Six impossible things

Epics, part 1

Yesterday, a friend of mine forwarded a link  to this post on the pitfalls of writing a long fantasy epic, defined as “four or more books that tell an ongoing story.” It’s a fabulous analysis, and the author, Marie Brennan, hits a bunch of really good points to watch out for to keep an epic story from bloating into unreadability. Since Ms. Brennan has done such a good job of covering the what, I thought I might address some of the reasons why authors get tempted into these particular swamps and how to avoid them.

Her first and biggest point is: Pick a structure (a specific number of books) and stick to it. The difficulty here is that for a lot of epic series, this is essentially an arbitrary decision…and the author knows it is arbitrary. It’s one thing when the story itself falls into obvious, well-defined chunks (as with the Harry Potter series, where each book covers one school year). It’s another thing entirely when one sets out to write an epic of, say, half a million words that doesn’t fall naturally into neat one-to-two-hundred-thousand-word segments.

You can, of course, pick a number and figure you’ll cover the story in that many books, period. That can cause other problems down the line, though. If you’ve guessed right, it’s not a problem, but if you’ve over- or under-estimated the amount of story you have, and don’t discover this until mid-series, it can be impossible to stick to your resolve without harming the story.

It’s fairly common for authors to mis-estimate the length of a novel by ten to thirty percent, sometimes more. When you’re looking at a single, hundred-thousand-word novel, that’s an extra 30,000 words, which is often OK with the publisher (and if it isn’t, it’s usually possible to edit the book down to within shouting distance of the publisher’s limits). When you’re looking at a 500,000-word, four-to-five-book series, that’s a swing of 50,000 to 150,000 words, or up to one entire additional novel…and by the time one realizes that, the first two books are usually already on the shelves and cannot be edited. Making all the length adjustments in the last two books of the story can be next to impossible; adding one more book is a lot simpler, especially if it’s a popular series.

And once the author has added one book, it’s easier to do it again. Absent an obvious natural structure like the number of school years, there’s no real reason not to add one more book…and that opens the door for a lot of the other problems Ms. Brennan identifies in her post, the next of which is control your points of view.

Modern epic fantasy seems to be written mainly in tight-third-person with multiple viewpoints. One of the reasons for this is an extreme addiction to “showing” things rather than “telling” them. This manifests not merely as a reluctance to cover offstage plot points in narrative summary, but as a reluctance to allow the characters within the story to tell each other anything. If the messenger or dying villager isn’t allowed to tell your POV character about the burning of the village, your only alternative is to “show” it by presenting the scene in its fully dramatized glory…which generally means adding a POV character, because none of the main characters or existing POVs were around.

I blame this addiction to dramatizing scenes (and the consequent multiplying of POV characters) squarely on movies and TV. There’s good reason for it on screen; time is limited, and it’s a lot more efficient and dramatic to show a five-second shot of a hotel blowing up than to spend thirty seconds on the scene where the messenger describes it. On-screen, you also don’t have the same viewpoint problem – the camera is the viewpoint, whichever character it chooses to follow. In a novel, it works the other way: narrative is usually more compact than dramatization, and you do have the viewpoint problems.

Adding a viewpoint can also be an easy way to get offstage information to the reader; it can also the reader know more about what is going on (if they can keep track of it) than the main characters do, which supposedly makes the readers feel clever. Sometimes there are Really Cool Bits that the writer simply can’t put in unless somebody is actually viewing the scene (“murder your darlings” anyone?). Early in the series, the writer may want to foreshadow something or establish characters for later, and by the time they turn out to be unnecessary, the first book is in print and it’s too late to cut the scene. And finally, POV characters proliferate on occasion because the writer likes them and really, really wants to write their POV.

This leads directly to Ms. Brennan’s next points, which are control your subplots and centralize. The trouble with introducing a new POV character is that every person is the hero and central focus of his or her own story. The minute you give a character a tight-third viewpoint scene, that character starts reconceiving the whole story on their terms, and brings in all their personal concerns about their gambling debts or their son’s education. And unless they’re a throwaway viewpoint, like the villager who gets killed in the raid just so the writer can “show” the raid onstage, the writer is very likely to have to deal with some of those concerns, which means more scenes for that character, as well as a whole new branching tree of subplots.

The second reason for proliferating subplots is the problem of balance. If you have two viewpoint characters who are both supposed to be central to the story, you really want to give them almost-equal time on stage. This means that if you have one character who is sitting in town having several chapters-worth of adventures in a couple of days, you don’t want your other viewpoint character to be having a boring two-week voyage from point A to point B. So you either have to stretch the timing of the in-town adventures (which can be tough to make plausible), or you have to have your traveling character run into some interesting trouble so as to keep the timing and emphasis the same, or you do what Tolkien did and spend several months and many chapters on one character, and then abandon them and spend an equal number of time and chapters on the other character(s).

The other big reason writers fall into this kind of trap is that a multi-volume story feels, initially, as if it has loads of room for all this stuff. The whole point of an epic is to be able to spread out and dig down into the detail, isn’t it? So it’s easy to throw in lots of subplots at the start, without quite realizing just what it’s going to take to develop them and then bring them all to a satisfactory conclusion.

The crowning problem is the one I mentioned earlier: the problem of publishing. Most of the errors don’t show up as problematic right away, and if the book is in print, it can be difficult or impossible for the writer to really recover. If you realize while writing Book 5 that you don’t need a subplot that you introduced in Book 2, and the first three volumes are already in print, you’re probably stuck. Even trying to revise Book 4 to downplay it may be difficult, depending where that book is in the production process.

Since very, very few writers are in a position to write four or more books entirely on spec (i.e., without a contract and without allowing any of them to be published until they’re all finished), this leaves prevention as the only option. Since this post is already a bit long, I’ll work on that on Wednesday.

  1. Having just misestimated the length of a single novel by 50k, I feel like writing a series would be a horrible exercise in exponential growth. I’m currently going through the novel and trying to weed out the half-dead subplots and bulbous prose, but cutting the thing by 1/3 is a horrifying prospect. And yet, it is still a better prospect than trying to split it into two books and make each of them satisfying on their own.

  2. This is why I could never write epic fantasy. I unders estimated my current novel by about 15k, so I’m pretty sure if I wrote an epic fantasy it would grow into a beast of horrible proportions.

  3. Interesting. As I read your post, I realized that I don’t read much epic fantasy. Nor do I write it. I love fascinating and wondrous worlds for setting. But my interest lies in the very personal adventures experienced by specific people within them. Vast epic events make good backdrop (for me), but I don’t really want to explore the fate of populations and nations and so on, either as reader or writer. I want to explore how individuals make their own fates, how they grapple with external difficulties (enemies or circumstances) and internal difficulties (mistaken beliefs or tempting evils).

    Very interesting, indeed. Evidently my enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings was anomalous! And proves Tolkien’s genius yet again (in a small way). It also explains why I always liked The Hobbit more. It’s more personal.

  4. Nicely done, Patricia! You write good stuff about writing, and you pick other people’s good writing about writing, too.

    I was disagreeing with one point of Ms Brennan’s. I thought that an epic is *three* or more books, but then I thought about it while reading comments and a few related posts.

    I think that the point is that many epics have the problem that the sequence of books is a book one, a book two, a book two masquerading as a book three, a book two masquerading as a book four, etc.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” — Yeats

  5. To be sure, inventing stuff for your other POV characters to do can work. The trick is, you have to conceal the fact, and make it look like it’s as much part of the original inspiration as the stuff that was.

  6. I notice that a reluctance to tell is not one of the things the epic fantasy inherited from Tolkien. In order to maintain suspense and surprise, he would often omit events that the main POV characters saw, and have them tell it after the fact.

    It helped that he had the rhetoric to make them sound like people who would recount adventures.

  7. Any guesses on how many posts this topic will take? 😀

  8. If you are referring to Patricia’s topics, at least four. That would be just, ah, epic!

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,