A Few Brief Notes on “Epic”

A couple of weeks ago my daughter asked me how to write a space opera in the epic style.  It’s nice of her to think I know (I’m not so sure I do), but it did get me thinking about that kind of story that needs an expansive canvas to accomplish the kind of narrative it is.  Sometimes we call this an epic.

My short answer to her was this:  you need a global (or galaxy-spanning) plot which serves as the big tent under which all else is covered;  you need a couple of regional level (however you are defining regions) plots that may have a political, economic, military, religious, or larger cultural significance;  then you ground all this with intimate personal plots that are moving forward within these larger narrative arcs.

In film terms we might say you need to mix long shots scanning the landscape, medium shots (Fred and Ginger dancing;  people sitting at a table talking), and close ups.  If all your shots, if all your plotting, is at intimate or medium range, you may have a fantastic story, but it won’t have an epic feel.  If it’s all long shots, I’m not sure quite what you would have.

Likewise, your personal plots can move in tandem with or against the global and regional plots.  Some may have been, in fictional terms, created by the larger plots;  some may gallop on despite the larger plots, that is, they don’t purely serve the function of the larger plots in plot terms although they must be woven into the overall tapestry in such a way that if they did not exist within the whole, the whole would be lessened.

Tone can also be a form of distance.  If every scene emotes or colors with the same tonal feel, then it’s difficult to create a sense of the wide world.  Contrast works wonders here:  for instance, parallel an impulsive love story that turns out happily and is precipitated by global events with a more measured and peaceful one that had begun before the story begins and is tragically destroyed by some element in the larger plot.    Yes, as horribly cliched as this is (so cliched that even Shakespeare used it!), contrast a comedic subplot with a dead-heavy serious one.

What don’t you need?  Just adding episodes to make it longer.  Length doesn’t make an epic.  Contrast and variety and big stakes do.

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    If it’s all long shots, I’m not sure quite what you would have.

    A summary, like you’re trying to skate over the Hundred Years’ War in less than a hundred pages. It’ll get the broad facts across, but not much else.

    Excellent take on it. I think this sums up the nature of the beast quite well.

  2. 2. asotir

    E E ‘Doc’ Smith didn’t use half the layers you suggest, but he did all right with the Lensman series. He had the galaxy-spanning war between the Arisians and the Eddorrians, and he had Kinnison’s career as a space warrior, and he had the love story between Kinnison and what’s-er-name, the redhead, which resulted in the kids who made up a new weapon between them.

    I don’t know if the simple notion that ‘Boskone’ was running drugs as a cover for the destruction of ‘civilization’ would count as a plot with economic or cultural significance, but Smith gave that pretty short shrift.

  3. 3. Kate Elliott

    Like a really boring high school history textbook? The kind that turn hordes of young people off history forever.

    Thanks.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    If I go over to writing full-time, I’m seriously tempted to maintain a part-time job tutoring in subjects like history. My approach would be based on the quote — I can’t remember where it came from — that history is a cross between a celebrity gossip mag and a disaster movie.

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    asotir, I think you list all three levels right there: a global conflict (the war), Kinneson’s career (medium shot), and the love story. But I’m not a big believer in “rules” so I think if a writer can make something work, then they can make it work even if they do it differently than I would.

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    history is a cross between a celebrity gossip mag and a disaster movie.

    Heh. I really like that. Plus, it would make for a great class.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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