Aug 08 2009

Scaling Your Story: How Epic is Too Epic?

Published by at 1:01 am under Plotting,Writing Articles

How epic is your story?

  1. The hero has to overcome a problem that isn’t life-and-death (like most romance).
  2. The hero has to save himself or another character from serious danger (like most action).
  3. The hero has to save a city (like most superhero stories).
  4. The hero has to save a nation or species (like most epic fantasy and national security thrillers).
  5. The hero has to save the world(s).  (This is pretty rare outside of epic sci-fi).

Here are some suggestions about how to handle the scope of your story.

1.  It’s rarely a problem when a story evolves from #1 to #2. For example, it would be pretty easy to write a story where a journalist covers a story that becomes ludicrously dangerous.  First, the change in epicness is fairly slight.

Second, the author has a variety of ways to prepare the reader.  For example, you can foreshadow the danger.  Or you can gradually ratchet up the violence– first a witness dies under mysterious circumstances, then the journalist gets death threats, then his brakes suddenly stop working on the freeway, etc.  Preparing the reader is important because otherwise the reader might be disoriented when you change the stakes.  If your readers have no reason to suspect that the journalist is in danger, they may be confused rather than thrilled when a mysterious man suddenly draws a gun on him.

2.  Developing a story from a #3 to a #4 is very difficult and should not be attempted lightly. Because a city is more narrow in scope, it’s easier to give the city a personality, a recurring cast, a style, etc.  Additionally, it’s much easier for a character to interact with a city than a nation.  That’s one reason that we know so much more about Batman’s Gotham and Spiderman’s New York City than their Americas.  In short, it’s much easier to make readers care about whether a city survives than a nation.  Furthermore, it’s easier to create suspense with a city because a villain might actually succeed at blowing up a city*.  In contrast, annihilating a country is almost always off the table because it’s hugely depressing and usually rules out future stories.  Finally, it’s usually a bit easier for outsiders to relate to a city-based hero than a national hero.

*See The Watchmen, Marvel’s Civil War, DC’s Kingdom Come, Gigantic, Those Who Walk in Darkness, etc.

3.  #4 and #5 usually cause serious damage to relatability. Needless to say, when aliens are attacking, it’s really hard to think of the character as the guy next store even if he is.  This is not a huge problem– quite a lot of people read about zombies and alien invasions anyway.   Just keep in mind that readers probably don’t want to know much about day-to-day life in a really epic plot.  No one cares whether Ash Williams will make rent!  They want to know whether he will make bodies.

4.  In most cases, it is preferable to ratchet up the stakes over the course of the story. For example, supervillains will usually commit a few relatively minor crimes (like heists or assassinations) before they try to blow up the city.  It’s usually best to start with stakes that are high enough to interest us but low enough that you have space to raise the bar later.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Scaling Your Story: How Epic is Too Epic?”

  1. Luna Jamniaon 08 Aug 2009 at 8:31 am

    :O

    Most of my stories involve 1, 2, 4, and 5.

  2. Tomon 08 Aug 2009 at 8:34 am

    For superhero stories it’s probably ok to reach five at some point. The number of alien invasions the Marvel and DC characters have fought off…

    I don’t think I’ve ever made a plot that uses four, interestingly enough.

  3. CarsonArtiston 08 Aug 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Mine is primarily #3 with a smatter of 1&2

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 09 Aug 2009 at 12:15 am

    I find epic characters to be awesome, if a little narmy. Haha. Take Light Yagami and Teru Mikami for example.

    Light makes eating crisps epic.

    Both Mikami and Light make writing in a notebook epic. Mostly because doing so kills people, haha.

    Narm or epic? I think it’s epic, but that can be disputed. Especially with the crisps. Haha.

  5. PolarisSparkon 09 Aug 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Well, my story pretty much breaks these rules. It goes from #4 in the first book and the second book to #5 in the third, and the first two books allude to it escalating as the heroes begin to have visions of the Armageddon. Not that the first two books matter, anyway.

    But I’m going to need a review forum for my current superhero romance/drama/action/thriller novel, and I’m going to need people to go to it. Also, you can get rid of them at any time, right?

  6. PolarisSparkon 09 Aug 2009 at 2:10 pm

    For my previous post, I meant that not the last two books matter if I can’t get the first published, anyway.

  7. Anne C.on 12 Aug 2009 at 9:57 am

    You left one out.

    7. The hero has to save the entire space-time continuum (like in a Doctor Who finale)

    I love DW, but I do sometimes wonder how the space-time continuum ever managed to stagger along without the Doctor. In a show that’s been around since 1963, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid raising the stakes so high that there’s nowhere else to raise them.

    Which is, of course, the problem you’re describing. So, the moral is to create a series that’s not successful enough for this problem to develop. 🙂

  8. Tomon 12 Aug 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Good news is the DW writing team have promised to never scale it that high again.

    Also you forget, since the Doctor can time travel he’s free to stop every threat to the time-space continuum ever. Which, apparently, is a lot of threats.

  9. Pon 12 Aug 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I tried to think of the many different series that had done this in the past. I don’t know all that much about Marvel in its golden years, but the first thing that came to mind was the second Fantastic 4 movie when the Silver Surfer destroyed his master, which would have consumed the entire planet.

    I believe the only way, other that what Anne had suggested above (do not let your series become to successful) is to limit the villain’s and hero’s abilities.

    On another random note, I agree with Whovian’s remark on how Light Yagami makes eating look epic. (He didn’t even bite it! Suddenly, half of it was just gone! Whoosh!)

  10. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Aug 2009 at 6:36 pm

    “Good news is the DW writing team have promised to never scale it that high again.”

    Really? I kinda like the epicness of the Doctor having to save everything. But then again, I find epicness in ordinary episodes, like the one in The Library. Creepy and epic, if you suddenly have two shadows, you’d better write your will. Haha.

    But I love ones where he has to save the world, or a city even, like the Master’s episodes. (Coolest, hippest, evil overlord ever!) I also liked Torchwood, when (spoiler) Gray buried Jack alive so he’d keep dying and coming back to life (end spoiler) and the team has to save Cardiff from him.

  11. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Aug 2009 at 6:38 pm

    I mean they had to save the world from the Master, not a city. It kind of looks like that’s what I meant. 😛 I have to start checking my sentence structure more often.

  12. B. Macon 12 Aug 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Hmm, I don’t who this Master fellow is, but I find it hard to imagine that he poses as much of a threat to the world as those wily Welshmen. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Welshman, which makes me wonder about what they have to hide. 😉

    Okay, ending that tangent…

  13. Holliequon 03 Oct 2009 at 6:41 am

    Banana, that may be a little bit of a jump. Not life-threatening to saving a nation and/or species? Would it be possible to start your story at #2? I think a life-or-death situation to the MC or one of his/her friends could later be revealed to be a bigger threat without too much surprise.

    The story I’m planning for NaNoWriMo this years jumps from #2 to… well, #3.5? There are very few people besides the main characters in actual danger (probably not even as much as any city’s population), but the Big Bad is trying to make himself The Man Behind The Men of Europe. At least part of Europe. I haven’t hammered that out so well yet.

  14. Herojockon 17 Jun 2010 at 11:07 am

    But what about plots in superhero stories that have national or global consequences, but instead show the perspective of the heroes city. Allowing media reports to reflect the situation in other cities. Like in the Justice league cartoons even an alien invasion, which obviously has world wide implications begin in Metropolis city. The league were rarely shown having to fight them in London, New York, Tokyo or Rio. Instead the plot centred around their struggle against Brainaic or Darkseid in Metorpolis city. Or am I talking no sense here?

    In my novel my Superhero studies in London and can fly. He’d easily be able travel to the odd place in Britain or France. He could even fly into space with his suit. I guess I’ll have to rethink the scope of his adventures.

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