“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” Herman Melville author of Moby Dick
• Ever wonder what makes for big writing?
• How do writers attain that epic, stand-the-test-of-time-long-after-I’m-gone, kinda writing? The written-likes of which leave readers with a heightened sense of awe, as one having set off and come back changed from a singular journey, experiencing breakthroughs in their own creativity, and even a restored hope in humanity…?
• Is epic writing something only designated for fiction or can non-fiction be epic-ly awesome as well? Shall we explore together?
Did you know that epic is a term that was never intended to describe (as we slang it around today) a “win” or a “fail,” but instead, a well-crafted, big-themed, lengthy poem?
Think Homer’s Illiad and this example from Beowulf:
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.” Beowulf
It crossed over into fiction as well, epitomizing themes that resonate within people’s hearts:
Think Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, George Lucas’ Star Wars, Michael Blake’s Dances with Wolves, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and this quote from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter,
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?
You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?
Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Even more powerful and exciting is when the epic crosses into real life. Is there anything more exhilarating than an extraordinary true story account of someone who lived and breathed, just like us normals, and faced crazy big odds with staggering results? EpicMagazine includes a whole slew of exciting true stories including Joshuah Bearman’s depiction of real life events in Argo. Hollywood was hooked as well and picked this story up for the Big Screen:
“In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overrun by an angry mob. Fifty-two employees were taken hostage, but six Americans escaped and were hiding in Tehran.
CIA agent Tony Mendez got the job of bringing them home. His plan: pretend he was a producer making a science fiction film in Iran, hook up with the hostages, and sneak them out. It wasn’t the usual cover for “exfiltrations.” Then again, there’s a fine line between statecraft and stagecraft. And why not use a movie as cover? This wasn’t just any movie. It was a movie that would save six people’s lives.” synopsis from Argo
5 hallmarks of an epic to include in your story, whether it be a Poem, Fiction or Non-Fiction:
1. Characters – a depth in character arc through the course of the story is what keeps readers hooked, being able to relate to weaknesses, inner battles and the ultimate transformation from start to end.Epic stories are marked by heroes and heroines who face complex adversaries with an assortment of motives, not always entirely ignoble. Hero/Heroine is called upon to take a leap of faith in extending often tenuous alliances with a support cast.
Charles Dickens was a master in depicting unusual and memorable characters, some who only show up for a line or two of text, but who nevertheless leave an indelible impression. Let every character included further enrich and drive the story to its climax and conclusion.
Big-story H/H resonate with the masses for their memorable peculiarities, relatability and courage, courage, courage in the midst of ravaging fear, loss, love and success. They will return home significantly transformed (if they return at all!).
2. The Timey-whimey thing – there is usually (but not always) a considerable length of time spanned from start to finish of the story. This allows for the proper growth and maturation of characters. For most of us, it doesn’t change over night. The goal is that the reader will feel as if they have invested time, sweat and tears in this journey – literally!
If the writer can evoke such emotion and heart-felt reactions in readers – we’ve done our job! Bring the audience into the gritty, detailed experience and keep things moving; allow shifts in time.
3. Setting – In an epic or any other kind of writing, setting must never, ever be underestimated. It encompasses two parts – Story Setting and Scene Setting.
The Story World is the overall environment your characters will live in and determine the rules they abide by. It will unfold based on the time of history past, present or future they find themselves in.
Scene Setting in epics should always increase the stakes for your H/H, providing necessary tension by spanning locations – across government hot zones, urbanscapes, battlegrounds, ballrooms, nations, worlds and even other universes. Allow for the reader to experience the settings through their
5 senses– what are they touching, how does it smell, what points of interest catch their gaze as they scan a room, what is that strange buzzing?, and does she choose the Nazgul soup or sautéed ostrich liver? With setting – the grander, more detailed and sensory-filled, the better.
4. Costly stakes – when things go from bad to worse, make them descend further into unsalvageable… almost. Let every scene, every stanza, push the emotions, the suspense, the rapid page-turning inevitability. Good and evil forces should clash. A lot.
5. Theme – it is ultimately a statement about the human condition. Regardless of setting and genre – theme will be what ties the story into something the reader will personally relate to. It is the underlying, driving concept, idea or motif at work throughout that attempts to explain the sobering, weighty questions of life.
Ideally, there will be many themes simultaneously vying for attention and overlapping one another.
• Family ties -blessing or curse?
• good vs evil vs the complacent
• youth, coming of age and loss of innocence
• unrequited love vs it’s complicated…
• overcoming fear, failure, grief, pride and other such emotions
• betrayal, deception and revenge
• power, corruption, injustice
• self-reliance vs need of others
• vanity, identity crisis, low self-esteem … and so much more!
Well that’s a wrap for now my lion-hearted friends, I hope this was helpful and informative. Live heroically and on purpose and you’ll find it even easier to breathe believability into your characters, delivering compelling life journeys in epic form.