Writing Excuses 4.12: Writing An Epic

“Dude, that’s totally epic.”

“Epic fail! Epic fail!”

These phrases have only passing relation to epic storytelling, and to epic fantasy. Brandon and Howard write epics, and we’re going to talk about how we do it. And Dan’s going to help, because even if his launching-this-week I Am Not a Serial Killer novel is not an epic, Dan knows his stuff.

(Also, epic win for Dan! His book launches this week!)

We talk about some of our favorite epic fantasy and epic science fiction series, and then discuss elements like scope, plotlines, and characters. We also address some of the common pitfalls new writers fall into when trying to write their first epic.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Uplift Trilogy: Brightness Reef, Infinity’s Shore, and Heaven’s Reach by David Brin

Writing Prompt: Google “Epic Win” (or just visit “Epic Win FTW“), take one of the images on the site, and then craft an epic story around that image.

Joke Not Told By Howard In The Podcast: If a new writer attempts to create an epic and falls flat on his or her face in the attempt, it is, in fact, Epic Fail.

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37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.12: Writing An Epic”

  1. I’ve actually been chewing on a story idea that is likely going to be an epic, because the implications of the most basic premise LEAD to larger than life conflict. But after listening to the advice at the end of this, I’m thinking the first story I tell in that line may not have to be… which I have to admit I had not considered.

    Hinting at the broader problems while focusing on the local ones caused by the “epic problem” might actually work, since I already know the conflict that gets the readers into my story. Hrm.

  2. In some sense, it seemed like you were advocating that the number of story lines said whether or not something was “epic”. In recent years, it seems like a lot of writers have been doing that (e.g., Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind). However, they’ve often had the number of story lines explode and things became a mess. The first few WoT books were fantastic and “epic” but typically juggled about a half-dozen stories. In the later books, it was nearly a plot line per person and became an awful lot to keep track of. Now, with both of the aforementioned authors, I’m just reading to finish the series and most of the people I’ve talked to feel the same.

    So, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that “epic” is more about the conflict at the heart of the story rather than the number of story lines used to tell the story.

  3. I agree that we need to start simple. I always wanted to write epic fantasy and had several ‘epic failures’. World-building disease and trying to develop grand plots resulted in my having undeveloped characters. I found success by scaling down to one main story and focusing on one main character. I figured out what my strengths were (comedy, young adult level) and focused on those. Once I get my ‘chops’ up, I’ll attempt something more grand.

  4. Thanks guys, another good podcast.

    I believe that writers should keep it small and simple in the beginning and write larger, more complex stories as their skills mature. However, I also believe that the most important element in writing any size story is the characters. You have to start with strong three-dimensional characters that will make people care what happens to them.

    The books I love the most are the ones that have characters that stay with me in the back of my mind long after I have finished the book and put it away in the bookcase. It is the characters that I care about, that will make me want to read the next book in the series, not plot nor storyline nor the epic scale of it.

  5. Another interesting podcast, as always.

    Just a quick question…I know I should probably know this already, but…throughout the podcast, you consistently referred to “Heroic Fantasy” in contrast to “Epic Fantasy.” I don’t seem to remember hearing the term Heroic Fantasy before (though I’m certain I’ve read a fair number of them, based on the sheer number of fantasy books I’ve read). What’s the formal definition of a heroic fantasy?

  6. Om nom nom! (It’s just seem fitting to quote internet memes)

    Personally I’m not interested in a epicness in a book although many epic tales are fantastic, but rather like to tell dark tales of a underdogs survival and choices but this podcast helped me understand the epic genre.

    One question I still trying to figure out is how scaling up the conflicts to an epic level affect the reader and how to use that.

    One fantastic example of the epic fantasy is the Sandman comics, American Gods and Anatsi Boys by Neil Gailman. I think its fantastic how he can interweave the very human everyday characters and problems with conflicts and character of godlike so proportions so seamlessly.

  7. I’m totally doing the same thing Brandon did with Mistborn with Dreamspace, by the by. I think of it as an introduction or a prelude book to the epic, where we hint at the broader conflict from the epic storyline(s), and establish the setting and the characters. I figure this is much better for a learner to do than to dive right into the epic in the first book- instead I get to splash in the larger conflicts at the end. And I’m just hearing as the podcast goes on that this is Brandon’s advice, too. It’s always really affirming to hear one of you guys telling me to do something I’ve already done! :)

    Rashkavar: I imagine the way they’re using the word is referring to fantasy stories that focus around a conflict relating to a specific character, and focus more on heroic story arcs rather than establishing setting and larger conflict.

    Elin: You realise you can have a dark epic of underdog survival, right? ;) You just have to have a really vicious and pervasive enemy, and a very powerful protagonist that still comes off as an underdog.

  8. I believe I can understand how Epic-ness, Epicity, and Epicability can be diseases, especially in film. It seems to me that too many movies these days strive to be the greatest epic of the year, when not every movie can hold that title. Furthermore, there are a lot of stories that shouldn’t be adapted into epics. A recent example would be Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. They took Lewis Carroll’s classic book and tried to turn it into the Chronicles of Narnia, which was, quite literally, an epic fail.

  9. You could make Alien, Of men and mice or House MD epic if you change the scale of the conflict etc. But all of those books get along fine without the epic element. I would be quite an interesting creative exercise to do just that

    If its isn’t a element you love or think would be necessary to tell the story you would like to tell then I think isn’t an element you should add. And same goes for a lot of other elements, dramatic styles, themes etc.

    But I completely agree with you. You could make anything epic and it would be cool to see it done.

  10. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. You did’nt really touch upon other pitfalls of writing epics. Bad tie together of motives, prelude storyline that’s never actually mentioned e.t.c.
    Or is that in othe podcasts on writing excuses?

  11. ***Heroic, Epic, and High Fantasy

    As I see them used, they are different names for the same thing: big, BIG plot scope–battles, fate of the world, many peoples. Sometimes they have lots of points of view. Sometimes they don’t. I think Brandon makes a distinction between Heroic and Epic, but I’ve never been able to figure out what the difference is in his mind. LOTR was epic because the fate of “the world” hung in the balance. Same with SHANANRRARARARA, Robert Jordan, RUNELORDS, etc. Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroic_fantasy

    ***Sword & Sorcery or Adventure Fantasy

    Smaller conflicts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_and_sorcery. A lot of the Ed Greenwood old D&D stuff.

    ***Low, Contemporary Fantasy

    Familiar setting with magical elements. Scope is relatively small. JIM BUTCHER. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (yeah, it’s horror, but it fits here as well)

    My tip mirrors what was said. It’s hard to juggle multiple story lines in one book. It takes at least 70-80k words to develop the bones of one story line. You add into two or three and you’ve suddenly got a very fat book. All those scenes and braiding and characters and it becomes more difficult. Longer to finish. Etc. So if you’re going to write an epic, I would suggest you write one, but focus, focus, focus. Don’t let your characters proliferate unless they MUST. Combine characters etc. Keep it managable.

  12. I didn’t really know what an epic story was until I read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I had been reading epics for years, and loving them, but when I thought about an Epic story, I always thought of big fantasy stories. Then, I read East of Eden, and about midway through the book, I realized that the story was far bigger and complicated than I had originally thought. The story felt epic, but it was dealing with characters and relationships. But the main thing was the huge scope of the book and the grand themes that it dealt with.

    Now, the best advice I have ever gotten about writing epics came from my Dungeon Master’s Guide (v 3.0). It talks about world building in that book, and the main point that helped me was when it said to start local. You take a map and you have a village with a few interesting places around it. Then, once your players have explore those places, you expand and bring in bigger conflicts. You don’t set the hook for the epic story until your audience is connected to the characters.

    I like books that have an epic scope that gets revealed subtlely and gradually.

    However, when I write, I am also not a big fan of epic stories. I do like my settings to feel well crafted and designed, and like to have interconnecting plot lines, but I like to keep my scope more narrow. My books tend to be about character relationships and local conflicts more than they are about the “fabric of the universe” being in peril. Sometimes my stories get up to a national level of conflict, but I don’t usually go beyone those bounds. While I love to read Epics, I love to write Heroic Fantasy.

    btw, I was watching the special features of my Spider Man 2 dvd, and they brought up the concept of “surprising, but inevitable” endings. They mentioned that the quote comes from Flannery O’Connor. I don’t know if people have come out and told you that is where the quote comes from, but there you go.

  13. I try to write epic, but I just can’t. I’m too terse and my stories are too linear. I’ve never even managed to get a completed story over 70,000 words. I’m listening to the Wheel Of Time right now and am awed by the juggling of storylines and the many, many characters. I could never do it.

  14. When it comes to epic storytelling, or just writing in general for me, I always tended to have world builders disease. Pretty soon the story just didn’t seem fun any more and that’s what I look for when writing something. Is it an enjoyment or is it a chore? Thankfully I have scaled down my current project to a much more manageable world with a clear and easy over encompassing conflict in the form of a MacGuffin. I’ll have the personal character moments of course, but that’s not the threat to my world.

  15. I know that I’ve started a few epic stories , but I have one of the problems that was mentioned in here: having a large vision and then not being able to develop all of the threads of the story in one go. I didn’t learn until a little bit after I started writing it that it was way too big for me to handle, so I just started writing pieces of it and slowly developing those.

    I think your advice and approach on writing epics is very helpful; great podcast as usual. :)

  16. But I completely agree with you. You could make anything epic and it would be cool to see it done.

    I’m not sure you can make anything epic, (there are stories that would lose some of their impact if you made them part of a larger conflict) but you can certainly apply an epic conflict to any genre or theme. Some of Ian M Banks’ Culture novels skirt along the edges of being “epic literary fiction”, a label which you could probably apply whole-heartedly to Inversions. You could have an epic detective novel where tracking down a serial killer takes several books and has a huge impact on life within a large area. (Setting it in a huge city would be a big plus for that)

    Obviously to be truly epic in the classical sense there’s more than just the long-form, sweeping-conflict button to be hit, but just like we’re broadening our horizons on what counts as fantasy and science fiction, I don’t necessarily see why we can’t consider whether any long-form story could be considered an epic. ;)

  17. A fine example of a small set of stories which hooked you into the characters, and then developed into an epic: Firefly and Serenity, River and Simon’s story.
    What started as a very intimate arc about a brother rescuing his sister from the evil government research lab turned into a huge galactic government slaughter cover-up.

    Damn I wish we could get more of that stuff. Such wasted potential.

  18. Totally peripheral, but I kind of like the Jean-Luc Picard look in Howard’s picture. Although we don’t get to see his boots…

  19. @Mike Barker Thank you. I’ve always wondered if Riker was talking to ME at the Star Trek Experience in Vegas, and now you’ve confirmed it.

  20. On a semi related note, I recently bought a thriller and amazon sent me an email with other recommended thrillers, the headline was I am not a Serial Killer (John Cleaver)!

    Nice potential boost to sales there for Dan :)

  21. Great cast. I would like to point out that in the strictest sense an Epic is in fact a long-form poem about heroic deeds and a journey. The Iliad and the Odyssey being the two most obvious examples. That is to say, if one was writing a true Epic, it has to have a certain cadence, syllable, and rhyme scheme.
    That being said, as the great teacher Yoda would say: an epic fantasy requires not these things.

  22. Hi, just discovered your excellent podcast and I am so thrilled to find people giving advice about exactly the kind of thing I write. No more do I have to sit in Creative Writing Classes listening to people’s unfinished romance novels and memoirs before having to explain what Science-Ficiton is.

    Anyway, sorry if this isn’t posted in the right place but I have a question/subject for a future podcast (unless you covered it already).

    What do you guys do about stories and ideas which have been done before? It’s a big problem in sf that you come up against all the time. You just thought of a really interesting take on a time-travelling high-school physics professor, only to discover there’s a bunch of stories already.

    I suppose the real question is – if you write sf should you avoid reading too much of it so you don’t end up never writing anything OR do you read as much as possible and take a new angle on something which has been done?

  23. Thanks for the clarification, Matthew Whitehead.

    The idea of “any story can be made into an epic” seems a little dangerous to me. House MD could become an epic by having it focus on plague situations (ie: 10 people collapse in a mall, and the next day another 50 have the same symptoms, and things go from there). Keeping the character’s abrasive personality and general “I don’t care about people” attitude (without which I think we can all agree it would no longer be House, but some other medical story) in that kind of situation would be dangerous, because the sheer scope of the illnesses would pull attention away from the fact that House actually does care, which is one of the reasons we don’t see him as a sociopathic MD as we watch the show. Epic scope can make it difficult to empathize with such characters, specifically in audio-video formats, as you can’t express thoughts except in asides which quickly become disruptive, so you’d lose much of the character arc for House simply because it’s subtle enough that with a sufficiently large scope it could easily be lost in the maelstrom of story arcs.

  24. Great podcast guys!

    @John Brown and Rashkavar – I am not too enthusiastic about the Wikipedia article. I thought Brandon, Howard and Dan were using Heroic Fantasy as De Camp originally intended when he coined the phrase way-back-when; an alternative term for sword and sorcery. Heroic Fantasy, REH’s Conan. Epic Fantasy, Tolkien.

    It seems that the wikipedia article has morphed the term to equivalent to ‘epic’ fantasy, as opposed to something opposite.

    Not that I mind too much, I never liked the term Heroic Fantasy; De Camp came across as apologetic when he edited Robert E Howard’s works. For me, sword and sorcery says everything that needs to be said about the sub-genre.

  25. Oh. My point was that “You could make anything epic, but in most cases I don’t think it would be an improvement. (see the examples, who in their right mind think that “Of mice and Men” would be better if it were epic?) But it would be fun to watch someone try.*”

    *The same way watching some build a house made from toothbrushes. A a bad idea that would be awesome of someone pulled it of. And just fun to cheer at the attempt if they didn’t.

  26. This has nothing to do with anything, but the titles you name are not the Uplift Trilogy. The original Uplift Trilogy is Sundiver, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War. The books you named are the second Uplift trilogy, or the “Uplift Storm” trilogy according to Wikipedia–not the same storyline, and not nearly as good by most estimations.


  27. @Liz: You go ahead and cite Wikipedia. I’ll cite David Brin. The first three Uplift novels were not written as a trilogy. The Uplift Trilogy novels were, and that’s what Brin calls them.

    Whether or not they were as good as the first three is a matter of taste. I liked the first three, and really loved The Uplift War, but the Uplift Trilogy books were what really gave the epic feel to everything.

  28. Hello everybody,

    as some of you know already, I’m a new auditor of wrtiting excuses an, once again, I’m very interesting by the podcast and all your comments. This is very precious to heard and read what many writing people think about these story “type”… Anyway, I’m just writing a fantasy story and as I listened the podcast, I realized that my doubts was exactly what it seemed : I began with just few characters and now, after 350 pages and a complete universe created, I am afraid it is too long, too big and maybe complicated.. But I am very attached to every part of my story and I try to keep intense conflicts and characters relashionships!
    The problem is that I have to note every detail to be sure that I won’t forget important point !

  29. Did Robert Jordan define the modern epic?
    I first picked up EotW when I was 13, uncertain at first, but it defined fantasy reading for me for the next 15 years.

    Even though his series defined so much of fantasy for me, I have to say the series really drags. When I give the series to friends, they never get past book 4. Many saying they end up breezing past page after page. I even had my true love relate to me recently that she was even skipping pages in EotW.

    This leads me to ask, what is so great about WoT? And could robert jordan’s universe have been as good as it is if it was tightened up to say 6 books?

    I recently read steve erickson’s “garden’s of the moon” and even though that book is 800 pages long, it never drags for even a moment. It flips view points so that every scene is buzzing. But when I look back at the book and what i just read, I feel like I have just read a good story. I don’t feel like I have been drawn into something bigger than me, like I did with EotW. It doesn’t have the same “epic” quality to me.

    So is there something to the long meandering details that fill the pages of somebody like Jordan’s books? Is epicness just length? or is it a book that draws the reader into a world where they question and wonder at the world? If that is the case, all of these new era books, can they accomplish the same with their super focus on the characters with minimal emphasis on the backdrop and canvas?

    Wheel of time created so much wonder in me. The world was so full of life, i was constantly hoping the story would move to all of the various nooks and crannies on the maps. When I read modern “epics” like John Brown’s SoaDG, although really good, it leaves me with no wonder about the world. It is just character driven. Although I am only 200 pages in, I am not getting the calling to “come spend some time in this carefully crafted world” like I did with the WoT.

    I think a lot of what we now call epic is actually heroic fantasy. For something to be epic, it truly is in another class. “epic series” is bandied about so readily these days, it does the name injustice. I think seeing the classification of “epic” on the cover of a book should tell the reader that they need to prepare to sit down and steep themselves in a richly carved world. That there will be some slogging, but the end effect if that you are left with a world second to your own to immerse yourself in.

  30. Actually I think part of my confusion is, what would it be if its not large in scope in a The universe is at stake), although in my work it is, but instead is more like a family saga about several generations of five families?

    The first work that comes to mind is War And Peace.

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