Six impossible things

Epics, part 2

So the topic is epic fantasy and the way so many of them get bogged down in an endless proliferation of characters and branching subplots, as described  by Marie Brennan. Having spent last post talking about why authors fall into these traps, I’m going to talk more today about ways of avoiding them.

The most obvious and least practical method is to write the entire epic before allowing any of it to be published. This has the advantage of treating the multi-volume series the exact same way as one would treat a story complete in one volume: you write the whole thing, you edit and revise the whole thing, you review the whole thing for consistency and pacing, and then you finally publish it. Unfortunately, very few writers are in a position to do this with even a short series or trilogy (not to mention that most of us lack the patience necessary to do without readers for so long), which means that some of the books will probably be in print and un-revisable before the end of the series is even in first draft.

That leaves the would-be epic novelist with one option: prevention. It’s not foolproof, but it’s better than ignoring the whole issue.

The first thing to do is to understand the pitfalls. Really understand them, not just as a check-off list, but as things you can recognize almost as soon as you see them. If you don’t recognize something as problematic, it’s almost impossible to fix even after the fact; preventing it from happening in the first place will likely be a matter of luck, no more. Also, there is no writing technique that is always a bad idea. If you understand the potential problems, then you’re also more likely to understand when they aren’t problems, and when adding another viewpoint or subplot or volume is a plus for your story, rather than a minus.

The next thing to remember is that prevention involves a certain amount of planning ahead. This can be tricky for the sort of writer for whom outlining or telling the story kills it dead, but it’s usually not completely impossible if they avoid the particular areas (usually plot) that do the story-killing, and focus instead on more abstract aspects of the story.

For the rest of us, planning ahead usually begins with some kind of shape or structure. The Harry Potter series is shaped by the British school system; each book covers one school year until Harry reaches what should be his graduation year. That shape or structure is more or less inherent to the story Rowling was telling, but many stories don’t have such a tidy shape embedded in them from the beginning. For those, the author has to find or choose or invent the framework that will support the story: the seven deadly sins or cardinal virtues, one per book for seven books, for instance, or an invented set of tasks to be covered, events to happen, places to go, or people to meet.

While this kind of shape or structure, or even an arbitrary limit on the number of volumes, can do a lot to help an author keep a story under control, it isn’t absolutely necessary. The important thing is the control, not the specific mechanism by which it is achieved.

The longer the journey, the more necessary it is to have a road map and compass, and to check them frequently to make sure one is still on track. (Sadly, they have not yet invented a GPS for writers that will break in while you’re typing to say “This scene is off track; your characters will never get across the mountains this way. To get back on track, delete the snow-elves, mystic polar bears, and cloud-fairies and have your characters go down Caradhras and head south to the Mines of Moria instead.”)

Then comes the outline, which is only for people who actually do outlines. People who can’t outline or who go by instinct still need something, but it’s usually not specific incidents or a plot line; it’s more of a feel for “what this story is.”  Whatever you do, you will probably need it to be clearer and more detailed than you think, because the basics of prevention involve regular checking of what you write against your outline or feeling.  It’s not a matter of rigidly following the plan; you’re allowed to decide that I-70 from Denver is closed, so you’ll have to swing south through Utah to get to L.A. What you’re trying to do is make sure that you don’t end up in Mexico City while you’re still promising everyone that you’re going to get to Los Angeles one of these days, yes, indeed you are.

To do this, you establish a routine of checking back with your road map/outline every ten chapters, or every 25,000 words, or every third-of-a-book, to make sure that what you’re doing is still heading in the right direction. If it isn’t, you then need to decide whether you can keep your shiny new characters/subplot/background and get back on track without too much of a detour. If it isn’t possible, you grit your teeth and take it out. The idea is to set your check-in so that it’s frequent enough that you won’t end up trashing half a book or more, but not so frequent that you start feeling like it’s a straightjacket that takes all the fun out of it.

Checking in at the end of the first draft of each book is not optional. This is where the prevention part really kicks into gear, because whether you’re following an outline or writing an epic by the seat of your pants, you are going to be stuck with whatever you’ve written for the rest of the series, so you need to make sure you can live with it. If you are particularly methodical, you can, at the end of each book, make a list of all the viewpoint characters and how many scenes they each have, or do a chart of all your subplots and where they are and where you expect them to go. The idea being, of course, to see if they’ve started proliferating madly on you, so you can catch them while you can still do something about it.

At this point – the end of the first draft for Volume-Whatever in the series – you have a choice: you can either revise backward, or revise forward. That is, you have your middle-of-series draft, which has started developing in unexpected directions. You can either trim it back ruthlessly so as to keep to your original vision (backward revision, i.e., revising the book you have just written), or you can change your vision of the story (forward revision, i.e., revising your outline or concept or whatever you’ve been using to keep things on track).

Be aware that revising your outline/concept is a lot of work. If you’re still early in your epic series, say book 1-2, you can rip up and rearrange major plot threads without it being too noticeable, but this will mean essentially redeveloping the entire rest of the series plot outline. The farther you’ve gotten in your epic, the harder it is to change course. This is possibly one of the reasons for Epic Bloat – if the writer has a Cool New Idea halfway through Book 3 of a six-volume epic, it looks like being easier to add another three or four volumes to the series (thus making the change barely 1/3 of the way through, rather than halfway through). Don’t. Really. It will not end well.

To sum up: preventing Epic Bloat is mostly a matter of paying attention and being ruthlessly honest about what is and isn’t necessary to the story. To do this, you have to know what your overall story is and how your subplots fit into it, and you have to keep checking as you write and finish various volumes to see if you are still writing the story you set out to write.

  1. Ah, if only there were such a GPS for writers! 😉

  2. I’m envisioning the chart of subplots or POV characters with color-coded Post-It notes for each. If you find yourself needing more colors than the Post-It company actually makes, you know you need to cut something.

  3. Another essay about epic length that may interest some folks: Zeno’s Mountains

  4. Mary, thank you for posting that link. It complements this post of Patricia’s rather nicely. My favourite sentence: “It is notoriously a place where journeys take longer than expected: short stories turn into novels, and novels turn into trilogies, and trilogies turn into the high felony that has sometimes been called ‘Aggravated Trilogy’ in the statute-books of the critics.”

  5. I agree with Gene. Thanks, Mary. Here’s my favorite part.

    “Of course, even with a general solution, we would still need the wisdom and the will to do what it prescribes. That is, I think, largely a matter of courage: it means having the guts to wrap up a successful series while the readers are still calling for more, instead of spinning it out to greater and greater lengths for easy profit. It means trusting our talent and our skill — knowing that if we can finish this one tale, the Muse will not desert us; there will be other tales to tell, and if we choose the best one available, our audience will follow us there.”

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