Starting from Scratch: Mashing Ideas Together

I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with Nightbringer, and I think I could sit down and hammer out a reasonable outline for the book today, if necessary; I’ve already outlined some of the major arcs. What I don’t yet have a good feel for, however, is the larger scope of the series, which I would like to be pretty epic. The world I’m creating certainly supports it, and the first book (as currently envisioned) doesn’t come anywhere near solving some of the bigger problems, but the feel is still too small. An epic story spanning multiple books needs to feel larger than life–it’s not enough just to fill up the pages with story, that story has to really blow you away and feel like it deserves all those pages. I don’t want to overuse the word “epic,” but it’s really the best word here.

Consider for a moment the original Star Wars movies. The plot of the first movie was “we need to rescue the princess and blow up the Death Star.” In the process, they established the Empire as the bad guys, and Darth Vader as their leader. It would have been possible to follow that up with two movies about destroying the Empire, moving on to new space stations and other military targets, and in some ways the series did indeed hit those notes, but it also expanded its scope and hit more notes we weren’t expecting. They added more philosophy and character, raising the specter of Luke’s potential fall to the Dark Side. They made the Force not just a tool, but a battlefield unto itself, and with it introduced the Emperor as a larger and more ominous villain pulling Vader’s strings. In short, the second and third movies not only expanded the existing elements (battles were bigger, chases were faster, duels were longer, etc.), but they added new elements. They didn’t just expand the story, they expanded the scope of the story.

Another great example is the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. The first book is about a group of magical thieves trying to bring down an evil overlord, and the story is very cool and evocative, and the later books could have easily followed the same model, but instead Brandon chose to expand the scope. Brandon introduces new challenges and characters, but more importantly he introduces new KINDS of challenges and characters, taking the series into unknown territory and really stretching the limits of his story far beyond what most readers expected. The result is, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying (if not THE most satisfying) series finales I’ve ever read.

Now, this kind of thing has its downside, too, and Mistborn is going to be my example for that as well. In pulling out all the stops and going a massive, apocalyptic storyline, he ended up destroying the setting in a way that many of his fans aren’t sure what to do with. For eample, he’s licensed a company to create a Mistborn roleplaying game, and the fans I’ve talked to about it have all said, without exception, that they want to roleplay in the world as it existed in the first book (sneaky thieves and fancy balls and fantasy-noir skullduggery) rather than the chaotic upheaval of the later books. The scope Brandon chose to use was so epic that it severely limits his choices for sequels and spin-offs and other properties–and that’s fine, because that’s what he chose to do and the books are fantastic, but it’s a very big choice and it’s not one I’m necessarily happy with. The alternative, alas, is something like the Matrix trilogy, which preserved its basic setting but in doing so felt very anti-climactic–we got to the end and said, “Wait, what? They don’t actually bring down the villains or free the humans or anything?” It’s hard to figure out what to do, and how to do it right.

So anyway: I want the story to be epic, is the point I’m trying to make here. And this is where my title comes in: Mashing Ideas Together. Something we say on Writing Excuses pretty often is that most really good stories come not from one but from several different ideas, combined in new and interesting ways. The bigger your story, the more ideas you need. Nightbringer creates its book-one story by combining several different ideas and genres that I find fascinating, in a way that (I hope) is pretty cool. In seeking to expand that into an epic series, I’m doing the same thing on a larger scale–I’m taking my core ideas of Nightbringer and smashing them into various other ideas I have in my head, and in my “use this idea someday” file on my computer, trying them out to see what fits and what works and which ones suggest awesome stories I haven’t seen before. Eventually I’ll come up with something I love, and it will spark a dozen more ideas, and the story will start to unfold in my mind, bigger and cooler than I’d ever be able to make it with just one or two ideas.

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