Discover more from Veronica Roth
A Brainstorming Exercise Involving MASH
The game, not the show.
I gave a talk at a high school a few weeks ago, my first one in a long time. When I do school visits these days, my talk is usually about brainstorming. The reason for this is that where do you get your ideas? is one of the first questions young writers ask me. Or they tell me I like to write, but I don’t know what to write about. Or they tell me, I have an idea for a scene or a piece of a story, but I don’t know how to figure out the rest. All of these questions and concerns can be addressed with brainstorming.
“Brainstorming” is one of those practices that we think we know how to do, but actually we have a narrow understanding of how it can work. Before I became a full-time writer, I thought of brainstorming as me at a desk with a blank piece of paper, waiting for an idea to come along.
And if that’s how you think about it, no wonder it sounds intimidating to young writers. You and the blankness and the pressure to fill it with genius.
Hmm. No thank you.
I have a lot of different brainstorming strategies, and today I’m going to outline one for you. If you’re a writer, or really any kind of creative person, this could be helpful to you. As with any writing advice, this is just one of many things you can try if you’re stuck. Use it if it works; discard it if it doesn’t. If you’re not a creative person, well, then you’re about to get some insights into my process, so sit back and enjoy this little jaunt through my brain.
This exercise is inspired by M.A.S.H. The game, not the show.
Remember MASH? MASH is a fortune-telling game I used to play as a kid. You basically fill out a little sheet like this:
Some options for every category, and then you pick a random number (there are some methods for how this occurs; let’s not get into that) and go through the entire list, crossing off the item every time you hit your number until you have only one option left in each category. For the record, with this MASH card I will be living with a Man-Sized Pigeon in an apartment in California, driving a Tesla, and producing 75 pigeon-human hybrid offspring.
In the brainstorming game version of this, you make lists of your recent favorites in slightly different categories. The four categories are:
Setting and main character are obvious here: write down four places you’d like to set a story sometime. They can be specific or broad. Mine are “faraway planet,” “post-apocalyptic Los Angeles,” “fantasy realm,” and “spaceship.” List as many as you’d like, as long as you are sincerely interested in living there in your mind for the duration of a story.
For your main characters, list characters you have recently liked and found interesting. Their gender and context doesn’t matter—those things can be changed. All you need are four characters you like. Mine are “Anthony Bridgerton” (the show version), “Whit” (from Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean), “Lady Jessica” (Dune), and “Yennefer” (The Witcher, the game version).
WANTS and OBSTACLES are a little more complicated. These categories are based on my extremely basic breakdown of what a story is. Essentially, every single story is:
A character wants something
Something gets in their way before they can get it.
Here, you boil down what each main character you listed wants in as basic a way as possible. It doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to the entire story, just something they want at some point or in some way. So for “Anthony Bridgerton,” I wrote “to fulfill their duty to family.” For “Whit,” I wrote “to protect what they’ve built.” Lady Jessica: “To attain greatness.” (I mean. She tries to produce the Kwisatz Haderach.) Yennefer: “To save a child.” You can also just list a bunch of things that characters generally want: to go on an adventure, to escape a bad situation, to go hunting for treasure, to seek revenge.
For “obstacles,” you basically do the same thing. What’s the thing that gets in your character’s way? Mine are “PSTD” (let’s face it, Anthony’s getting in his own damn way), “an old enemy surfaces to threaten them,” “a political conspiracy,” and “monsters.” Other ideas: a curse, a horrible family member, a lack of funds, a world-ending comet, surprise vampires.
Now go here and generate a random number for yourself. And start crossing things off, buddy.
If this seems silly: good! It should. This is a playful exercise. It’s meant to fill a blank page with something, and I promise you it can lead you to a more serious place. Let me show you.
Here are my results:
In Post-Apocalyptic Los Angeles, Lady Jessica wants to attain greatness. Unfortunately, though, PTSD gets in the way.
All right. Let me break down Lady Jessica for you. Lady Jessica is one of my favorite characters in Dune, by Frank Herbert. She’s a space witch who is a concubine in an important man’s house— she loves him, but she can’t marry him because he has to be free to enter a politically advantageous marriage. She disobeys the instructions of her order of space witches in an attempt to produce a child of destiny. She is a certified badass, but she’s manipulative and strategic, too. If you strip away the context of her behavior, what you’re left with is a woman lonely in her own power, operating under severe constraints, who breaks those constraints for the purpose of achieving greatness (through her son, of course) and bringing about a better world. These are qualities that can easily transfer to another context. She won’t look like Lady Jessica anymore, but the inspiration is there.
“Attaining greatness” is vague and has transferred over from Lady Jessica’s original context, so I’ll skip it for now and move to the obstacles. PTSD. Whew. This is a tough one, actually, but let’s go for it. In order to have PTSD getting in a character’s way, you need a traumatic incident to occur in their past that continues to haunt them. In a post apocalyptic landscape, the first thing that occurs to me is: maybe she’s got PTSD from witnessing the apocalypse. Which means, of course, that it had to be a destructive event that could be witnessed yet survived. What if she is immune to a plague and watches everyone around her die? What if, thanks to some privileged background, she gets ferried away to a nuclear shelter before a bomb hits? What if she’s still a witch, and the aliens taking over her planet spare her because of her unique gifts? You get the idea.
Let’s go with that last one, for fun. In this scenario, our Lady Jessica finds favor with alien overlords because she is capable of doing magic. Maybe magic on Earth was rare and hidden before the alien takeover, and it was what drew the aliens here to destroy us and make use of our magical resources. Lady Jessica is now a prisoner in alien custody, and in order to escape and become great by freeing what’s left of the planet, she has to make use of her magic. But there’s one problem: her magic is buried somewhere within her, inaccessible, because of trauma. Who can help her process this trauma? One of the aliens? A fellow magic-user? Someone in the city outside? If it’s the latter, how does she find them? How does she keep getting to them without her jailers noticing?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but what we have here…is a story. Not all of it is figured out, but it’s begun to take shape.
Ideas can feel like the hardest part of writing when you’re stuck. But ideas, as they say, are cheap. (Execution is what’s expensive.) Your brain is actually bursting with them. Some of them are good; some of them are not. But when you’re stuck, your only task is to try to unlock them.
P.S. If you actually do this exercise, tag me on Instagram (if you’re there)! I want to see your results.