Thursday, August 30, 2012

Element of an Epic #3: Huge Stakes

Great epics are never about a single character’s journey. Even if the stakes are enormous for that one character, rarely would such a story be described as epic. In great epics, many characters must be in peril, and sometimes the fate of whole nations, or even whole worlds, are at issue in the story. The stakes for everyone must be huge.

The stakes are huge for everyone in A Game of Thrones!

One of this blog’s loyal readers commented that great epics tend to involve multiple viewpoint characters. She’s exactly right. One of the most popular epics today is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and while the stakes are huge in the abstract – the fate of the kingdom of Westeros hangs in the balance – Martin shows the reader why those stakes are huge through the viewpoints of numerous characters. Take A Game of Thrones, for example. Through the stories of the Starks, Martin illustrates the danger of a tyrant like Joffrey on the Iron Throne. And he does so through four different characters, each of whom faces their own huge stakes: Ned finds himself in danger as the Hand of King, especially after he discovers the truth about Joffrey; Catelyn is trying to save her daughters, but ends up helping her oldest son wage a war against the Lannisters; Sansa becomes a virtual hostage of Joffrey and Cersei Lannister; and Arya literally must run and fight for her life. The reader appreciates how huge the stakes are in this war because if the Lannisters win, so many of the characters we’ve come to care about in the novel will suffer or die.

But Martin’s epic goes beyond the story of the Starks in Kings Landing. Martin takes us to the Wall through the story of Jon Snow, revealing another impending danger for the kingdom of Westeros, and has Jon experience that danger first hand. Martin also shows us another “threat” to Westeros in the form of the Daenerys Targaryen, though he does so in a way that the reader empathizes with her because of the dangers she faces, all of which flow from the central conflict over the Iron Throne. And, like many great stories, Martin shows us the stakes from the perspective of the antagonists – the Lannisters – through yet another sympathetic viewpoint character (and one of the best in the novel), Tyrion Lannister.  

The fate of England was at stake during the Anarchy!

Ken Follett achieves the same effect in The Pillars of the Earth. There, the huge stakes involve the fate of England during the Anarchy and the violence associated with that civil war, but Follett illustrates those stakes through the stories of a number of different characters, including a cleric (Prior Philip), a common man (Tom Builder), a noble woman (Aliena ), and a sadistic knight (William Hamleigh). The same could be said for Stephen King’s The Stand, who shows how huge the stakes are after an apocalyptic plague through the viewpoints and plotlines of numerous characters, both heroes and villains.

These aren’t stories about a crisis facing a kingdom or nation in the abstract, but rather they’re stories of a crisis shown through the experiences of numerous, well-developed characters. By illustrating what is at risk through the collective experiences of these characters, the author makes the stakes appear real, and most importantly, shows why they are huge. And that’s why something huge at stake – for both the story world and the characters within it – is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.

Monday, August 27, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #28

For my twenty-eighth “Beginning” of the Week, I’m going back to one of my all-time favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell. Here is the opening passage of The Winter King, the first book in The Warlord Chronicles, his fascinating take on the Arthurian legend.  

Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened. Bishop Sansum, whom God must bless above all the saints living and dead, says these memories should be cast into the bottomless pit with all the other filth of fallen mankind, for these are the tales of the last days before the great darkness descended on the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the tales of the land we call Lloegyr, which means the Lost Lands, the country that was once ours but which our enemies now call England. These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.
– Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King

I think this beginning is brilliant. It hints of conflict from the second sentence on, and the voice of its narrator – someone who knew and now weeps for Arthur – is instantly interesting. The writing also sets the tone superbly for the story to come and immediately makes you want to read more. But enough of my opinions, let me know what you think – is this opening one of the great beginnings?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Long Live the Epic! - A Song of Ice and Fire

I'm slammed with work this week, so my next installment of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic needs a little more time and attention. For now, here's my first post about epics from August 2011.

This summer has been huge for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. First, HBO made Martin’s premiere novel in the series, A Games of Thrones, into a ten episode television series that concluded this past June and has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards. HBO has renewed the series for another season, which will focus on the events of Martin’s second novel, A Clash of Kings. Then, a few weeks ago, Martin’s publisher released A Dance with Dragons, the long awaited fifth novel in the series, which is currently No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (A Game of Thrones ranks 6 on the list, even though it was originally published in 1996).

There's nothing like a great epic!

The HBO series, for those who didn’t see it, is amazing and very true to the novel. As for the books, A Song of Ice and Fire has risen into the pantheon of great fantasy works, right alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Martin’s characters are richly drawn, making the reader truly care for them, so when tragedy strikes one of the most endearing characters in A Game of Thrones, the impact is profound. Martin’s world building also places him at the top of his craft. One of the ways he achieves both of these is through the novel’s length and its multiple viewpoint characters. But few, if any, new authors today could ever get away with this. Just imagine how most agents would react to the following line in a query letter:

Dear agent,
I am seeking representation for my fantasy epic, A Game of Thrones, a story of intrigue, murder, and war told through the viewpoint of eight different characters, complete at 298,000 words.
How fast can you say “form rejection”? I suspect many agents and their assistants would reject this query on word count alone. In fact, if you read industry blogs, the desired word count for a novel these days is barely 100,000 words, although fantasy manuscripts may survive if they’re in the 115,000 to 124,000 range – at least according to the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog before it moved to its current location. But whether it’s 100,000 or 124,000 words, this is far, far short of an epic like A Game of Thrones.

Other famous fantasy and historical epics well exceed the current “standard” for word count. According to one Internet resource, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000 words long. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World weighs in at 305,000 words. And Stephen King’s The Dark Tower totals around 288,000 words. Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth has to be of a similar length, and while I haven’t seen a word count for the novel, my copy is 973 pages long. Clearly these are all famous authors, but they were writing epic fiction, and sometimes – to be done well – epics have to be long.

I’m not suggesting that every novel should be as large as a phone book, but I wonder if the publishing industry hasn’t gone overboard with its restrictive view towards word count. Once upon a time, a longer novel meant higher printing costs, but surely in the age of e-books that’s not the case. Maybe that’s where things are heading. Authors of epic fiction may have to go the indie publishing route, where word count won’t really matter. Maybe that’s the only way to get past the “form rejection” when writing an epic these days. Thankfully, George R.R. Martin didn’t have to deal with this hurdle, or we may have never had the masterpiece that is A Game of Thrones.

Monday, August 20, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #27 – and another shift in the schedule ...

For this week’s “beginning” I’m featuring another of Stephen R. Lawhead’s works, the opening passage of his excellent novel Byzantium. (You can read my review here.)

I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there. That vast city seemed to me a living thing: a great golden lion, or a crested serpent coiled upon a rock, beautiful and deadly. With trembling steps I walked alone to embrace the beast, fear turning my bones to water. I heard no sound save the beating of my own heart and the slow, hissing breath of the creature. As I drew near, the half-lidded eye opened, and the beast awoke. The fearful head rose; the mouth gaped open. A sound like the howl of wind across a winter sky tore the heavens and shook the earth, and a blast of foul breath struck me, withering the very flesh. 
I stumbled on, gagging, gasping, unable to resist; for I was compelled by a force beyond my power. I watched in horror as the terrible beat roared. The head swung up and swiftly, swiftly down – like lightening, like the plunge of an eagle upon its prey. I felt the dread jaws close on me as I stood screaming.
– Stephen R. Lawhead, Byzantium

I like this book, and the beginning too, even if it’s guilty of another taboo: never open a book with a dream. I believe that all the conflict a reader needs is contained in the first sentence – and the novel does a masterful job of living up to the promise of that conflict. But others may disagree. So let me know what you think about the opening passage of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Byzantium.

On another note, my temporary shift to posting on Thursdays instead of Wednesdays may become more permanent. I kind of like the new schedule, so I plan to try it out for a while. So join me tihis Thursday for the third post in my series on the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Element of an Epic #2: Lots of Time

Great epics often span considerable time periods. That’s one of the reason these novels tend to look like small telephone books in hard copy. These aren’t 90,000 word novels like so many popular thrillers, which move at break-neck speed and sometimes account for a mere 24 hours (or less) of story time. No, epics are vast and they are sweeping, and they often cover years, or even decades, in the story world.

Why are epics so long? I think one reason is that a great epic story transforms more than just the main characters, but the whole story world – and, as I’ve said before, this takes time. Two of my favorite epics illustrate this point perfectly.

The Stand spans a lot of time!
The first is Stephen King’s The Stand, where the entire world literally is changed by an apocalyptic plague that kills most of the people on earth. The novel not only details the events of the plague and its immediate aftermath, but also proceeds to follow the storylines of a host of survivors as they gather into rival societies, one in Boulder and the other in Las Vegas. King doesn’t cut corners, but rather lets his story unfold over time, always keeping the focus on his characters while showing how the world is changing, from the apocalyptic plague, to the birth of new societies, to the deadly conflict that threatens the survival of one of them. Substantial time passes during The Stand, and without this commitment to detailing so many events over such a broad time span, the book would have been a far lesser tale.

The entire Anarchy is covered in The Pillars of the Earth.
A second example is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This novel, set in twelfth century England, begins shortly after the sinking of the White Ship, which resulted in the death of England’s crown prince and led to an eighteen-year civil war called the Anarchy, where Stephen of Blois and the Empress Matilda fought over the English throne. Follett illustrates the violence and turmoil resulting from these events through the lives of a number of central characters, who represent two generations during this war. The novel even goes beyond the Anarchy to the reign of King Henry II and ultimately the murder of Thomas Becket, putting a fine point on the novel’s theme of violence in the middle ages and illustrating how the situation has changed somewhat by the end, thanks to the courage of Prior Phillip, one of the novel’s central protagonists. The fact that Follett chose to tell the story of the Anarchy – and show the transformation of the story world (however subtle) – in the course of a single novel is one of the reasons The Pillars of the Earth is a great epic.

Another reason for the time period covered by epic fiction is the magnitude of what is often the “quest” or “journey” that comprises the novel’s plot. Roland Deschain’ s seven volume trek across Mid-World to find the Dark Tower in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a good example, as is Frodo Baggins’ three volume quest to destroy the One Ring. These quests took time – and a huge toll on their protagonists. Had they been single volume tales, they likely would have lacked some of the grandeur that helped make them great epics. 

Homer knew that a great epic takes time!
Homer may have been one of the first to recognize this point. He realized that for a trip from Troy to Ithaca to be epic, it needed to take ten years and involve a ton of adventure. While stories like The Odyssey and King’s Dark Tower series are more personal in focus than say The Stand or The Pillars of the Earth, which detail the lives and trials of a myriad of different characters, the length of the protagonist’s personal journey and the numerous struggles he faces are one of the elements that make these stories epic.

So whether it’s to show the transformation of the story world or the magnitude of the protagonist’s quest, epics span a lot of time. And that’s why a lengthy time span is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.

Monday, August 13, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #26 ... and a blip in the schedule ...

This week’s “beginning” comes from Hood, Stephen R. Lawhead’s reimagination of the Robin Hood myth. For those who haven’t read my post on Legends Reimagined, Hood features “Robin” as a Welsh freedom fighter during the Norman Conquest. Here is how it begins:

The pig was young and wary, a yearling boar timidly testing the wind for strange scents as it ventured out into the honey-coloured light of a fast-fading day. Bran ap Brychan, Prince of Elfael, had spent the entire day stalking the greenwood for a suitable prize, and he meant to have this one. 
Eight years old and the king’s sole heir, he knew well enough that he would never be allowed to go out into the forest alone. So rather than seek permission, he had simply taken his bow and four arrows early that morning and stolen from the caer unnoticed. This hunt, like the young boar, was dedicated to his mother, the queen.
– Stephen R. Lawhead, Hood

This opening focuses a lot on the defiant boy Bran (the future Mr. Hood), and barely hints at conflict – why Bran has to dedicate this hunt to his mother, suggesting something ill might have befallen her. The book presents an interesting take on the Robin Hood legend, but I’ll leave it to you whether its opening has the making of a great beginning.

Now for the blip. For the past six months or so I’ve regularly posted my main blog posts on Wednesday. This week, due to travel, I’ll need to push that to Thursday. So stay tuned then for my next post on the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic. Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Element of an Epic #1: A Vast Setting

Among the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic, setting is at the top of my list. Great stories, of course, can take place in a very limited setting. Stephen King’s The Mist, which largely takes place in a convenience store, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which primarily takes place in the protagonist’s home, leap to mind. But these are not epics. Epics are sweeping, they are vast, and their setting must reflect that.

A cash of five kings – it has to be epic!

One of the most popular epics of the past decade, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, is a perfect example. The fate of the seven kingdoms is at stake. The story spans numerous settings from The Wall (and beyond) down to Winterfell, Riverrun and King’s Landing. Martin also shows us the Eyrie, the Iron Isles, and Dragonstone, and takes us across the sea to a whole other continent, where the Dothraki roam and the warlocks dwell in Qarth. Martin paints a compelling picture of his vast story world, with every locale embroiled, in some form or another, with the central conflict of his story. Had his novels been confined to a single setting – Winterfell for example – we still might have a great story surrounding Bran and his younger brother, but no one would call it an epic.

All of Middle Earth is at stake in The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings presents another good example. His trilogy took us to a myriad of locations, from the Shire, to the Mines of Moria, to Rohan and Gondor, and ultimately Mordor and Mount Doom. Without these various settings, the reader would have no sense of the danger facing all of Middle Earth. But Tolkien, who lived through two World Wars, knew what he was doing. He shows the reader the terrible fate of the dwarves of Moria and the perils of the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep, and he allows us to appreciate the consequences of the war on the people of Gondor and the Hobbits of the Shire. In doing so, he gives the crisis in his story an epic feel because so many lands and people are affected by the threat of Sauron and the fate of the One Ring.

The Harry Potter novels became epic by the end!

One less obvious example comes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The first four books in the series took place almost entirely at Hogwarts. These were more like mystery novels; there was little epic about them. But in the last three novels – The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows – the action went beyond Hogwarts to locations throughout London and elsewhere in England, giving the books a much grander, and more epic, feel. Suddenly, there was more at stake than just Hogwarts, and the story became bigger, and, in my view, better.

Of course, a vast setting is merely one element of an epic. Stories that span many settings can have the makings of a great journey tale, but not all journey tales are great epics. There are other elements needed to complete the recipe, and there’ll be more on that in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 6, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #25

For this week’s “beginning,” I’m going back to one of the great journey tales by Stephen King, his second book in The Dark Tower series: The Drawing of the Three. Here’s how it begins, after this image of the book’s cover:

The gunslinger came awake from a confused dream which seemed to consist of a single image: that of the Sailor in the Tarot deck from which the man in black had dealt (or purported to deal) the gunslinger’s own moaning future. 
He drowns, gunslinger, the man in black was saying, and no one throws out the line. The boy Jake. 
But this was no nightmare. It was a good dream. It was good because he was the one drowning, and that meant he was not Roland at all but Jake, and he found this a relief because it would be far better to drown as Jake than to live as himself, a man who had, for a cold dream, betrayed a child who had trusted him.
– Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three

I’m a huge fan of The Dark Tower series, so I would read this book regardless of the beginning. That said, I think it’s a powerful opening, especially for those who read The Gunslinger, the first book in the series. But that’s just me – let me know what you think about the beginning of The Drawing of the Three.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic

I adore epic fiction. It’s likely the fault of George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien. I was eight when Star Wars came out in 1977, and I'll never forget staring wide-eyed at the opening image of the rebel ship and that star destroyer. Then Darth Vader emerged through that smoke-filled portal and it blew my mind. Later that same year, NBC aired the cartoon version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which led me to read the book, and by then I was totally hooked. I loved fantasy and I loved epics. For me, there was no turning back.

Epics have been popular since the fall of Troy!
In college I studied many of the classic epic poems – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost – and my love for the epic grew even stronger. Given this, it’s not surprising that every novel I’ve ever attempted to write – including Enoch's Device – has been epic fiction in the fantasy or historical fantasy genres. So this week I'm beginning a six-part series on what I view as the top 5 elements of great epic fiction. Here they are:
  1. A Vast Setting – Epics are not confined to a single town or village, but rather concern whole nations or worlds. Frodo traveled from the Shire to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. And the action in A Game of Thrones takes place in numerous locals, from Winterfell to King’s Landing, to the Wall and to the Dothraki Sea. These are vast story worlds for the reader to explore.

  2. Lots of Time – Unlike thrillers and horror tales, epics don’t take place in 24 hours, or even a week. They usually span months, even years. In an epic, often the whole story world is transformed, and this takes time.

  3. Huge Stakes – The stakes in most epics involve the fates of kingdoms, or even worlds. The stakes must rise above those of a single character, though the protagonist must face huge stakes as well. Great epics have both their story world and their main characters in crisis. Take Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for example. The fate of Middle Earth was at stake, but Frodo faced his own personal crisis in trying to save it, and would not have succeeded without some unexpected “help” at the end.

  4. Heroic Figures – Epics require a hero, though an antihero will do just fine (think Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series). These stories often feature characters of the Messiah archetype, like Luke Skywalker, Neo from The Matrix, Garion from The Belgariad, and, of course, brave Frodo Baggins.

  5. Grand Events – Mere family strife or relationship drama is not the stuff of epics. Rather, we need wars; conflicts or political intrigue that shake whole kingdoms to their core; battles with an overwhelming enemy against all odds. Epics don’t do mundane, and that’s one of the reasons I love them.
In the next five posts, I’ll elaborate on these concepts and their historical origins. But in the meantime, let me know what you think – are these the elements that make a great epic?