Pop quiz!: over what period of time do each of the Harry Potter books take place?
Did you say one year? Absolutely correct. And a lot happens in each year: unlikely friendships form, prisoners break loose, people go rogue and the main story arc advances a little further. With this much time to fill, J. K. Rowling has ample room to introduce a large cast, change the seasons and send her characters on extended camping trips on a quest to save all of the world from evil. In a word, epic, right?
Now take Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars. Take a guess at its timeline. One year? Right again! But this time, the story hews much closer to home. The conflicts are personal: Holling Hoodhood just wants to get through junior high without scraping into too much trouble.
The difference here can be summed up in a question: what's at stake?
Have you ever started a book thinking it'll be a nice, light read? Then halfway through, the stakes rise. All of a sudden, bigger issues are involved -- a massive underground organization is revealed, or something gets traced back to the government. All of a sudden, the story's scope is much larger than it was; it becomes epic.
Now, to clarify, I don't mean "epic" in the contemporary slang term equivalent of "awesome" or "cool". Instead, I mean "epic" in the ancient Greek epic poem sense: it's lengthy, it's involved and it's a world unto its own. It's a read that'll take you some time to digest.
This isn't to say that less-epic reads aren't as good; on the contrary, both have their places. But it's something to think about when planning your story arc. How epic do you want your story to get?
What do you think? How epic do you like your own stories?