In his seminal part biography, part writing advice book On Writing, Stephen King uses “the boys in the basement” to describe the unconscious mind, that is always working away under the surface. You can’t keep everything you know and remember in your conscious mind at any one time, you’d shortly go mad that way. So think of what you consciously know as a little boat floating atop a great dark ocean.
What’s going on down there? Memories and knowledge are swimming around, bumping into each other, making connections, making chains of connections. Suddenly an idea will bob up to the surface like a springtime corpse… no wait, er, like a dolphin breaching before a crowd of delighted tourists.
We might tell people that idea came totally out of the blue, but it didn’t. It came from the unholy mass of memories making connections in the darkness and spawning ideas, some of which are interesting enough to bring to the attention of the conscious mind. For writers a lot of these are plot bunnies.
So how do you use the boys in the basement to your advantage as a writer?
Harnessing the power of the unconscious!
For six easy payments of $19.99. No wait, forget that part.
For me, brainstorming is all about a slightly more purposeful version of making those connections and chains that the unconscious is doing all the time. It’s kind of like going fishing in that dark ocean. You still can’t see what’s down there, but you can chum up the waters to entice something from the deep.
I always brainstorm either with pen and paper or typing. It doesn’t work otherwise. The thoughts just swirl around and around on the surface. The act of writing or typing out what I’ve already got draws up connections from the unconscious. It sometimes feels like the ideas are literally coming out of my pen.
If the brainstorm doesn’t give immediate answers, that’s okay. You’ve asked your mind the questions. Now give it some time to come back with the answers. A day, a week, even a month. Don’t think of it as doing nothing. Think of it as like the simmering part of making a pot of soup. You’re not standing over it, but the soup is bubbling away, and when you go back to it, it’s ready.
The boys in the basement need time to work. Mine don’t really like a rush job. They get flustered. The time to bubble can be crucial to an idea. The unconscious mind can work on it without you having any idea about the work that’s going on. Back in 2007 I had an idea in early summer for a sequel to the previous year’s NaNoWriMo novel. This idea proceeded to eat my brain. I wrote and typed up screeds of notes. Characters popped up like panto villains springing from a trapdoor. Scenes played out like mini movies in my head.
Then after about three weeks it went quiet. Nothing new stirred on the idea for months, beyond a stray thought I made a note of here and there. Autumn rolled around and I decided I’d do that story as my NaNoWriMo novel for November. So I started working on an outline. The great thing was, I didn’t have to pick up where I left off with the story ideas. When I started working on it again my unconscious mind had already moved forward on it and was just waiting to present me with all the new stuff and the solutions to various problems unresolved after the great three week burst of ideas. Of course I still had to do the work to put it all together. But all that brainstorming, plus all that time to simmer it, meant the outline fell into place more easily than with a shiny new idea.
You’re Smarter Than You Think
Sometimes characters sort of balk at what the writer want them to do. However the writer tries to make it happen, nothing feels right. It’s like an actor playing the character is arguing with the director that his character would not say X or do Y, and “what’s my motivation? What if I do this instead.”
When this happens it’s almost certainly the boys in the basement at work. And it happens because:
- The unconscious holds all the knowledge about that character and what they’ve done so far in the story, while your conscious mind can’t hold all of that at once.
- The unconscious also holds massive amounts of other knowledge that might have a bearing on the way the character behaves, even though you’d never taken that into consideration.
My favourite example of that is from 2006 when I was working on a fanfic. One character started being kind of a dick to these other two characters as soon as he met them, and they were pretty frosty in return. Meanwhile I’m left asking, where is this coming from? But whatever dialogue I wrote between them kept coming out that way. And I instinctively knew it was right, but I didn’t know why.
Finally I twigged. They were from two different ethnic groups who traditionally don’t get along. When planning the story I hadn’t thought about that mixture. But as soon as I started writing it and putting those characters together, my unconscious mind included that factor in their interactions and made things a bit prickly. I went with it.
So the boys in the basement are not only at work in the brainstorming and planning stages, but the whole time. They are the ones who add all those fancy themes and motifs to your story. Trust them. Even when they pop up with seemingly ridiculous ideas. “Kill this guy!” or “These two should totally do it, now, here in the car.” Go with it.
It might be exactly what the story needs right now.