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Blending Thriller and Epic Fantasy

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Garren Jacobsen, Oct 2, 2016.

  1. I have a question about pacing. Specifically, I am curious about how to blend an epic fantasy tone with a thriller's pacing. Epic fantasy is often marked by large bits of world building and sharing. However, I have a story in mind that primarily deals with a father trying to save his kidnapped toddler from a cultish group trying to summon an evil being from the netherworld. The father has a limited time to track down, eliminate the bad guys, and stop the ceremonial magic. I have an idea that perhaps this could be a trilogy where the boy and his father become the central characters that fight against a being that is truly evil and could end the world.

    So, do any of you have any experience in blending to fairly contrasting styles, sweeping epic/thriller pacing? Or, if without that experience, know of any novels that attempt to do so. I feel as if Promise of Blood does pretty well at this any other novels?
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Dresden Files. At least the early ones.

    You could also take your cue from cyberpunk, especially the classics like Snow Crash or Neuromancer.
     
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  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    You shouldn't have much problem blending the two because one, epic, is focused a little more on having a broad world with many moving parts (setting) and thriller describes the pacing—and types of conflict and try/fail cycles which influence that pacing—so one is more about setting and the other more about pacing.

    The latest season of Writing Excuses has been looking at blending various elements of different genres. Here's one that might help: 11.29: Elemental Thriller as a Subgenre. Sanderson mentions a couple examples of fantasy/thriller hybrids.

    From what I gather, the task you'll face will probably involve folding in world building parts with action scenes. I.e., rather than taking any breaks from the pacing to "world build," you'll be world building as you go along with the thriller pacing.

    Also it seems to me that folding in elements of mystery will help in combining these things. Having an MC who is chasing and being chased by (or attacked by) somewhat mysterious opponents for somewhat mysterious reasons will allow you to introduce elements about the world as the MC's understanding of events increases through the many try/fail cycles. An approach similar to Dan Brown's Angels & Demons or The Da Vinci Code comes to mind: He's able to introduce historical factors, art/culture factors, and so forth as the MC progresses. (I've not read either book; I'm basing this on the movies which I've greatly enjoyed.)

    Having an MC who is fairly knowledgeable about things could help also. He would think about the broader world while trying to piece things together. (Again, Dan Brown's protagonist comes to mind.) So you wouldn't need the types of interludes or world building scenes and events if the protagonist already knows a lot of these things. (I.e., unlike having a novice teenager learning via lots of side quests and during pauses in the action, you'd have an MC who doesn't need those pauses.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2016
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  4. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    I am currently ear deep in reading, studying and learning about thrillers atm.

    IF your plot is focussed, and there is a ticking clock, I would suggest you write it in thriller style unfolding just enough of the world to allow you support the plot, but not much more.

    I can't think of any fantasy books that have thriller pacing off the top of my head. But there are plenty of Thrillers with a wide sweep and lots of atmosphere. For one I might suggest you read Natchez Burning. You get an amazing feel for the world of the deep south, but a fast moving thriller at the same time. The fact it is written is 1st plus multiple 3rd POV makes it memorable as well.

    Thrillers do this all the time. For instance, my wife's debut novel is about kidnapping and ransom, so you get immersed in the "world" of K and R (and a few other things) while still having a fast paced plot. Tom Clancy immerses you in the "world" of modern warfare. Wilbur Smith (perhaps a bit dated now) immerses you in the world of Africa in his thrillers.

    I think you will find more examples of fast pacing and world building on the thriller side of the fence than fantasy.
     
  5. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    In Dragon's Trail, I went about this the other way, where I developed an epic-fantasy scale world first, and then put the characters inside a set of thriller circumstances that were an organic result of the worldbuilding: corruption, murder, espionage, treason. Then I wrote it like a modern thriller, right down to the interweaving plots and the pacing. I consider it a modern spy thriller, just set in motion by a crossworlds trope.

    Remember, too, that epic fantasy, like epic poetry, happens on a world historical scale; i.e., the characters' actions ultimately change the world and go down in history. Without that, you're writing high fantasy, or dark fantasy, or some other kind of fantasy. (Apparently I really write "hard fantasy," or so I was just told. So maybe I write "hard epic fantasy?" But I digress.)

    I have a unique angle on this; in my line of work, I see tactical-level actions ripple up into theater-strategic and even global effects all the time. A snap decision by one junior officer or team sergeant, or a surgical strike by a small team, can shift an entire battlespace and leave generals and even world leaders holding their foreheads. When I was writing this last version of Dragon's Trail, I made it a point to put my MCs into those kinds of positions.

    I also took a Tom Clancy / Lustbader / Trevanian approach with the technical narrative, which also makes it feel much more like a modern thriller instead of a fantasy novel. You'll have to dump limited third to do it, though.
     
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  6. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    I think the only real problem is making sure you're careful world building. You can't dillydally with detailing lore with the kind of pacing required for a thriller, and you have to make sure things don't come off as convoluted because if you drop off a piece of information that's too strange or complicated in a quick or brief manner, which is likely if you've got the pacing of a thriller, then it'll become distracting.
     
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  7. Helen

    Helen Inkling

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    Just set it in the fantasy world without doing all the world building and sharing you've mentioned / or doing all the world building as you go along.

    If you look very closely at most thrillers (say, Hitchcock), there's movement into a new world.

    It's the difference between Dirty Harry and Blade Runner; you're letting the setting and context do a lot of the work for you.
     
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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    There seems to be an odd difference in the way people use the term "world building."

    For some, it's about building the world in one's mind before writing anything. You seem to be using it this way? You had it built, or decided upon, before writing the story. Then, the characters are put into the story and those elements of the world influence the plot and lead to a thriller-ish pacing.

    I've been using "world building" to mean building it for the reader—i.e., the actual building of it in prose. Some are making a distinction between "world building" and "sharing (with the reader)" and that seems odd to me. Regardless of whether one designs facets of the world before writing or as one writes, that building is what's being done as the words are put down, block by block. (Heh.)

    I'm in the middle of Dragon's Trail (and enjoying it) and wouldn't say that the world is built very much from the beginning. There's a prologue that introduces some characters from the world and suggests intrigue and so forth; but for me, that's not much building yet. It's like a glance out the window to the world. Then, as the book progresses and the newbies to that world move about and discover things, more and more about the world is revealed to the reader.

    So this building-as-you-go is, for me, that process of revealing/sharing more and more aspects of the world as the story progresses. How much is established quickly—might be the question.
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yikes, I feel like this would be really tough.

    I immediately thought Dresden Files as well, but Dresden files are set in a sort of modern day Chicago... so a lot of the world building is already done in the reader's head. Butcher doesn't have to create an entirely new world so he can focus on keeping the action going with the plot.

    My suggestion was going to be something along the lines of 'keep it contemporary or modern day" because then you can just focus on high speed/thriller quality plot without having to stop to give sweeping descriptions about new towns or castles or villages or taverns or what have you.

    Otherwise, I think blending the two may be challenging.

    I know for myself that I debated this exact thing for some time before writing my WIP. I had originally had it planned as a historical fiction, but when I knew it was going to be Middle Grades and I wanted it to be fairly fast paced stopping to include important details about time frame (and trying to show middle graders how life is different than what they know or understand) was going to bog down the plot and add way too much to the word count, so I opted to keep the setting fairly contemporary.

    On the flip side, I've read manuscripts by writers who wanted to have an "epic" feel to the world building but also keep the pacing fast and tight and it just was not working for me. I was confused about what exactly the story was supposed to be, I felt lost a lot of the time because the world was not being described in enough detail for me to feel like I was really there, so a lot of the enjoyment of the story was lost.

    So, not super helpful, I know, I just wanted to chime in that this may be tricky and if you can figure it out I would love to see it!

    Edit: Really thinking about it now, "Epic thriller" is like an oxymoron to me. They are two entirely different things, on purpose.

    Epic (dictionary): epic definition. A long narrative poem written in elevated style, in which heroes of great historical or legendary importance perform valorous deeds. The setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe, and the action is important to the history of a nation or people.

    Where I feel that thrillers tend to me more narrow in spectrum, more about one person or one goal, more focus on action than on sweeping, elevated style etc...

    Not sure how they would blend?
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
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  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I was thinking about this yesterday. I'd already mentioned an epic having a broad world and many moving parts but, yes, thrillers seem to focus on one person or a small handful.

    Listening to the Writing Excuses podcast I linked above (about using thriller elements) and the way those podcasters talked about danger (immediate, physical danger) and try/fail cycles that are often "yes, but" cycles—MC succeeds but situation is made worse—only reinforced that idea of having a narrower focus.

    And yet, I agree with Russ. Many thrillers do have a strong sense of world, even a complex world with lots of moving parts.

    I think we can still have a broad world and lots of moving parts in a thriller. One difference between thriller and epic fantasy might be that those moving parts are distant but come to the MCs.

    So in an epic fantasy we might have many POVs, of characters in all parts of the world involved in their own narratives who will somehow eventually collide, and focus on each in turn. The running narrative will break off as we hop to a new place in the world, a new character, and a new narrative.

    In a thriller we might have one (or maybe two?) running narratives, but other things in the world come to them, intrude upon their running narrative. So for instance a character on a chase to rescue a relative might have to deal with various sets of antagonists trying to stop him, various obstacles informed by multiple aspects of the world (religion, the political structure, market/economic entities) and, as the MC encounters and deals with those, the world is made to seem large with lots of moving parts.

    This is also why I suggested using elements of mystery. As the MC encounters different things and solves mysteries, the revelation of answers for him will be a revelation to the reader: More and more of the world comes to bear on the story. So being able to fold in world building means ensuring that elements of that greater world have a bearing on the narrow, immediate quest. Make those elements relevant to the quest if you want to share them with the reader.

    I also think that planning a trilogy helps in creating the epic feel. Again I return to Dan Brown's books/movies, adding a twist. What if it was revealed that a single villain or group of antagonists were behind everything? So the first two books of the trilogy might seem narrowly focused (albeit with suggestions of reverberations on the world at large) and in the third book they all came together?

    Edit: This is just my own musing on an approach I might take. I'm not speaking from experience of having written an epic fantasy/thriller. :D
     
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  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'll add another thing. I was just thinking about something I read in one of Montaigne's essays. He lived during a time of war between Protestants and Catholics, and in one essay he mentioned that a traveler did not always know if the group of soldiers ahead on the road was a Protestant or a Catholic group of soldiers. They were all Frenchmen, after all. He personally had one bad encounter like that. One way to help in giving the immediate quest a more epic feel might be to create a backdrop in which the MC can't help running into complex, world-important elements. Let's call it "the thickets of world building." If a world is already involved in turmoil of a political and/or martial nature, this might aid in creating the epic feel: It's happening everywhere around the MC regardless of where the MC goes or what he does.

    I also think that Malik's point about epic fantasy is important: "the characters' actions ultimately change the world and go down in history." So the MCs actions need to have bearing on the larger world, even if in many respects it's accidental because he's focused on his main goal. I.e., it's not a one-way thing, with world events intruding on the MC. He must intrude on the world. (E.g., he finds himself captured by a small group of soldiers and must kill his way out during the night in order to continue his quest—even if that means he kills the only living heir to the crown in the process.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
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  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Simon Green's Hawk and Fisher books may fit this category as well. They're sort of mystery/thrillers in a fantasy setting.
     
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  13. If you were skillful at slipping worldbuilding into the prose in small bites, it totally could be done. Worldbuilding doesn't have to be long, placid sections of info-dumpy text. You can drop bits of worldbuilding even in tense situations and fast-paced scenes.
     
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  14. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    Roger that. And just to be clear, I wasn't referring to establishing everything at the beginning of the story. I was talking about building the world first in a non-narrative form -- flow charts, diagrams, beat sheets, maps, histories, PMESII-ASCOPE -- and then listening to it to see what story it wants to tell.

    It's Sanderson's "iceberg theory" of worldbuilding; there's 5-10% "above the water" that you show the reader, and 90-95% "beneath the water" that you built, but that the reader never sees. That 90% underneath keeps the top 10% stable. If you, the writer, know how things work, then you can document the effects. I would never info-dump an entire world onto a reader. They don't need to know all of it, just how it affects the story.

    By the time I'd worked out the politics and economy so that it clicked and made sense to me, I had a patrician class marrying into royalty and controlling the iron trade, with a war brewing. It kind of wrote itself into a thriller from there: political intrigue, fortunes risked, espionage, treason. It didn't set out to be a thriller; it just seemed that that's the story that was trying to be heard the loudest once I put the world together. Then all I had to do was set the protagonists in a path that would put them in the middle of it. I had the idea long ago to bring these guys over from Earth to fight a wizard who turns out to also be from Earth. But the thriller part really started to click when I drilled down on the non-narrative worldbuilding. Before that, it was going to be a straight-up crossworlds epic fantasy.

    The story is a thriller; the setting makes it fantasy; the protagonists' resulting actions, which secure their names in history, make it an epic fantasy. Like I was saying, I believe in building the world first, and then seeing what the story is. And it's often not where you think it's going to be. I have a blog post about the Hero's Journey up right now about exactly this. Sometimes your hero's not even who you think it is.

    There's nothing preventing you from building it in reverse -- to write the story and then build the world around it. I personally couldn't do it -- the questions alone would make me nuts -- but that's me. Everybody has their own thing. There's no right way.

    ETA: So in Allen's case, if he has the story first, then he really only has to show enough of the world to make the story make sense, make it fun, and shut out any plot holes. But the question then becomes, is that resulting world big enough and deep enough, and does the story rock the world on its heels enough, to qualify as epic fantasy? I would think it would take a lot of extrapolation to get it to that point if you're starting with the story and you're dead-set on what the story is going to be. I have no doubt it could be done, though. I'd be curious to see the process.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
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  15. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    Good bless Sanderson, but to be fair, the use of that analogy for how much of your research or world building should go into your prose has been around since before he was born.
     
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  16. I don't think he ever claimed it as his own idea but a lot of people do cite him for it because of how available his classes are online.
     
  17. I'd also like to thank you all for the suggestions. It has helped me to create a plan of attack for my work. Right now, book 1 is going to be very narrow in its focus. In the next two books, I plan on expanding that scope more and more. Thank you.
     
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  18. Malik

    Malik Auror

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    Right there with ya. Until I watched his class on worldbuilding, I didn't know that other people weren't doing it that way.

    Apparently -- as I'm learning on other boards for indie writers -- there's a whole class of fantasy writer out there that just takes the expected tropes and cliches from books that are selling well, and then cobbles them together into book after book, written as fast as possible, flooding the market with the same tropes as everyone else. Minimal worldbuilding, zero research, everything borrowed under the guise of "Why reinvent the wheel?" The vampire romance approach to fantasy.

    I had the sense this was going on long before I found specific posts and blogs, and even books, on how to do it.

    I ask you, where's the fun in that?

    I am in no way intimating that Allen does this, BTW.

    Get me drunk sometime and I'll tell you about the week I spent coming up with the pegasus saddle design. I could write a whole book just about that.

    That's what I should do when I finish this series: write a series about the decades it took to research this series.

    Research is FUN.
     
  19. Pegasus saddle design? Ha!! Sounds like something I would get tied up in...

    Did you figure anything out though? Because I need a plausible design for dragon saddles...

    And yes, research is fun, but just as much of the time research is like "Why did I print off so many pictures of Africa???"
     
  20. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

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    I'm giving it a go with my current WIP.

    It's on Scrib if you fancy a read, see if it's the same sort of thing you are thinking of.

    Personally, I think of things like comic books and superhero stuff. Its a bit like fantasy (though usually contemporary) mixed with thriller, so no reason it can't be popular.
     
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