Thursday, September 13, 2012

Element of an Epic #5: Grand Events

In the final installment in my series on the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic, I’m focusing on Grand Events – those major conflicts that makes a great epic so breathtaking. Grand events are critical because they are a primary vehicle through which the author shows how huge the stakes are in the story. They also help make the story big and bold and larger than life – a necessary ingredient for a tale to feel epic.

These grand events are never random or thrown into a story solely for a big bang effect. Rather, they are essential pieces of the plot. Ansen Dibell, in his book on Plot, describes such events as set-pieces. Here’s his definition: “A set-piece is a big scene the reader can see coming and can look forward to awhile, either in fear or in hope, before it’s reached.”

The attack on King's Landing was one hell of a set-piece!

A perfect example of such a set-piece is the assault on King’s Landing in George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings. The reader knew this event was coming since the novel’s prologue and numerous chapters built up to it. And when it exploded on the page, it was spectacular. It more than lived up to the hype with the wildfire, Tyrion’s bravery, and the twist at the end. Not to mention that the fates of so many other characters, including Joffrey, Cersei, Sansa, and Stannis Baratheon, depended on the outcome of this event. It gave A Clash of Kings a sense of grandeur, one of the things that makes it so epic. (HBO also did a wonderful job with this in Season 2 of Game of Thrones!)

Other great epics abound with examples of grand events. Here are just a few:
  • The Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King – This is an epic fantasy battle at is best!
  • The attack of the “wolves” on Calla Bryn Sturgis in Wolves of the Calla – Stephen King’s entire novel builds up to this event, and when it happens, it’s glorious.
  • The murder of Thomas Becket in The Pillars of the Earth – As the final representation of violence in the Middle Ages, this set piece was the perfect ending for the novel. The reader could feel the tension building for a long time before it happened.
  • The showdown in Las Vegas in The Stand – What could be more epic? This was the stand – the book’s namesake. And it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.
  • The attack on the rebel base on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back – From the momen that probe droid appeared, you knew this one was coming.  And it turned out to be one of the most epic battles in the Star Wars trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back was filled with grand events!

All of these events played huge roles in their story’s plots. And all of them held consequences for characters beyond those directly involved. These weren’t one character’s mere internal struggles, but huge external events that had a lasting effect on the story world. This is why Grand Events are the last of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic!

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