a book on the bubonic plague to inspire letumosis, and pored over China tourism guides, and walked the streets of Paris via Google Maps Streetview, and on and on.


For Heartless, I began with researching the Victorian era—from fashions to social etiquette to common foods—along with some of the historical people and events that supposedly inspired Lewis Carroll’s story.


My goal during this phase is to gather ideas (see a theme? More ideas and more ideas and more ideas . . .) until they start coming together to form a story. Often, this early research will lead to fascinating discoveries that will influence the entire plot.


For example, many of the hardships that Cress faces were directly inspired by the initial research I did on the Sahara Desert and survival tactics. Before that, all I’d known was that part of the book would take place in the desert, but it wasn’t until I started researching that part of the world that I could begin to fill in this gaping hole in the plot.



Scarlet sewer research

Some early research notes for Scarlet.



The Idea File

Though I do my most of my brainstorming on paper, during this stage I’m frequently updating my idea file. (For me, this is a basic word document.) I start to organize my ideas into things like “Character Concepts” and “Worldbuilding Details” and “Potential Scenes?”


The file starts to grow, and the pieces slowly start to come together and overlap, and then—hooray! I can see a vague story emerging from this overload of ideas.


Then it’s time to start outlining.


Stay tuned to learn more about my outlining techniques next week!


  1. adele commented on:

    YAY. More writing tips. I love your writing tips they are my life! I hope you keep posting more because I just started my fantasy novel and need all the help I can get 😉

  2. Aimee commented on:

    I’m SO excited about your superhero series!! Have you seen “Unbreakable”? It’s pretty polarizing (and has at least one major plot flaw…), but I think it’s worth watching. I thought it was a cool take on the genre personally.

    This post was amazing, and so thorough! I’m finally getting serious about writing–I have 1 WIP, 2 previous drafts I plan to revise in October, and 3 ideas for what’s next, so I really have to get organized, lol. My brainstorming process tends to vary but I’ve definitely found that for me, more brainstorming really does help. I also love reading and watching similar works and works in the genre for inspiration, but I need to get a lot better at doing factual research–I like the idea of researching, but I keep skimping on it 😛

    Random question, but do you start creating Pinterest inspiration boards and writing playlists during this phase or after you have a clear idea of the plot? Because I really like doing both to figure out a “vibe” for my story.

  3. Tamara commented on:

    Omg that is ridiculously involved. My process is thinking of the main concept, coming up with a few cool scenes, daydreaming in detail about the first scene and then BAM. Start writing and see where it takes me.

  4. Olivia commented on:

    I love this detailed outline of your process! Whenever I’m writing, I feel like I’m working through a barely structured process, like I’m not really aware of where my thoughts and ideas are coming from. But your inspirations and concepts sound so intentional and make a lot of sense (minus the initial BAM! idea-lightning strike out of nowhere). This process sounds like it actually helps drive your productivity because you’re learning what you are looking for (or not looking for) in all this research. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Anid commented on:

    I love hearing about people’s creative processes, especially if it happens to be someone whose work I like.
    I have really enjoyed what you’ve shared so far, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of this series. Thank you so much for sharing!

  6. Pingback: Cinder by Marissa Meyer | Much Ado About YA

  7. Alazia commented on:

    You have most likely tried this already but I highly recommend the movie Hancock. It’s a take on the tale of a hero who is rejected instead of accepted like the usual hero trope, and what makes it unique is the character himself as he goes through character development and learns what is really means to be a hero to others and to himself. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it. 🙂

  8. Leslie Miller commented on:

    My first time on your blog and what an amazingly helpful post. Great to see how a successful author develops her stories ideas into books that really work. Thank you so much!

  9. spice commented on:

    Okay, I realize you have already started your superhero novel, and I have no idea what it is about, but you may want to check out this web series I love called the Platoon of Power Squadron about a bunch of twenty-somethings living together in Chicago…and they all have super powers. It’s cool in the way it shows the fine line between super hero and super villain.

  10. Marissa commented on:

    Thanks for all your superhero recs, everyone! Yes, I’ve seen and really enjoyed both “Unbreakable” and “Hancock,” and I just marathoned about 3 hours of “Platoon of Power Squadron” yesterday – so entertaining!

  11. Savannah Hall commented on:

    Omg, I love this post. You’ve helped a lot In my writing process. I’ve just started a new sci fi trilogy and I needed advice. I’m glad I came to you. I’m still trying to find out how all my ideas fit into the first book and you’ve put me in the right direction. I’m doing A LOT better than I was before. My story takes place in year 3017 so it’s really complicated to find out how the world works now. I have ideas and places but I’m not sure I’m ready for the outline yet because…well… I don’t have an ending. I’ve tried ending it but it either seems to obvious or to… not obvious. So you think I’m ready? It’s my first attempt at writing my own book and I’m scared out of my mind. Help! 🙂

  12. Abbey commented on:

    Your books (the Lunar Chronicles) are some of the best written books I have ever read. The characters are so fleshed out and diverse, the plot is AMAZING, there are so many different dynamics… ahhh, I couldn’t get enough (and I can’t wait to read Winter!).

    So reading your writing tips is a huge inspiration for me and eases my nerves a little. It’s good to know even a manuscript as perfectly sculpted as Cinder began with just a simple idea and that it took many more ideas and thoughts and planning and research and editing to turn it into what it is today!

    Thank you so much for writing this! You are officially one of my all-time favorite authors. Love your writing style especially (but also your characters… and your alternating POVs… and the way your scenes seem to fit flawlessly together… so pretty much everything :).

  13. Jess commented on:

    This guide- and all your others!- have been SO helpful in helping me write my story. Usually I just come up with an idea and write about it for a little bit and then trail off as my creative high kind of goes away. But now that I’ve started brainstorming, researching, taking notes, and outlining, I can actually see a full story coming out! Thank you so so much! It’s nice to know a beautifully written story like Cinder was once just a mere idea and a couple of notes (it helps to ease my insecurities about my own writing). You’re one of my favorite authors and I think your steps to writing are so enlightening and inspiring!

  14. Your Name commented on:

    How do you organize you brainstorming notes? You have some good advise. I’ve never tried research. I’m going to try it soon!

  15. Your Name commented on:

    Is it weird having strangers all over the place asking you questions?

  16. Brie commented on:

    Jess- me too! This technique is so good and helpful! I always used to just move on to the next thing that came into my head instead of elaborating on the idea.

  17. R commented on:

    Have you watched Ever After? I saw the movie after I read Cinder and I noticed a couple similarities (don’t worry, nothing cliché) I thought it was cool and I wondered of the movie gave you some ideas or if it was just a coincidence.

  18. R commented on:

    oops, ^if^ not of

  19. Pingback: Let’s Talk Plot + Tips | NaNoWriMo 2017

  20. May Mac commented on:

    One day, can you write a blog on how to extend your word count? When I heard you wrote the lunar chronicles series in nano. When I try, my word count usually falls under. Can you tell us about your journal about how you started writing a lot more?



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