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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 12: Writing Epics

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 12: Writing Epics


Key points: Epic does not just mean super-size it. Scope, immersion, a really big story? Larger than life issues. Multiple narratives and multiple story lines. Start small, then expand. Avoid worldbuilder's disease. There's nothing wrong with starting small and doing it well.

[Brandon] Before we start, we do want to give a sort of hoorah...
[Dan] Hoorah.
[Brandon] Because Dan's book comes out this week. I Am Not a Serial Killer.
[Dan] It does indeed, on the 30th of March.
[Howard] And we are recording this in advance so that Dan can be on book tour in sunny London, England.
[Brandon] So anyway, go to
[Dan] That is correct, or
[Brandon] And you can find out all sorts of cool stuff about his awesome book.
[Dan] And the book tour.

[Brandon] So on the day that we're talking about Dan's book, we're going to actually talk about a topic which is the opposite of Dan's book, which is epics. Howard and I write epic stories.
[Howard] Believe it or not, Schlock Mercenary is an epic.
[Brandon] Schlock Mercenary is a fantastic epic. So I want to talk about the ins and outs of writing epics, what follies do you want to watch out for, how do you do it well, that sort of thing. Let's try and get a workable definition for us for an epic.
[Howard] Can I just say epic does not mean big?
[Brandon] Okay. Go ahead. Go with that. What do you mean?
[Howard] Epic doesn't just mean big. We've taken to using the word epic colloquially to mean just... large, glorious, magnificent... epic fail, epic win...
[Brandon] The word is starting to lose some of its power, particularly...
[Dan] Its epicness?
[Howard] The literary definition... we're seeing the definition change in the same way that we saw the definition for antihero change. But epic... in a classical sense, talks about or means a structure in which a certain cycle is in large measure adhered to. You can stray from it, obviously, but there are elements that need to be present.
[Brandon] Now... I'm not sure if we want to talk about that type of epic or if we want to talk about the epic fantasy style epic? What Tolkein was writing I would term an epic, but I don't know if it's going to fit all of the ancient Greek definitions for an epic poem.
[Howard] No, it's not. But I'm okay with that.
[Brandon] So what defines an epic to us?
[Howard] Scope, I think is the first thing that has to be present.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. If I'm going to just try and get my mind around it, I'm going to look at non-epic fantasy, so if you wrote fantasy or something like that. And compare it to the epic fantasy, and say what are these two things doing differently? For me, one of the big factors in an epic, particularly when we talk about fantasy or science fiction, is the immersion factor.
[Dan] Definitely.
[Brandon] That might be the defining characteristic of the difference between an epic and a non-epic for our genre's definition.
[Howard] So how immersed you can become in the work? Or how immersed you are required to become in order to appreciate the work?
[Brandon] Exactly. Yeah.
[Dan] It seems like a lot of... you take a heroic fantasy versus an epic fantasy. The heroic fantasy could tell that same story from the epic in half the time or less. But the epic... the reason that it's epic is because it slows down and takes the time to fill in the world and describes so much more about it and what it's like to be there and everything. It's not just moving really quick from plot point to plot point.
[Howard] There are definitely aspects of that that I don't do.
[Brandon] Well, it depends on...
[Howard] That's... it's okay. I'm not...
[Brandon] I look at my own books, look at the Mistborn trilogy, and say one book is not epic and two are. Even though we classify them all is epic fantasy. The point of the first book was not to be epic, the point of the first book was kind of go against the concept of the epic, to be quick and fast paced and do this. In the second two books the point was to expand and build the world into an epic fantasy theme. I would say if you're trying to write for this epic fantasy market there are plenty of epic science-fiction type of stories, and I think Schlock does a good job of it. In the epic fantasy, the culture, the world, the setting is as important in some ways as the plot and characters.
[Howard] I think one of my favorite epic science-fiction cycles is David Brin's Uplift series. There were three novels that he called the Uplift novels, but I think there are six novels or maybe seven that fit in the Uplift cycle. Yes, when you put it all together... before you put it all together, you look at one of the books and you think, "Wow, this is a neat setting he's created" and "this is a fun little story he's telling about these people." When you pull back, you are looking at the tail of humanity's coming of age, and it can't be told in one book.

[Brandon] You're getting into that other thing that you mentioned before, scope. I would say that Foundation is incredibly epic. But Foundation is not necessarily about immersion. So... immersion isn't the only aspect of it. How do we... how do you do this, though? What... scope... how do you set down and intentionally say I'm going to write something that has epic scope.
[Howard] Brrr.
[Dan] The first Mistborn was not by your definition epic, but than the later ones were. Even though you say that, I know that you knew where the series was going when you started.
[Brandon] Right. I planned it as an epic.
[Dan] You knew the final stuff of the final book before you even started writing the first one. I think that having that in mind is not necessarily requisite but goes a long way toward giving you that sense of scope. You know that you're talking a big story right off the bat.
[Brandon] Right. When I read the first part of Foundation, and I realized this story was going to be about the coming of a second Empire in thousands of years as set up by this very... this genius who had set things in place so that it would happen, I realized, "Oh, I'm reading a very different kind of story." Epics... I would also say that if you're approaching epics, we do tend to deal with larger than life issues. That's... I would say your conflict in a lot of ways can drive what your story is. This is why I think it's so important to understand and define your conflict. If your conflict is a guy and his father dealing with their personal issues, and that's the primary sole conflict of your story, then that's not an epic. Remember, we're using epic not in the way that the Internet is, that epic equals cool. We're meeting ethic as a type of story, and it does not mean that one type of story is better than another. In fact, if you do this wrong and say, "I want to write an epic" and then... for instance... an excellent example of this is with Ang Lee's Hulk movie. In which he tried to make it feel like an epic, but which... the conflict did not match an epic story.
[Howard] The conflict was a father son...
[Dan] Very small, very personal thing.
[Brandon] That small father-son story could have been wonderful. It could have been an amazing story. Yet he decided he wanted to pair it with "we're going to call this an epic." The movie was a disaster, in my opinion. It's one of those terrible disasters, where so many pieces of it are brilliant. They don't play well with each other very... at all, and you have a train wreck.
[Dan] I remember years and years ago, when Brandon and I were first starting our writing group, long before we were published, he would... Brandon, you would write book after book that were all wonderful and they were all epic fantasies, but they had these much more personal conflicts. That became almost the motto of our writing group, was the fabric of the universe has to be at peril.
[Brandon] When Joshua rejected Whitesand, which was a very well written book I had done before I got published... one of the best. He said to me, "The story doesn't match the scope, Brandon. So either you need to cut 50,000 words, or you need a scope for this novel that matches it." That's actually the thing that I learned... I learned so much from him saying that to me. That's not to say it's impossible to pull off. If we look at, for instance, another Ang Lee masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it does feel epic. He was able to match it. In that case, we are looking at the entire lifetime of a hero... of several heroes, and we are seeing who they are with this entire lifetime, and we're looking at lots of different relationships.

[Brandon] We're going to pause for an ad...
[Howard] Let me segue straight into...
[Brandon] Wait. Howard, why don't we do the Uplift trilogy? They have them on audible.
[Howard] Oh. Okay. The Uplift trilogy. Fine.
[Brandon] Will you promo those for us since you talked about them?
[Howard] Okay, yeah, that's fine. The Uplift trilogy by David Brin. Now you're going to have to help me out with the titles.
[Brandon] Brightness Reef is the first, Infinity's Shore is the second, and Heaven's Reach is the third.
[Howard] Okay. These books by David Brin, I have to confess, have been quite an influence on the Schlock Mercenary universe. The fundamental principle here is that humanity, before meeting the Galactics, started uplifting or genetically modifying creatures here on Earth to be as intelligent as humans. They were uplifting chimpanzees, they were uplifting dolphins, things that already had the cranial capacity to be, at some future point, equal with us as sophonts on Earth. Then we get discovered by the Galactics, who have a long tradition of finding species and uplifting them to intelligence. They discover humanity and they're like, "Oh, you don't have a patron yet. You haven't been uplifted. We need to... oh, wait. You're already uplifting chimpanzees. Well, I guess we need to accept you as equals, but we'd really rather not." There's your conflict. Humanity is a junior race, a wolfling race. The Galactics... they don't like us, but they kind of have to accept us. These books are wonderful. Each of the books has a different story, tells a different aspect of it. They're all worth reading.
[Brandon] Download one for free.

[Brandon] Another aspect of the epic... and again, I want to make sure that we're giving advice... let's tell people how to do this... is the multiple narratives and multiple story lines, which I think is what makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon work so well as an epic. Lots of different people, lots of different things going on.
[Howard] You need to take the advice that we gave on side characters, the advice we gave on subplots... you need to take that to heart and be prepared to embed those things. Because if it's just one plot and one character, it doesn't feel... it doesn't have the scope.
[Dan] It doesn't feel epic.
[Brandon] Should we do a podcast and can of worms it on juggling multiple story lines?
[Dan] Maybe we should.
[Howard] Okay, sure. We haven't thrown a can of worms out in forever.
[Brandon] We'll throw a can of worms at that one, juggling multiple story lines. So, advice. Howard, you have written the longest epic of any of us.
[Howard] [chuckles] By spine count, yes. It counts for something.
[Brandon] By spine count, but you've got the fate of the universe in jeopardy, you've got dozens of different viewpoint characters, you've got their past and their...

[Howard] Let me tell you what I started with. I started with characters and small stories that were interesting. As I started fleshing that out, I started looking for the bigger conflicts. I started painting the pictures that were... I started developing the backstory and the universe. This is completely backwards to the way you do things. It's not outlining, it's [garbled]
[Brandon] This is backwards to the way... but it kind of shows that you can freewrite an epic if you know... if you're very careful about it.
[Howard] If I had it... if I had the ability to go back and edit, and rewrite some of that beginning stuff, I could tighten it up a lot and have a lot of fun with it.

[Brandon] My big advice to new writers wanting to do epics is to start a little smaller than you think you need to, would be my suggestion. If I look at the grand epics of the fantasy genre, if we look at Lord of the Rings, if we look at the Wheel of Time, if we look at most of them, you're going to find that they do start very personally. Then, the thing defining from the heroic is that they, by the end, have expanded enormously. Rather than having a plot that starts small, gets a little bit bigger, and then ends with that wrapping up, you start small, get bigger and bigger and bigger, and by the end, you have wrapped up some things, but then said, "Wow, I have no clue what I was getting into."
[Howard] In my case, that shape, that story shape, was dictated by me cutting my teeth, my storytelling teeth, on small stories. Once I got good at them, realizing I can tell a bigger story. I can tell a bigger story. I kept telling myself I can tell a bigger story, until I hit the point that I was ready to.
[Dan] That's a smart way to do it, too. Because I see this a lot with people that ask me for writing advice. One of the biggest problems, this was absolutely my problem when I first started writing, is that my eyes were just way too big for my talent at the time. This is... where we talk about world builder's disease, this is often where it comes in. People want to build this enormous world and tell this enormous story because they love Robert Jordan or because they love Tolkein. It's very, very hard to do that straight out of the gate. You need to start smaller, and know what you're doing first.

[Brandon] One of my big failings, and we'll talk about this in another podcast, was trying too many story lines at once. I looked at what George Martin was doing and I thought, man, this guy is brilliant. He's able to do two dozen storylines in the course of one novel. Maybe I can do two dozen storylines in the course of one novel. My skill wasn't up to it, yet. The story became something of a train wreck because I wasn't good at juggling plot lines, reminding people what was going on, and cutting back and forth in the right way, and so people kept losing track.
[Howard] You are trying to tackle a 12 ball juggle before you'd learned the three ball cascade.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. The thing I want to emphasize to our listeners is, and I think I've talked about this before, there's nothing wrong with starting small and doing it well. The readers who read your books are looking for an enjoyment factor. They're looking to read this book and say, "Wow, that was a great book." They would rather read a story that starts small and then starts to get bigger, that they get to the end of and say, "Wow, that was the great book," than pick up one that they say, "Wow, this felt like it had all this epic scope, but the book was a disaster." If you can tackle something smaller and doing fantastically, no one is going to read that book and say, "Gee, I wish they had done 50 storylines instead of three." They're going to say, "Wow, that was a great book." Matching your story to your current skill level is just fine. It's only one way to approach it. It's not necessarily...
[Howard] I'd also say, there are those of you out there who want to write the epic now. You know what? Go for it. If you fail, if you fall flat on your face...
[Brandon] learn from it.
[Howard] Don't get discouraged. Stand up, look behind you, look at what happened, look at what went wrong, and fix it with the next thing you write.
[Brandon] Take it as a learning experience. Know that these things are potential problems. Know that... Dan had his eyes too big, and wrote several things. Dan, you eventually decided I don't even really want to write these. You were just writing it because that's what you figured fantasy was.
[Dan] Well, yeah. I grew up reading epics and that's kind of what I thought I wanted. I... with every book, tried to do something different, and eventually found something that just fit me a lot better.
[Brandon] With me, I wanted to do epics all along, but I needed to learn to write stand-alone stories first and be able to do those really well. Before I could go on to writing the epic. Because if you can't make that story by itself in that first book excellent, no one's going to read the third and fourth and seventh and eighth book that turn it into the epic.

[Brandon] Howard, why don't you give us a writing prompt this time?
[Howard] Okay. Take a look at... oh, boy, do I dare send people out to the Internet for an epic win? I was going to say take... google epic win. Take one of these, one of the images that you see with epic win... they are mostly pretty clean from what I've seen. Take one of these epic win images and try to actually craft an epic story around that image.
[Brandon] Great. That's a great idea. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: epic fantasy, epic science fiction, epics, narratives, scope, story lines, worldbuilder's disease

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