Epic Fantasy Epic Challenges: How to Write and Revise Complex Stories Effectively
Fantasy tends to run the longest of any genre fiction—and for good reason. Not only do you need strong narrative, clear stakes, satisfying conflict, and tidy resolution…you also must deftly and gradually build an entire world. Nbd.
But these rules also apply to other epics, like the coming-of-age marvel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which spans the various lives and locations of the protagonist over many years.
So where do you begin? How do you keep track of it all? I find it helps to tackle 110k+ books in layers. But what are the layers you’re looking for? Usually the simplest place to start is your plot.
What is the Structure of the Story?
At its core, fantasy or epic formulas are basically: hero must achieve X, or Y (terrible consequence) happens. This primary plot line is enlivened by sub-plots, which can follow side-characters, force the hero to grow, act as a red herring, etc. Each plot and sub-plot must have stakes (a why), rising action (a how), climax (a what), and conclusion (a then what). Generally the stakes and rising action, at least for the main plotline, should happen in the first third of the book. A lot of your conflict and tension, for instance, will arise from different characters wanting diametrically opposed things. The climaxes should come like building blocks of rising action, increasing in importance as they close in on the main plot’s climax. Finally, a series of ripples from the climax compile the conclusion and tie up all the loose ends—unless there’s a sequel of course.
Why Should We Care About the Story?
Next, you need to work on your readers’ emotional investment. This is done through your characters. Fantasy Epics tend to have huge casts—so much so that they often come with appendices for their readers’ reference. At their most basic, they tell us the correct spelling of each character’s name, how they are related or connected to other characters, and what their role is. This is a tool for you too, so the earlier you create a running character list the better. Lists keep you consistent, but also help you identify whether you have too many characters with unintentionally similar names/ biographies/ roles in the plot; how each is related to the others; and if you have folks that could be combined or pruned out.
Keep dossiers on what characters look like, their background, likes and dislikes (these can be copy-pasted from the text—if it’s missing, you can assess whether you still need to include a physical description or—for that particular character, or whether it’s only important for you to know that detail and for it to be implied in other aspects in the actual book. Because whether you use it directly or not, this kind of information informs how each character acts, thinks, learns, and feels.
[I strongly recommend dossiers for any character that has a POV. It will help you understand them and write them more convincingly. You can even have a friend interview you (as them) to help anchor their personal voice.]
Just like plots, your characters must each have their own arc: a place they start, a way in which they are forced to grow and their skills/beliefs/goals are tested, and a success or failure or tangible outcome from the experience.
With worldbuilding, it’s crucial you keep your facts straight. It doesn’t matter how weird those facts are as long as you are consistent with how your world works. I’m a huge proponent of holistic worldbuilding: where every aspect of setting and society influence each other—but that’s a different conversation. Most crucially, keep track of key terms, spellings, meanings, maps, constructed languages, magic systems, etc. Even if you’re not working with constructed languages, keep track of what official terms you’re capitalizing or not, and any slang you might create. A safe rule is: if there are many, don’t capitalize; if it’s the only one or part of a limited set, you can capitalize.
By now, your draft should be tightening up.
Its form is tighter and you’ve pruned a lot of the unruly or unnecessary stuff.
You’ve ensured every plotline runs unbroken.
Every main character inspires pathos and you know their motivations and backstories intimately.
The facts of your world are consistent and don’t contradict each other.
Now go through to identify, assess, and develop or delete your themes; fine-tune your emotional beats (those moments when your reader should feel tears well up or laughter escape); and hone your pacing–is a setup to a scene slowing us down when it should be almost unnoticeable? Does a certain scene or conversation seem to come out of the blue? Are the cause-and-effect relationships clear and fluid throughout?
Get a Second (and Third and Fourth) Opinion
Once you’ve gotten to this point it’s time to send out to beta readers. They can flag areas where the story dragged for them; confirm whether the stakes are clear; if the characters are compelling, etc. As your first readers, they can give you heaps of valuable feedback—but remember that it’s yours to evaluate. Not everything they say is going to feel right for you, and that’s fine. Be critical with their critiques and only revise when their feedback rings true.
Having made the most of some free feedback, it’s time to invest.
Find yourself an editor who works with your genre and shares similar tastes and values. Commission a Manuscript Assessment (also known as an Editorial Evaluation or Manuscript Evaluation). A good one will give you all kinds of actionable developmental advice that relates to your future target audience, dream agent, or publishing house. It’s a fantastic way to get all kinds of extremely valuable editorial insight for a fraction of the price of line-by-line editing.
Revise One Last Time
When you have feedback, start with major changes first, spot by spot. Then work through the whole manuscript in a linear fashion to ensure natural development of both plots and character arcs. During this process, you’ll continue to notice recurring themes. Consider the questions you’re asking your reader and the impact you want the book to make. Once you crystallize these, you can thread them throughout, with little nods or correlations that subtly keep themes present.
In this final stage, keep your eyes peeled for the following:
inconsistencies in personality or terminology,
characters lacking agency (pulled along by plot instead of making choices),
boring passages/needless exposition/overly wordy passages (definite darlings),
lack of clarity for character/setting,
and repetition of how your chapters/scenes start and finish (try to mix it up!).