Thursday, March 22, 2012

How Epic is Epic? -- Working with "Epic" Storylines

Harry Potter is perhaps one of the most recent breakout hits to be created specifically for a major, multi-book storyline that is categorized by a marketing label that actually (some might say "for once") does a excellent job of defining the scope of the works it promotes -- Epic.

You can't turn around in a bookstore without tripping of any number of multi-volume works, and the trend only seems to be growing and taking up more and more shelf space and online retail bytes.

But what makes a writer want to think beyond the scope of a simple story to create something so grandiose and far-reaching?

Well, you know us here at Bad Girls, Good Guys, and Two-Fisted Action. With our curiosity suitably piqued, we asked a few writers to see what they had to say.

What attracts you to or turns you away from epic storylines, both as a reader and as a writer?

Van Allen Plexico: I've always preferred TV series over single movies, and similarly I prefer books in a series over one-shots. I just tend to enjoy big, long-running stories in which the characters have lots of time and room to grow and evolve, without it feeling forced (the way it sometimes does in a movie, single novel, or short story.)

Those same factors hold true for me as a writer. I like having lots of room to develop a big cast of characters. I've always been drawn to that type of story-- generational ones, with multiple protagonists and whole legions of villains. I guess I could blame superhero comics as much as anything--the first two I ever read as a kid were an issue of Avengers and an issue of Justice League (and that one happened to be a cross-over with the JSA and the Legion! Good heavens, no wonder!!)

Alan Lewis: As a reader, I tend to shy away from Epics, at least until all the books have been released. The last thing I want is to get started on a series only to have the publisher & author to stop producing/continuing the story arch due to poor sales or some other reason.

As a writer, I have no real desire to write an epic. I personally feel that a story can be told in a single volume. Although some epics such as Harry Potter are rich enough to span several books, I think some publishers push authors to expand a great single book in to multiple books simply for monetary reasons.

Bobby Nash: Epics can be fun if you like the concepts and characters. It can be fun revisiting old friends whenever new volumes arrive. That’s the positive. The negative is that sometimes these big epics either fall by the wayside before they’re completed or in some cases there are long delays between them. As a reader that can be quite frustrating.

Ian Watson: Epic storylines are by definition high-stakes, long-running stories. If they're populated with characters that interest me then because the tales are long I get more of the cast I enjoy, I get to see them in plenty of varied situations, and they probably develop. Also, a saga of that length usually has to properly world-build to sustain itself.

But some writers confuse 'epic' with 'long.' Writing variations of the same quest journey for five volumes only works if you're David Eddings.

For a writer, epic stories call for different writing skills, starting with plotting and working through long-term character and theme developments. The disciplines of short story word-counts are abandoned in favour of techniques to pace, vary, and sustain a narrative that builds on itself over and over.

Because I like backstory, and character-driven storylines, and world-creating, I enjoy writing epics. Unfortuately, small publishers can't risk the resources to publish such things. My 1.25 million word The Last Days of Atlantis will just have to stay on my hard drive some more.

Lee Houston Jr.: As a reader, I don't intentionally go looking for epic story lines, per se. I do like being able to go from one book to another with the same core group of characters. That's  akin to visiting friends on a regular basis. But what attracts me is the sense of grand adventure. The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example, although Tolkien never actually wrote it as a trilogy. The publisher split the book because he wasn't sure the story would find an audience. But the same things that would detract me in any story are an even greater risk in epics: stories that drag out beyond their natural length and boring tales.

As a writer, I have yet to even consider doing such an epic myself. But I do try to build upon my characters (Hugh Monn, Private Detective and Alpha) with each tale I write so the readers at least get the sense of an overall epic, even though every book is self contained.

Nancy Hansen: Epics in fantasy writing are generally about some heroic quest. I've always loved the big series where the characters are familiar, the world setting is well described and detailed, and there's some ongoing, overarching situation in the background. That said, if the individual stories in the books plod along, I lose interest quickly.

Roger Stegman: If well done, It is fun to return again and again to the world created. If not well done, subsequent books are likely not read. As a writer, once a world is created, it is easy to stay in the world. Most decisions are already made. The problem is retaining constancy over many stories.

Selah Janel: I love epics if I can be made to care about the characters. At the end of the day it isn’t just about the quest or the amazing world that’s inhabited. It’s all about what’s going on in it and who’s affected. I’ve started a lot of series and burned out because things were either taking too long for my tastes or it was obvious that they were being written either in an attempt to cash in on the epic fantasy craze or to show how much the writer knew. I’m not opposed to people making money and I’m always impressed by people who have a wealth of knowledge, but I want to feel invested in the actual story.

Lisa Matthews Collins: As a reader the answer is pretty much the same thing…If the epic story line is from an author who I know has a great handle on the genre I will be more likely to use my very limited reading allotment for their books, but on the reverse side of the coin, if the author is untested (by me or someone I trust) I will pass on their longer story arcs because of my limited time.

Matt Adams: As a reader, I like epic storytelling because it gives me a sense of scope; that even the smallest action can have an impact on the larger picture. These stories explore a world in great detail, and give me a chance to encounter a variety of different characters. The biggest "turn off" is that trying to juggle as this as a reader can get confusing (if you need a flowchart to follow the action, you're in trouble). Epics work best, I believe, when tightly focused on a few characters who introduce us to others along the way.

As a writer, it is still a matter of time. I have a full time job and write in my free time (that is so laughable). I do have two epic stories I want to tell and am working on, but I often put them on the back burner to get other shorter pieces published.

What are the benefits of creating an epic, far-reaching, multi-book storyline, regardless of genre?

Van Allen Plexico: Lots more room to work. More room for more characters, more action, more developments, more perspectives... Lots of cross-cutting scenes all over the place. Multiple major plotlines to follow, or to develop.

And as a writer and publisher, more money, honestly. Every time a customer buys *every single thing* White Rocket currently offers on Kindle about Lucian, I earn $2. Every time a customer buys *every single thing* White Rocket offers on Kindle in the Sentinels series, I earn $12. There you go.

Ian Watson: This assumes that epics are multi-volume. Nowadays with 1500 page paperbacks that's not always the case. There's also a distinction in my mind between a multi-volume novel and a multi-part series. Each volume of a series should be accessible in its own right, even if there is a developing continuity unifying it as a single narrative. Volume two of a three-part novel can assume that readers read part one first; who starts The Lord of the Rings at The Two Towers?

The benefit of extended storylines is that situations can grow organically, with events cascading into other events on a grander scale than in a shorter story. That has implications on every element of the work. The characters have to be that much more defined, because they need to carry a plot for that much further. The situations and settings need to be more carefully thought through because there has to be an internal consistency half a million words later on. And the plot has to have more beats, more peaks and troughs and mini-conclusions than a novel that's at heart a three-act play.

A good epic should immerse the reader, carrying them away for days into another world.

Lee Houston Jr.: Besides job security (he types with a chuckle)? To create a sense of grand adventure. It's like climbing to the top of a mountain, with the summit being reached in the last book, resulting in the final battle, climax, action, etc. But the reader also gets to see the main cast grow and mature in the process since they spend so much time with them.

Nancy Hansen: From a writing aspect, I get to spend more time with the characters and their world, fleshing them out in greater detail. Writing within an established world is very comfortable, because you know how things work there already. I'm kind of an odd duck because I have multiple story lines going on in the same world, yet each set of tales covers some unique character or group. For instance Tales Of The Vagabond Bards and Fortune's Pawn both take place in the same world, but at different times and places. So you have that familiar backdrop of what is going on behind the scenes, but distinctively different settings and features. And each story can stand alone, as whatever happens within it has a conclusion. So while the big background issues have not been resolved, the point of the tale has been made.

Roger Stegman: As a reader, these series are fun to return to time and time again. with each new book, you already know something of what to expect and are more happy to spend the money. I have purchased more series books than individual books simply for that reason.

As an author, if you have a good series, people will read one and want to read others of the series. Each new book causes people to read earlier books. You can develop a loyal readership for just about anything you produce.

Selah Janel: People know what they’re getting, they know what to expect at least in terms of the universe and style. Plus, new books in an epic series are like re-visiting old friends. It’s exciting to see what new aspect of a familiar place you’re going to get to see with each added installment. Plus, if you care about certain plot lines or characters it’s always great to see how they’re developed and what happens to the people you’ve spent so much time with, even if it’s in your imagination. There’s a reason fandom exists, especially with epic fantasy and series – people get invested. As a writer there’s always something different in that universe to play with. It’s like going back to a familiar hometown but wandering into different parts of it. There’s something very attractive to having a world that you absolutely know, but have the freedom or options to explore different areas of it. There’s always new aspects to explore and as a writer you always have something familiar to go back to.

Lisa Matthews Collins: If I love a book and the characters, I want more, and I will pay well for the continuance of the saga.

Matt Adams: A multi-book storyline gives authors a chance to really dig in and get to know the characters. Writers are effective at accomplishing this in a single book, but spreading an adventure over multiple books really allows writers to develop characters and reinforce themes. When you widen the scope of a story, it allows readers to spend more time with characters; thus, when major events occur, readers feel connected to the characters they're invested in.

What are the drawbacks to working with such a large scope?

Van Allen Plexico: It can take longer to plot and write, and can be harder to keep track of. But, honestly, that's rarely a hindrance for me, simply because I enjoy it so much. Nothing is really "work" if you love it. Keeping track of the Sentinels, for example, is getting dangerously close (already!) to keeping track of everyone who's been an Avenger. Well, not quite--not yet! But you get what I mean. But yet I love it, so it doesn't bother me to do so at all.

Bobby Nash: I would assume time commitment would be one of them. As a writer I know that I am often coming up with new ideas faster than I can implement them. Before I could finish a ten or fifteen book epic I’d get the urge to do something else, which would delay my epic and probably anger my readers.

Ian Watson: It's a lot of hard work. It requires more planning, more proofreading (try recalling minor details from chapter 3 when you're typing out chapter fifty-one), more range of techniques, more determination to finish, and more closure than a shorter piece of fiction. It also requires more discipline. The temptation to leave things in because another 5000 words makes no difference really can be fatal.

Another problem is that epic can sometimes be impersonal and boring. Any story that requires a ten page prologue telling me about what happened three thousand years ago is off to a really bad start. Any long tale that begins to repeat its action scenes or its character interactions is in trouble. Any cast so large and indistinguishable that the reader forgets who's who will kill a story.

Lee Houston Jr.: There are a lot more chances for the tale to fall flat. Coming across padding (unneeded sequences) to justify/fill out the length is a major turn off for me, regardless of any story/book's length.

Nancy Hansen: I have seven separate short story lines in that same big world, with novels built around them. It gets confusing at times because I am back and forth across history and boundary lines, Little details can get lost, and you'd be surprised how fast readers can pick up on that. And because what I am writing now is pulp, which means the novels are shorter, each one has to move quickly and be full of action scenes. That makes it more challenging to tell a long running tale over multiple books.

Roger Stegman: As a writer, one could get burned out on the story, wanting to work on something else. It could be hard to come up with fresh plot lines -- hero walks stumbles into crime and finds himself fighting gang. Book two, hero follows leads that leads to him fighting a new gang. Book three, hero is helping friend, gets into trouble with new gang... -- if the plots are not thought out ahead of time, aiming for something, one can get into a rut. Keeping details consistent can well be a problem. I know of a couple books where the author admitted some errors he made in the author notes at the back of the book.

Another problem is avoiding that dreaded "to be continued" at the end of each book, or where a reader cannot figure out what is going on unless one reads the series in exact order.

Selah Janel: I think the downside is that there’s a huge opportunity for plot holes, loop holes, etc. A writer has to do their homework and be organized with epic series, especially since one book may only cover a little bit of the entire world/universe it’s set in – if you’re not prepared then when you go to focus on another aspect it’s easy to forget things that you haven’t been working with for a while. I’ve read series where authors either contradict themselves (understandable but frustrating) or let certain plotlines get really thin because it’s either not what they’re into at the moment or the world is so huge that things fall out of importance. Even J.K. Rowling has had to go back and make corrections in the Harry Potter universe and as the series got bigger and more popular, I grew frustrated because some of my favorite characters that weren’t huge fan/marketing favorites became cardboard versions of themselves. They had to be in the series, but they were pale shadows of themselves.

Lisa Matthews Collins: As a writer I have to do more of one of my least favorite things—outlining, character sheets, planning (not flying by the seat of my pants like they are on fire.)

Matt Adams: The inverse is true as well. In order to spread a storyline across several books, sometimes the story gets stretched thin. Some stories simply don't need to be told across an entire series. Many authors fall into the trap of introducing too many main characters and supporting characters. This can be challenging to follow, especially when done poorly. In addition, readers expect wide-ranging changes to occur in an epic story; sometimes the smaller, more intimate character moments get lost in the bombastic resolution.

Whom do you consider the reigning masters of the epic storyline?

Van Allen Plexico: Peter F. Hamilton. George R. R. Martin. Dan Abnett. (How many volumes are we into the Gaunt's Ghost series now? Fourteen? Where does this man find the time to write comics, on top of all that other stuff?)

Frank Herbert, James Clavell and Patrick O'Brian all have been dead for a while now, but they were a major part of what has always inspired me to take on that kind of project, and to be truly excited about it. They all executed grand storylines across hundreds of thousands of words in volume after volume, and kept the reader starving for more.

Bobby Nash: I don’t generally read series like this. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series springs immediately to mind.

Ian Watson: Currently George R.R. Martin is probably leading the field. Special mention to Lois McMaster Bujold and Stephen King.

Lee Houston Jr.: Tolkien, although he didn't originally plan it that way. Terry Brooks, Timothy Zahn. Edgar Rice Burroughs, taking the Mars and Venus books collectively as whole stories. If we expand this into comic books, then definitely Grant Morrison and James Robinson.

Nancy Hansen: Tolkien for the big world backdrop, David and Leigh Eddings for characters you wanted to read again. Robert Jordan I liked but for some reason his books didn't stick with me. Terry Brooks Shannara series started out well, but skipped ahead so far each time i got frustrated that my faves from the last book had already died off. Anne McCaffrey in the Pern books had about the smoothest world evolution I've ever seen, and each story had a finite conclusion.

Roger Stegman: My favorite is Anne McCaffrey and Piers Anthony and Aundry Norton. One thing they did a lot of was have each book follow a different character in the same world, which makes each story stand alone, but also linked together. One does not have to read many of their series in order, though it does help in getting the full depth of their series.

Selah Janel: Tolkein is always going to be the master. He had his down points, but he is the master. He knew every corner of Middle Earth and every moment of that time line. Whether you love or hate reading him, you can tell he felt strongly about his work – to the point that he kept strengthening with each reprinting. From the language to the cities to the different cultural viewpoints of the groups it all worked. I will admit that he isn’t the easiest author for me to read but I like getting swept up in the adventure and as a woman I’ve always identified and felt for Eowyn.  I’d also count C.S. Lewis in the category – he knew what to show in Narnia and when to focus on what. Nothing ever felt wrong or contradictory and the characters always behaved like themselves. He could switch from Narnia to Calormen and jump around in time and it always rang true. Narnia may have been a children’s series but he didn’t write down to his audience; he wrote the story and let his readers get swept along with him.

I think J.K. Rowling and George Lucas have done very well – but I just can’t include them as being prime examples. I love parts of the Harry Potter series, don’t get me wrong. Rowling’s worlds are amazing and lovingly detailed and I adore how she plays on stories and mythology. My problem is that all the aspects of the universe aren’t always balanced out very well (I chalk this up to the books being from a single viewpoint – so if Harry isn’t where the action is you’re limited to what you can see and restricted to only his emotional point of view). And Lucas has had a lot of help from conceptualists and EU authors (whether you love or hate the expanded universe it’s come to shape a lot of what people are familiar with.) Plus I’m just not a fan of people who have to keep fixing things that don’t need fixing, and he contradicts himself all the time.

Lisa Matthews Collins: For fantasy, Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn) and for sci-fi, Frank Herbert (Dune).

Matt Adams: In general, when I think of epics, I think of epic fantasy. I'm not a huge fan of the genre, but I have enjoyed the Song of Ice and Fire series from George R.R. Martin. For me to sit back and read those books (a George R.R. Martin paperback is large enough to kill a man) tells me that guy knows what he's doing.

In a publishing world where series books are all the rage, what's the real difference between a series being a true epic and just a book series? What makes an epic, well... epic?

Van Allen Plexico: I think the only way to really know that is to read it and see how it strikes you. Is it watered down -- stretched out like a Brian Bendis comic book story to take up far more pages than it really needed to? Or is it filled with action and excitement and development on every page? Are the stakes grand enough? Is the cast big enough--and yet you can still pretty easily keep track of who everyone important is? Are you dying to get the next volume as soon as you're done with the last one? Fortunately, there are a lot of series like that out there -- and I definitely plan to add to them!

Bobby Nash: For me, as a reader, I don’t mind following a series, but I prefer my novels to be stand-alones. I can revisit Harry Bosch with each new novel from Michael Connelly, but each one ends. Only subplots and character moments continue on through each book in the series. Nothing annoys me as a reader more than getting to the end of a good novel and reading the words "to be continued..."

Alan Lewis: In my opinion, a book series is simply a a group of books using the same characters and universe/world but each book is a stand alone story. An epic is a story large enough to be broken into multiple parts (books).

Ian Watson: Like the poetry it's names for, an epic novel features a heroic aspiration on a grand scale. The stakes must be high; epics deal in life and death, love and hate, war and peace. Personal stories are played out across a vast backdrop of turmoil and change. An epic also features genuine progression; at the end of the story things are very unlikely to return to status quo. Epics tend to have grand themes such as freedom, betrayal, tragedy, or discovery.

That's why epics tend to involve quests, battles, romances, and disasters; all of these things interrupt and irrevocably alter the participants.

We shouldn't disparage the "just a" book series however. That's an art form in its own right, with its own strengths, and its probably the form which has developed most in the last decade.

Lee Houston Jr.: A true epic would be all the volumes focused on just one main-overall story/adventure, although there are some very great series out there too.

Nancy Hansen: A series is a set of stories involving the same character(s) in many different adventures. Each book is a story unto itself and may or may not depend on books that came before. They tend to stand alone, and you can read #7, #21 and then #13 and not feel lost. An epic as I've said usually involves some sort of quest, and that is the entire backdrop of the series of books it entails. So while each book may have a separate story line, they tend to build on one another, and are best read in order. That doesn't mean you can't start somewhere down the line and figure out what is going on, because if the author is skillful at all, you're going to get sucked right in. I started David Edding's The Elenium with The Ruby Knight, which I got in a cutout bin as a steeply discounted hardcover with an amazing cover. That book sold the rest of the series to me. It did make more sense once I had read the rest, but the story stood well on its own. That's what I strive for too, when I write an epic series. Fortune's Pawn is the first book of an epic trilogy, but you can pick up the next one and have a good idea of what is going on. Tales Of The Vagabond Bards is an anthology series because each book will have separate tales that stand alone.

Roger Stegman: A series, I think, are mainly a story arc, that starts at point A and gets to point Z and ends. A real epic is one where there might be story arcs, they can also continue on beyond the original characters and situations. Star wars books were a epic. the first three stories were  a story arc. Zahn wrote three more books I read that showed it was epic, where there was more to the story than the way it originally looked.

Selah Janel: A true epic shouldn’t just involve a magical world or a long-running problem. The universe should be so vast that the author should be able to write adventures twenty to fifty years in the future from the main story or twenty to fifty years back. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve the familiar cast of characters. Tolkein is epic because he could use the same universe for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings books, and The Simarillion – they span the gamut in time and main characters and also gives you the feeling that he could have written about anyone in that world – even the most insignificant person. While familiar characters creep up now and again in Narnia different leads are used to account for the vast time difference between worlds. Plus, Lewis can poke around not only at Cair Paravel but in adjoining lands and every type of creature. He takes his readers all the way from the forming of Narnia to its destruction. Theme-wise an epic should involve a problem so huge that it doesn’t just involve all the characters involved but the future of the universe itself. It should drag everyone into the issue at hand because it touches everyone and becomes too big and terrible to ignore.

Lisa Matthews Collins: You can have a series without much planning (Sweet Valley High books are a good example of that.). As long as one of the characters’ lives from the last book continues into the next one, wham-bam-thank you ma’am, you have a series.

Epics have a world (universe is probably a better word) built (described) to the degree that even if none of the characters from the last book are ever seen again, the new volume will unmistakably have the same feel. Your readers know so much about the world and its customs, that they feel the continuity of the story arc even if the “stories” are hundreds of years apart or even take place on other planets.

Matt Adams: An epic series has an overarching storyline; it doesn't carry on forever. You have a starting point, a middle point, and the eventual end. These series go somewhere. The characters' choices have an unalterable effect on their world. This, to me, is much different from "just a series," where the same characters have the same adventures. Sure, some things change from book to book, but in the end, the status quo ends up getting reset (much like in a TV series) to set up the next adventure.

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To follow the works of these fine creators who took part in this roundtable, simply look for their links on the list of Heavy Hitters on the right side of this page.