Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Brainstorm List

Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North by Northwest, relates that the original outline as presented by Alfred Hitchcock consisted of a series of unrelated bullets. I can't find the book containing the list right now, but it had items like this in it:
  • Man is chastised for falling asleep in a UN session—but he's actually dead.
  • A showdown at Mount Rushmore.
  • A dramatic chase scene in the middle of an empty field.
And so on. It was basically Hitchcock's list of things he'd like to see in a movie. Lehman's task was to take these disparate bits and make a compelling story out of them. He worked a miracle, and the rest is history.

I love this right-brain approach to world building, and always start the creative process with a brainstorm list—things that interest me and that I'd like to capture in a campaign setting. The brainstorm list is a way of tapping into all of these great ideas burbling around in my head, and getting them down on paper where I can deal with them. These ideas—features, characters, scenes, genre elements, themes, and so on—will serve as the building blocks of my campaign. Once I have them down, I can sort through them and pick out the ideas that really work well together.

The key in creating a brainstorm list is to keep moving. Don’t analyze what you are writing, don’t stop and try to develop the ideas too much at this stage; just get it all down, one point after the other. Begin with the ideas you definitely want to include in your campaign, and then move on to less crucial but interesting ideas. Get wild, get crazy. Don’t hold back.

The items on the list need not link together in a coherent fashion to begin with—indeed, the unusual juxtapositions of unrelated ideas can spark a great idea you haven’t thought of. One of the most entertaining aspects of this method is establishing the links between the various ideas—just like Lehman did.

You may be surprised at some of the ideas that pop out. This method, like the word-association parlor game, tends to engage your subconscious, and can produce some very interesting ideas and concepts that you haven’t consciously been thinking about. It makes sense, really, since you are, just a little, stepping into a part of your brain which usually waits until you are asleep to manifest itself in the form of dreams. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when you really get into it, some fairly weird but very cool ideas can bubble up to the surface.

I'll write about my campaign brainstorm list in a bit, but here's a fun list to play with in the meantime:
  • Flash Gordon-type space opera action adventure.
  • Old West town near Mexican border. Very rough, and filled with bandits and hired guns.
  • Story arc including abduction of a princess by an evil samurai warrior as seen in the Japanese movie The Hidden Fortress.
  • Abbot and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. The tall straight man and his dumpy, comedy-relief pal. Can we use these archetypes for main supporting characters?
  • Souped-up hot rods. Cool custom-modified racing cars. Auto racing.
  • The Blue Max. World War I air combat over the trenches of France.
  • A Merlin/Gandalf figure who wields mysterious powers.
  • The works of Joseph Campbell.
This list, which is far from complete, is probably beginning to look a bit familiar. These are some of the elements George Lucas blended into Star Wars: A New Hope (though he did not necessarily use these specific sources as his inspiration, they work for our example). You can see that Lucas did not limit himself to science fiction elements in forging his story. He stepped outside the genre to borrow aspects and archetypes from other genres and non-fictional sources which interested him, from Japanese historical films and auto racing, to spaghetti westerns and the academic writings of Joseph Campbell. The brainstorm list is a great way to break out of genre conventions and find something new.

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