Being a Better Writer: Epics

We’ve got a one-word title today readers. Buckle up!

No news. Not today. No, we’re going to dive right in. Today’s topic actually was one of several inspired by my attending of Life, The Universe, and Everything this year, as I met with a number of young, aspiring authors who declared an interest in writing an Epic of their own. Even if, some admitted, they weren’t quite sure what an Epic was, or what went into a book that made it an “Epic” while other books were just “adventures.”

Today’s topic went right to the list the moment I returned home that evening. Because I love Epics, and would enjoy seeing more of them out there. And … there really isn’t that much about them out there.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty on the classic Epics, like The Odyssey or The Illiad. There are whole college course dedicated to those works that you can peruse online.

But those aren’t modern Epics. They’re not generally what someone means today when they tell you that they read this great book, and mention the genre as being Epic Fantasy. No, the modern Epic is something a little different. And … not that oft defined, though talked about frequently enough. Which in turn can lead to confusion or difficulty for a lot of young authors who know the genre that they would like to write towards … but aren’t quite sure what that genre entails.

They’re like those young authors I found at LTUE. They know what they like, and what they want to do. They can name books that they’re fairly certain are Epics … but they’re not one hundred percent certain what makes one book an Epic and the other simply an adventure.

So, let’s dive into it. What makes an Epic an Epic? And how can you prepare to write one?

First things first, it’s not length. Let’s just make that clear up front. I’ve seen more than one young author (or reader) call a story “an Epic” simply because it was long, but this isn’t the case. Length has no determining factor on a story being an Epic or not. Note that this doesn’t mean an Epic won’t be long, but rather that an Epic usually is lengthy as a byproduct, not as a determining factor of the genre.

I’ll say it again just to be crystal clear: A long story is not automatically an “Epic.” I’ve seen people attach the tag to all sorts of stories that couldn’t be further from the genre, just because of length, and this is incorrect. A 300,000-word story is not automatically an Epic by the word-count it hits, no more or less than a story would automatically be a “mystery” for hitting some other arbitrary wordcount.

Word count has no determining factor in whether or not a story is an Epic. Epics are long, usually, as a by product of what makes them, well, them, rather than because of it. So, if you’re idea of writing an Epic is ‘I write a really long story,’ toss the idea now. That’s not what an Epic is.

Nor, while we’re on the topic, does an Epic have to be a Fantasy story, or a Science-Fiction tale, or stuck to some other genre? Again, these genres tend to feature most prominently in “Epic”works … But like the word count, it’s a case of those genres being ones that are the most conducive to letting one write an Epic, not a requirement of the genre itself.

Okay, so those are some things that don’t define an Epic. But what about “The Heroes Journey?” I’ve both seen and heard people call books about a young protagonist picking up their sword and going on a grand, lengthy adventure “an epic tale.” Does that make it an Epic?

Again, no. Same thing. Such a story can be in the Epic subgenre, but at the same time it can simply be a high adventure or a sword-and-sorcery hack-and-slash.

All right, enough. I believe you’re starting to get the picture. As well as the idea that there may be a difference between “epic” as a positive descriptor (IE, “That movie was epic!”) and “Epic” as, well, a subgenre (This book is an Epic-Fantasy Adventure).

That’s right, a subgenre. Not a primary. Epic, as I said before, can work with a large variety of what we consider “primary genres,” and isn’t a genre in and of itself. You don’t really write a book that’s just an Epic. It’s an Epic Fantasy, or an Epic Science-Fiction novel. Or an Epic Political Thriller … etc, etc, you get the point.

Also, I suspect, you want me to get to the point. We’ve talked a lot about what an Epic isn’t. So … if it’s not any of those things, then what is it? What do you do with a story that allows you to lay claim to that subgenre tag? What makes an Epic?

First, scope.

Let’s return to one of the examples I mentioned earlier, the one about the protagonist taking up their sword and going on a grand adventure. I stated there that the setup alone did not make the story “an Epic.” But it also didn’t mean that the story couldn’t be one. So let’s look at the difference.

First is the story as a regular fantasy adventure. We have our protagonist growing up … somewhere. Doesn’t really matter. The call to adventure comes, and they answer it. They set out. They pick up a mentor, a few friends, face off against an evil bandit leader or something, vanquish them. Maybe there’s a love interest. Or an evil magic-user.

End of the story, they have lots of adventure, peril, and probably save the day for someone, maybe a kingdom.

Okay, neat. We’ve all read a story like that (and if not, what have you been reading?). It could be one of thousands of Fantasy adventures.

So what about making it an Epic? What changes? Well, let’s widen the scope.

We have our protagonist growing up. Again, doesn’t quite matter where, but this time there’s an emphasis somewhere on the wider world. Maybe the protagonist wants to see it. Maybe the folks around his home talk about it. Even if not talked about, the wider world is acknowledged and felt. Maybe they leave home because trade jobs have all but vanished because of a trade alliance with another nation … whatever. But there’s a wider lens, even in the protagonist’s home.

Then the call to adventure comes, and they answer it. Just the same. But now, rather than keeping their gaze narrow and focused on their small part of the world, things gradually widen. We learn about the larger world around them as they journey and adventure. More importantly, that larger world both affects them and is affected by them.

That’s the second bit. First is scope. The second is then letting that larger scope react and act on things.

The same applies to their eventual foe. The world is wider. Each action has repercussions that ripple across it. Where the first version of the story may not have done much more than name the places the characters traveled to, treating them as sets for the adventure to interact with, an Epic will let them be more than just set-pieces, but real places that affect and are effected by all those agents of the story out there.

An adventure shows you the story of an adventure. An Epic adventure shows you how that adventure both changes the world and is shaped by it.

Which is why Epics tend to be longer works. It’s not that there’s a length requirement. But that in delivering on the scope and complexity of the world the characters are in … length tends to come naturally. There’s just more to the world than the characters stumbling around having setpiece adventures.

Are you seeing the difference? The focus of the lens is narrower in a traditional adventure story. What happens to the kingdom after the protagonist saves the day isn’t really a concern. Or why it was a problem in the first place. But an Epic? The lens pulls back, the focus is wider. We see more of the world. We see more of its problems. And we see how the pieces move around and how they affect people.

The world is wider. Broader. We see more of the pieces in play. Things become more complex as a result.

Note that I said the scope of the world is wider. I mean it. Making just the character scope wider? Not an Epic. Simply fleshing out our character more or given all of our dozen-plus primary and secondary deep backgrounds doesn’t make a story an Epic. You just have a lot of background material.

But letting them and their experiences shape and be shaped by the wider world? That’s moving on making an Epic.

In other words, if an adventure story has your characters joining a king for, say, a battle with another another kingdom, in an adventure, that may be all we get. King needs warriors, protag-party shows up, there’s a battle, they win/lose. There might be some bits said about why the battle is happening … but that’s more so that the reader understands there is a reason. The material is presented, but ultimately not that important unless the protagonist goals align with it.

An Epic, on the other hand, would widen the scope. Perhaps the protagonist would sit in on strategy meetings. There would be questions asked about why the battle is to be fought, and why it wasn’t avoided. Where a standard adventure story could go the rest of the tale with nary a mention of the battle after its over, an Epic would let that battle shape things, even if that were just local politics.

Wider scope. That’s what makes an Epic. And yes, that does often involve politics. Between kingdoms, between clans, between companies … politics, maneuvering, and large-scale plans you will need to account for.

Which brings us to the next focus of this article. We’ve talked about what an Epic is as a subgenre. What makes a story an Epic rather than ‘just epic.’ It’s a wider scope. Or, to put it another quick-and-easy way, the story is as much about the world as the characters in it.

So then … how can you do that? And make sure that the parts of the world are interesting to the reader, functional outside of being just window dressing?

Well, there are two things I’d advise. And one of them may sound a little strange but I’m going to say it anyway.

Learn about the grander scope. Which means things like geopolitics, but also just knowledge in general about systems, societies, logistics, etc, and how they interact. And a great way to do this? Well, again, going to sound strange but …

Grand strategy games. Like Sid Meir’s Civilization. Or Stellaris. Or Hearts of Iron. Europa Universalis.

You don’t have to play them. Even watching a let’s play could work. Such as the Stellaris Youtube war series, perhaps. Or a Civ game. Playing them would be better, I think.

Okay, now the why. Why would I say this can help? Because these games are concerned with grand strategy. Or in other words, vast scope. Wide scope. They’re built to get your brain thinking on a grand scale. On more than just a single city or location.

They’re also built to showcase how complex interactions between nations and people can be. To make you think about the greater picture, rather than just a small piece of it. A game of Civilization can make you reconsider trade tariffs, for example, or understand how a nation could have a grudge against another that persist for a hundred, two hundred, even a thousand years.

You hear that, Gorgo? You took that orange-filled oasis from me five centuries ago, and we haven’t forgotten! This war is about those oranges. And that uranium you won’t give me via trade that I really need for my war machine.

Sure, the above paragraph is humorous … but it also happened many times. Or a scene like it anyway. Grand strategy games are about the large scale and scope, and once you’ve played them, you start looking at things often in a different way. In long-term rather than short term. Wide, rather than narrow.

The second? Read books that claim the Epic tag, and pay close attention to how the deliver on it. How do they show the broader world while still keeping the story interesting and revolving around their chosen characters? What sort of perspectives do they use? Does it help or hinder the story? How about their pacing?

Learn from other books that tell Epic stories. Study how they do it.

Then? Well, you can probably guess. Practice. Figure out how to apply what you’ve discovered and learned to your own writing. Try to widen that lens. Practice. Fail. Try again.

See how others widen the scope. Learn to think on that scale. See if it will serve your story.

Then practice, practice, practice.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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