How to make your novel feel epic!
Updated: May 13, 2021
The term ‘epic’ is thrown around a lot these days but, before it was used to describe YouTube videos, skateboarding tricks, and sandwiches, the term originally applied to a particular form of oral poetry. Since then, ‘epic’ has come to be applied to other forms of art: theatre, film, novels, music, television … even video games. While the term originally described works with a thematic focus on heroic journeys, chivalric myth, or grand pilgrimages, today the term is applied more liberally to any work chronicling a narrative of sufficient scale, weight, and power. Examples of modern epics include Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Many writers—particularly writers of fantasy or science fiction—seek to instil their own works with the power of the epic, but doing so is challenging. Crafting an epic means spending hours, days, months, and years meticulously planning the various elements of your story. That’s because, in an epic, nothing can be neglected—not your character cast, not your setting, not the histories of your world’s events … Hey, nobody said making it epic would be easy.
But we can at least help! Let’s talk about the key things to think about when trying to make your story feel epic.
Make things big
This might sound obvious, but in an epic, size matters. This applies to most aspects of your book: the size of your character cast, the breadth of your world, the length of your world’s history, the complexity of the cultures, the sheer word count, etc. That’s not to say you can’t play around with these rules; Moore’s Jerusalem, for example, is set entirely within Northampton, UK, while the events of Moby-Dick occur mostly on a (moving) ship. But in both these cases, the setting was expanded upon—in Jerusalem, the timeline jumps around and supernatural elements are explored, effectively expanding the setting way beyond one sleepy English town. In Moby-Dick, meanwhile, the movement of the ship combined, the frequent tangential chapters (who doesn’t remember ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’?), and the myriad symbolism grant the narrative an impressive geographic, thematic, and symbolic reach.
But, in general, think of any novel or series of novels you’d think of as epic. Take the incredibly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series; even the main cast is huge.
· the Starks
· the Lannisters
· the various kings
· the Tyrells
· the Targaryens
· the various high-profile Dothraki
· the Night’s Watch
And that’s saying nothing of the supporting cast. Even the Harry Potter books, which have many epic qualities (J. K. Rowling was a classicist after all), throw huge character casts and interlinked worlds at their readers.
But beyond throwing together a load of characters in a big old storyworld, there are other aspects of size to think about: the number of sub-plots or sub-quests you can wind around the central ur-plotline, the complexity and length of your storyworld’s historical timeline, the number of themes you want to examine, the number of questions you want to pose, etc.
Many more modern epics tend to subvert traditional epic structures in interesting ways. Infinite Jest, for example, doesn’t follow a typical ‘heroic journey’—rather, its structure is a kind of rebellion against traditional three- and five-act structures and instead resembles a Sierpinski gasket, a fractal and attractive fixed set used in mathematics. Its huge cast is introduced quickly and fleetingly and its slightly futuristic America is one of surprising geographic variety, historic confusion, and vaguely sci-fi futures. Like Moby-Dick, its most striking quantity is the sheer number of themes it touches upon and the sheer number of questions it raises and attempts to answer.
But no matter what they’re amassing or how they’re doing it, epics all have size in common. Bear that in mind when you open up that Word doc—it’s going to be a big job.
Setting and history
I’ve touched briefly upon the importance of setting and world when crafting an epic novel, but it’s worth looking into more. Obviously, sheer size isn’t going to do it—anyone can write about a million-mile stretch of desert or about copy-paste fantasy towns balanced painfully on tired genre tropes. It takes a little more to bring a vast world into something engaging and believable.
This is where research comes in. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is famously based on the War of the Roses, and you can bet that George read a good few dozen history books on the subject before putting pen to paper. After all, if you don’t know about life in a medieval town, how can you hope to craft a convincing medieval marketplace? If you don’t know about the politics of real-life monarchies, how can you be expected to craft an engaging medieval political drama?
Similarly, you can bet Wallace picked modern American culture apart piece by piece before writing Infinite Jest, and you can rest assured that George Orwell had a pretty good understanding of the extremes of the political spectrum before attempting 1984. Without research, you’re not going to be able to craft convincing worlds and you’re not going to be confident enough to move around within those worlds. Part of what makes 1984 so powerful, serious, and important is the spooky realism of its world, a realism built in part upon consistency. Orwell takes care to comment on many aspects of civic life, from the role of art to the limits of personal expression to the role of food, and in expressing these disparate aspects consistently, he breathes life into his horrid, oppressive world. The devil is in the details.
Similarly, for the events in your story to carry that epic weight, you’re going to need to establish a rich narrative history. After all, the main plotline of the A Song of Ice and Fire series is only so potent because it goes beyond the petty squabbles of the ruling houses—the undead and the White Walkers long predate House Lannister or House Stark, and so a meaningful juxtaposition is drawn up between this older-than-life threat and the more immediate and petty political conflicts. This is true too of The Lord of the Rings—Rohan and Gondor have their differences, the Bagginses can’t stand the Sackville-Bagginses, and the dwarves can’t stop muttering about the elves, but in the face of an ancient evil that has roots deep in some mysterious, terrible, isolated past, the characters realise they have to put their differences aside. If you make sure your characters recognise the weight of a given plotline, your readers will soon follow.
Establishing a narrative history also allows for the insertion of an Edenic scenario (and what adds epic weight better than Biblical allusions?). After all, 1984’s Airstrip One wouldn’t be so powerful and chilling if the reader wasn’t aware of a prelapsarian Britain that existed before the events of the novel, and Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey wouldn’t feel quite as poignant without Penelope and Ithaca waiting back home. If you can tie this Edenic mood to the personal motivations, hopes, and fears of your characters, then all the better—nothing heightens drama like personal struggle.
In an epic, one storyline just ain’t gonna do it. You’re going to need sub-plots, tangents, carefully interwoven anecdotes—all the good stuff. If you can bounce around your timeline a little in order to tie these sub-plots together in a satisfying manner, even better. Even epics with the most straightforward plots—take The Lord of the Rings—takes care to throw its many characters in different directions. At any given point, you’ve got Sam and Frodo off doing their thing with Gollum; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas gallivanting around Rohan, Isengard, and Gondor; Merry and Pippin getting into trouble; Saruman and his villainous lieutenants scheming in various locales; Gandalf going solo; etc. Even climactic events like the battle of Helm’s Deep or the battle of Pelennor Fields aren’t technically part of the main questline (Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor).
The benefit of multiple plots is that more of your world is exposed to the reader. More characters are introduced, more cultures experienced, more landscapes surveyed—and all this helps make your world seem real, meaning that the drama occurring within it seems real too. The Lord of the Rings is so effective because Middle-earth feels like a real place, meaning that its potential destruction seems like a real threat even to the reader, who obviously doesn’t live there.
A Song of Ice and Fire is brilliant for this. There have been so many tangents and sub-plots in that series and so many characters who’re introduced or killed off that, for a while, I forgot what the central plot was. Effectively, I forgot I was reading a book—rather, I was inhabiting a world. And just as we’re not conscious of the grand plotlines of our own lives, being distracted from the central plot in an epic makes for a world that feels real and familiar, meaning in turn that the drama that occurs is going to be that much more powerful.
Beyond that, multiple drawn-out plotlines give you more space to develop your characters. Our empathetic feelings for a character grow the more they go through; even Captain Ahab becomes, by the end of Moby-Dick, an intensely sympathetic, tragic character. I’m still not convinced anything could make me feel sympathetic toward A Song of Ice and Fire’s Cersei, but I guess we’ll see.
One thing I haven’t discussed yet is the role of craft in forming an epic. Despite my negligence, craft—that is, the quality of your writing and the stylistic decisions you make in your writing—can really throw its weight around when it comes to making a narrative ‘feel’ epic. Cormac McCarthy is brilliant at this; Blood Meridian’sunique, scriptural take on the western epic is so effective due to McCarthy’s almost biblical writing style and his determination to never shy away from the gritty, essential thematic truths of human experience: death, violence, sex, fear, and greed. Cheery stuff. Consider this long passage describing an invading horde of Native Americans from Blood Meridian:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Good work for making it to the end of that mammoth passage—I’d have cut off earlier, but that’s all one sentence. But come on now: if that extraordinary section of fire-and-brimstone prose didn’t shake you to the core, nothing will. How’s that for epic?
Go forth, brave poet
As you’ve probably grasped by now, writing an epic is no easy task. You’ve basically got to conceptualise an entirely separate, unique world that you can then fill with characters and plotlines, and that’s going to take more than a couple of days. However, there are shortcuts I hope I’ve covered: fleshing out your characters, crafting a consistent world, inserting an Edenic history, and adopting an epic writing style. However, if you’d rather do it the proper, old-fashioned way, feel free to pull a Tolkien and invent a whole new language. Can’t get more thorough than that.