Brainstorming Plot Ideas

So you’ve finished your fantasy book. Now what about a sequel?

If you’re an Indy author, people expect you to write sequels. If you’ve done your world building well, your readers are already invested in the characters and the universe. They want to go back and play in your world again. Reading about the further adventures of familiar characters can be like a reunion with old friends.

But how do you develop the plot for your next book?

No doubt, there are as many sources of inspiration as there are writers. One particular method that works for me involves brainstorming with another person. In my case, that person is usually John, my husband and co-author. There is, however, no requirement that the person involved in the brainstorming process be a co-author or even an author at all. The individual must simply be willing to engage in the process.

And brainstorming is a process. It requires a dialogue between two people who are both actively proposing ideas and discussing/rejecting the other’s ideas. Nothing is too unlikely or trite to be proposed, because even the most foolish thought may spark another idea that ignites a worthwhile story.

My brainstorming sessions with John usually start with me presenting some vague concept for a story, which John immediately tells me is stupid and unworkable.

Just kidding. John asks questions to force me to give the concept more substance. Then he tells me why it’s stupid and won’t work.

I counter by either modifying the idea to get around the flaws he raised or by asking him for suggestions to get around those flaws. He then starts proposing ideas, most of which I reject for one reason or another. The very process of considering and rejecting those proposals gives rise to other ideas, which are then considered and rejected. If all goes well, at some point in the process, one of the two of us (usually John) comes up with a proposal that works well and doesn’t have any obvious flaws. His proposal may fit with my original concept or be entirely different.

Obviously, the way you phrase your rejections during the process may differ depending on how close you are to the other person. John can tell me that my plot idea is stupid, but I wouldn’t suggest that language with someone other than your spouse. (Frankly, it’s not a good idea for your spouse either, but John and I have been together for a very long time, so I’m used to him talking like that.) It is important for the participants to understand that rejection of the proposed ideas is part of the process, not a criticism of the other individual or their proposals.

Even when a great story idea does not arise during a brainstorming session, the process is still valuable. The ideas presented and rejected may plant the seeds that later sprout into workable ideas, either for that sequel or a later novel.

Susan 3/26/21

To Sequel or Not: One Writer’s Dilemma

If you want your characters to live happily ever after, you’d better be cautious about writing a sequel.

Case in point. The Star Wars movies. The end of the Star Wars trilogy back in the early 1980’s was a joyous moment for the heroes of the story and their fans (Ewoks notwithstanding). The good guys won. The bad guys lost. Han and Leia fell in love. The Empire fell and Luke even redeemed his father. They all lived happily ever after, right?

Wrong! In the recent sequel movies, we learn that Han and Leia split up, their son turned evil, and Luke went off to live in isolation, mired in guilt and remorse. All the hard won battles of the first trilogy were for naught. The gains made by the Rebel Alliance fell apart, and war and oppression once again filled the galaxy far, far away.

I’ll let others debate about which Star Wars movies were better or happier. That’s not my point here. Nor am I here to talk about what is or should be “canon” for the Star Wars universe. There were dozens of novels published after the original Star Wars movies aired, some of which may or may not have been “sequels” in a classic sense.

Instead, I want to talk about sequels, particularly to fantasy novels (because that is what I write). One of the marketing strategies suggested for Indy authors involves writing sequels. Essentially you use your second book to sell your first book.

But what if your first book doesn’t lend itself to sequels? Are there stories that shouldn’t have a sequel? When is “happily ever after” good enough?

Obviously, some stories are intended to be a series right from the start. Detective novels, for example, can have a happy ending for each book and the hero can go on to the next story with no problem. There are many fantasy series that do just fine with multiple “sequels.”

At times, a fantasy series will involve subsequent books that are a continuation of the main story in the first book, but are those really sequels? Was the second Harry Potter book a sequel to the first? Was there ever an expectation that Harry lived happily ever after the events of the first book?

Some authors have maintained the happy ending for their main characters by focusing on other people in the next book. Bilbo Baggins keeps his “happily ever after” in the Lord of the Rings because he gets to write poetry in Rivendell while his fellow Hobbits go through the misery of the War of the Ring. Even in LOTR, however, we learn that poor Balin, one of the Dwarves from the Hobbit, did not get a happy ending in Moria.

Which brings me to my personal dilemma. Should there be a sequel to 60th Hour? Can there be? When John and I wrote it, we intended it to be a standalone novel, with no cliff-hanger endings and no set up for the next book. It is a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and (I hope) a satisfying ending. Ever since we published it in March, I have been trying to think of a way to write a sequel.

I don’t want to give any spoilers for those who haven’t read 60th Hour, so I won’t go into specifics. However, those who have read the story will probably understand. What do you write after the characters solve the problem that threatens the world? Any future threat to the world will unravel the happy ending. Anything less would seem trivial in comparison to the first novel. Do John and I really want to write a series of detective stories set in the Kingdom of Kenarin? It might be amusing at first, but hardly satisfying to readers who want another story with the broad scope of 60th Hour.

Writing the prequel to 60th Hour (presumably set 3600 years earlier) is also problematic. I personally dislike “train wreck” stories in which events move invariably toward the sorrowful ending that forms the background for the original book.

When John and I write our future books, we will keep possible sequels in mind. For 60th Hour, however, you can enjoy the novel without the worry that the universe will unravel. It contains no cliffhangers or partial endings that set things up for the next book. There’s not going to be a sequel to spoil the happily ever after.

Susan – 7/24/20