Monday, January 28, 2013

How Epic is Your Storyline?

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?


  1. Funny you should ask that ...

    I was looking at the stakes in my WIP, a sequel, and comparing them to the stakes in the first book. The stakes in the second book are much more personal, and I was fretting over that a bit. Is it okay, for the second book of three? Or do I need to up the ante?

    And then I thought about ending the book with an unexpected turn of events that raises the stakes and leads into book 3.

    Is it epic? I hope so ... but right now it's just a messy first draft.

  2. My current WIP is epic. The stakes keep raising on protagonist.

  3. This is always my problem. I need more epic struggles. I love my characters, they have a problem or issue, but I guess I never get epic enough. The exception was in my historical fiction story that had a rebel raid/massacre in it. I think with historical fiction, it's easier because the climax is built into the period (a war, a flood, a swarm of locusts). Hmmm. But how to get more into contemporary fiction?

  4. I like both kinds of stories. Those where the world must be saved, and the quieter ones too, where maybe just one person needs to be saved ... or not.

    Of course, I'm sure the more epic tales tend to be more commercially successful.

  5. Love your description of Harry Potter--there were a couple of extended camping trips, weren't there?

    I am all sorts of epic. (Oops, I'm using it in the contemporary sense.) My writing? No epics yet.

  6. Mine is pretty epic, especially for rats! :)

  7. I've never really thought of it, but now that I do I realize 2 of the 4 books I've written (including the trunk novel) take place over a period of time longer than 2 days. The other 2 (what I consider my best work) takes place over a 2-day span. So I'm not that epic of a writer I guess.

  8. My stories range from covering a very short time period (Wildfire Run covered about 6 hours during a day) to a few days to a week, and I never really thought about why I do that. It just works for me!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!