Brainstorm Your Novel Using Brainstorming Cards

Inspiration for a story can come from many sources. One method that I have used successfully is based on the luck of the draw. I am calling this method a Card Sort Brainstorm.

Drawing cards at random from a sorted grouping can challenge us to imagine beyond the cliché plot or character. However, just choosing at random from any old card deck will not produce a unified story. The trick is to have a set of cards that is focused enough to allow a plot or character to develop logically, but that is also free-form enough to allow creativity to boil over.

There are some commercial card decks that have been used in this way. Tarot cards, especially those with a theme, can give guidance for making choices or inspire story events. Goddess and Oracle cards have similar uses. However, cards you create yourself can be honed more closely to your particular genre, subgenre, or literary theme.

Creating a Basic Brainstorming Card Set

To start, you will need to make paper rectangles. The size is up to you. I cut out sixteen two-by-three-inch ones from typing paper. If you want studier cards, cut three-by-five-inch index cards in half.  

A working Card Set includes Problem Cards, Event Cards, Action/Reaction Cards, and Emotion Cards. On each card you will write one word related to the grouping. For ease in resorting when you are finished using them, use a different color for each grouping.

ONE Problem Card Set [Things that make a character choose an action.]

TWO Event Card Set [Things that can happen to people or objects]

THREE Action/Reaction Card Set [Verbs]

FOUR Emotion Card Set [How a character feels]

Here is a suggested listing of words for each group. Feel free to add others that you think of. If you already have idea about what might happening in your story, add those to the appropriate grouping. However, I have found less specific words, allow the brain more creative leeway.

To help in choosing the words for each group, use verbs for the Action/Reaction cards, Adjectives for the Emotion cards, Sentences for the Event Cards, and a noun or noun-plus-adjective for the Problem cards.

Here are some suggested words:

  • A Divorce
  • A Disappointment
  • A Destroyed Dream
  • A Lost Animal
  • A Disturbing Message
  • A Kidnapping
  • A Fight
  • A Crime
  • Accept
  • Betray
  • Choose
  • Refuse
  • Return
  • Kill
  • Escape
  • Hide
  • A secret is revealed.
  • A stranger arrives.
  • Someone is killed.
  • Someone is hurt.
  • Something is lost.
  • Something goes wrong.
  • A message is sent.
  • Something is won
  • Angry
  • Anxious
  • Bitter
  • Happy
  • Mournful
  • Delighted
  • Fearful
  • Guilty

For a free printable pdf set of Zara West’s Brainstorming Cards click the button below:

How to Use Brainstorming Cards for Plotting

ONE Start by drawing an Event card. Take a moment to picture that event.

TWO Next draw a Problem card. Think about how these two might be related.

THREE Select an Emotion card. Imagine how you would feel if you were in the grips of that emotion.

FOUR Last pick an Action/Reaction card. Picture your protagonist doing this in response to the previous two cards.

FIVE Select another Action/Reaction card. This can be how others will react to what the protagonist does or it can be how the protagonist reacts to what was done.

A five-card draw can be used to map out the entire plot, a chapter or a scene.

 Drawing four sets of five, or twenty cards can be used to layout a Hero’s Journey.

How to Brainstorm Using the Card Sort to Develop a Character

Brainstorming cards can help you imagine a new character.

ONE Draw two Event cards. One will be the character’s external goal and other the internal goal.

TWO Draw a Problem card. This will be the character’s motivation.

THREE Draw an Emotion card. This will be the character’s flaw.

FOUR Draw an Action/Reaction card. This will be the character’s dominant way of acting and reacting to story events.

How to Read the Cards

It is important not to read the cards literally. The same card draw can be read in many ways. While sometimes a word will ring true, the idea is to let the word on the card create images and stories in your mind. If you already have the ideas for your story or character, let them swirl in your brain as you combine the draw into a “reading.”

For example, in my plotting card draw shown above, I can read the result in two ways.

VERSION ONE A successful business executive has one treasured belonging, a raggedy doll from her poverty-stricken childhood. When the doll is stolen during a robbery, she is embarrassed to admit it is missing and that its loss has given her nightmares. She rejects the help of her friend over and over. It is only by learning to trust her friend that she is able to recover the doll and learn why it is so important to her.

VERSION TWO A poor boy steals a wallet from a stranger on the street. He is embarrassed when the stranger catches him because he prides himself on his skill. The stranger offers him a fortune if he will pick the pocket of a high official. At first he rejects the offer, then accepts. But he worries whether or not he can trust the stranger to pay up when he succeeds.

If the cards do not spark your imagination, feel free to draw a new set.

Why Use Brainstorming Cards?

A card sort is a great way to:

  1. Plot a new story
  2. Break out of writer’s block
  3. Avoid cliché plots and tropes
  4. Reawaken your creativity

Give my Brainstorming Cards a try and let me know what ideas they spark for you. Post your thoughts and comments below.

4 thoughts on “Brainstorm Your Novel Using Brainstorming Cards

  1. Zara, what an amazing idea! Since I do use oracle cards, I never considered using them for my characters. Thanks so much for sharing!


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