4 Elements of Epic Storytelling

One RingWhen I’m immersed in fantasy, a trance envelopes me. There’s something about great fantasy storytelling that trumps all other genres in drawing me into the world and story.

Call me crazy, but I think I’m onto something here. And that something is the recipe for the domination of the imagination. Much like The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I think epic storytelling has a certain formula that can produce a killer product.

What is it that makes your heart plummet when the screen goes black after Master Chief detonates the nuke at the end of Halo 4?

What is it that makes you want to lend your back to carry Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom?

What is it that makes your muscles tighten every time your hero takes a blow, as if you were the one receiving it?

It becomes clear that great storytelling can have a mind-seizing power over readers.  So how can you, as an author, recreate this “epic-ness” that some fantasies achieve?

1. Doom, Tempered with Hope

The fates of kingdoms. A fragile chance at true love. The outcome of a raging war, or the battles within it. These are all things that may hang in balance in a story. Each ideally has two possible results: an improvement or a decline. Or, in George R. R. Martin’s writing, worse or even worse.

One of the common themes present in epic storytelling is the underlying threat of doom facing the world and its characters. The more horrible the doom, the greater the suspense will become.  This brings us to our first principle:

  • Doom, along with the fear that it brings, can generate tremendous suspense.

Doom represents the consequences if the hero fails. Doom must be a constant underlying threat throughout the story, and therefore the doom must be absolute – something that will totally alter the world the story takes place in – otherwise it will not generate as much suspense.  In other words:

  • If the consequences do not significantly alter the character, the story, or the world, then there is no real sense of doom or tension.

Doom is the one thing we don’t want to see happen – the one outcome that we dread.

In Beowulf, what would have happened if Grendel overpowered the Scandinavian Hero? Who knows to what extent Grendel would have exacted his revenge upon Heorot or the rest of the realm if Beowulf had failed.

Doom doesn’t have to be something as grand as the end of the world, but it should pose a risk perilous enough that failure would be devastating.  Otherwise, the reader will not be motivated to hope for the hero’s success.

Hope also has its own operator:

  • The worse the situation is, the more hope and emotional investment can be squeezed from the plot.

Recall my jab at George R. R. Martin’s  A Song of Ice and Fire.  While the events of that story rarely result in happy outcomes, it does generate hope that conflicts will be resolved, and that justice will be served to those who have evaded it.

Hope can be evident in the actions and words of your heroes, but it can also be a dim, far-off thing that seems futile. Either way, keep in mind that hope is a very powerful thing.

2. Inspiration, Mingled with Fear

A character’s determination to overcome the odds and thwart impending doom can lead to inspiration.  When readers find themselves inspired by your hero’s choices, there is an added benefit:

  • Inspiration makes readers “stick” with a character, and follow his tale to the conclusion.

Why?  Because seeing how your character handles fear may give the reader encouragement to face his or her own fears.

The struggle to move ahead in the face of fear is a universal human experience. It’s when a character chooses to press forward, in spite of crippling fear, that he or she becomes inspirational.  This leads to another principle:

  • For a character to remain inspirational, fear must be a constant presence in the story.

The source of the fear may be impending doom, or it can simply be fear of the unknown.

Say, for example, you were to go scuba diving in uncharted waters. If you come across a creature you have never seen before, you don’t know how it will act; it may attack you, or it could just as easily swim right past you. Not knowing what to expect from this creature, and how great of a danger it poses, can be a source of fear.  Writers of fantasy and science fiction, two genres that allow for infinite unknown creatures and possibilities, should love playing with this concept.

Watching a character take on the unknown, especially when the odds weigh heavily against her, is inspirational.  One of the best examples of this is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.  She never fully understands who or what she is up against.  Who can she trust?  What awaits her in the killing fields of the arena?  Our inspiration and faith in this character are generated by her resolve to triumph over the unknown perils that she must face.

3. Dumbfounding Awe and Presentation

Awe can result from the vast, mysterious, and mystical world that you create through worldbuilding.  Nothing hooks me more than stumbling upon ancient, abandoned ruins or massive, unfathomable structures. Why? Because I want to delve into the world and discover why they are there.

Fantasy and sci-fi are known for their awesome worlds, creatures, and civilizations. These things are powerful hooks that pull readers into the story. Mastering your world and presenting it in just the right light will give your story a rich playing field to start with.  So remember:

  • Treat worldbuilding as a hook to draw readers in.

No one wants to experience Middle Earth 2.0. Most people I know don’t want to go back to Azeroth – not since that nasty dragon came around. They want new, fresh places and things to experience.

Your worldbuilding cannot be mediocre. It needs to be unique, fresh, and able to warrant the audience’s curiosity.  Don’t settle for Orcs. Don’t settle for some green dragons in the mountains. Put that imagination to work.

If your story only deals with two kingdoms in the corner of your map, and you’ve created a whole world full of fantastical creatures, underground labyrinths, and abandoned, floating ruins, then you should do more than mention these intrigues in passing.

The presentation of your world will be a major factor, alongside storytelling, that will decide whether or not readers will choose to venture there again.  Utilize and harness that creative storm in your mind that you call your imagination.

Do you recall the first time you saw the 10,000 kilometer-wide Installation 04 in Halo: Combat Evolved?  My mouth wouldn’t shut.

That’s what I strive for when I create my fantasy worlds.

4. Use of Scale

While we’re on the subject of 10,000 kilometer wide structures, there’s something about scale that seems to affect everything in storytelling. What is it about the scale of things that hits our emotions?

Do massive, towering keeps always generate feelings of awe? Can the same emotional investment be reaped from a war as from the birth of a child?

The best examples of scale that I can think of come from the Warhammer and Warhammer: 40,000 universes. Legions of Orks, demons, and Space Marines clashing in gigantic, smoldering heaps. Armadas of massive space vessels. Cannons that can crack planets in two…

Yeah… I think Warhammer knows a thing or two about making things go boom.

On the other hand, you can have a tiny, golden ring that can bring forth the greatest of evil.  It even comes with a nifty invisibility app that activates itself simply by wearing it! Apple should take note.

The scale, or importance, of things in a story can have tremendous effects on everything in it. Scale can be a fun thing to play with in worldbuilding, but, alas, there are some pitfalls you might want to avoid.  When working with scale, be aware that:

  • Keeping things too small risks boredom, while going over-the-top can result in ridiculousness.

While scale contributes to the allure of a fantasy universe, it isn’t always the case that bigger is better.

The first drops of rain, heralding the end of a long drought, can be just as moving to farmers as an angel descending before their very eyes. In fact, they might find the rain to be even more emotionally powerful. Likewise, the death of a quiet, respected elder can send tremors through a tribal community that rival those of an earthquake.

Other Elements

Storytelling is a craft, and like any craft or skill, it can be developed, enhanced, and eventually mastered through practice and devotion.  Hopefully this list will be helpful to you in this pursuit.

However, this is not an all-encompassing list.  There are other elements that play an important role as well.

What other elements do you feel are crucial to epic storytelling?  And which elements do you think are the most important?