How Epic Stories Are Built

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There is a simple reason why A Song of Ice and Fire is so massive. It is the same reason why Middle Earth has as much lore, or more, than many religions. It is also the reason why the Star Wars Expanded Universe both worked and did not work, prior to its unilateral dismissal.

Writers are junkies.

I don’t mean they need drugs in order to imagine vast fantasy worlds and populate them with characters. Robert Jordan wasn’t a speed freak or a meth addict (as far as I know, but it’s irrelevant). Tolkien smoked a pipe, but what was in that pipe had nothing to do with how Middle Earth was created… as far as we know.

No, writers like these, I’ve come to understand through the course of my own writing, are compulsive story crafters. It is an addiction, but one who’s rewards require hard work.

Let me explain how I came to this idea. I’m in the midst of writing a brand new world (actually, a world within a world, but that’s a topic for another day). While crafting the first full story in this universe, I find myself building the world alongside it. It’s a lot like Stephen King describes in On Writing, the process of writing is like discovery, like digging up a dinosaur one bone at a time. Each bone I find is another piece of story, but every so often I get hung up. Sometimes, I can’t just dust off a bone and fit it into the picture — I have to find where it goes first.

This leads to both a frustrating side effect, and the best part of writing. When I find a bone of story, I have to know everything about it. Not just where it goes, but the tissue around it, its function, its entire evolutionary history, everything. And this is exactly how an epic series is born.

I’ve tried to sit down and think up characters and backstory and all that stuff that fills the appendixes of a LOTR. But I can’t write like that. No, my world building happens as I need it to happen. Sometimes — a lot of the time, actually — it leads me down a path that has absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand. This is frustrating because, as I fill notebooks and make dozens of documents in my Scrivener project file, I know that most of it I cannot use.

Let me emphasize cannot.

I dare not, because to include everything that comes up would be to obliterate story. One of the biggest problems people have with reading The Silmarillion is the meandering nature of its story. There is story there, but it’s sometimes lost among the hundreds of characters, places, and events listed in detail. There’s nothing wrong with that in The Silmarillion — it was basically a publishing-friendly version of a series bible. But if you’re telling a tight story, writing that way is a recipe for trouble.

But, every time you uncover a bone, it still feels good. I liken it to the same sensation you get while playing an MMORPG and leveling up. It may end up 2 AM and you have to work tomorrow, but you got to keep going because it’s shitloads of fun.

I have some issues with the incredible complexity of George arrrr arrrr Martin’s tome. Frankly, it’s just too frickin’ big. But I understand how it got like that. Every character demanded a story, which begat more characters and more backstories, which begat more, etc. And sometimes those stories demand to be told, even though they may not need to be.

It’s a delicate balance one must find. I’m of the firm opinion that every character you commit to paper needs to help tell your central story. The masters can do it without seeming to, which can be a real treat for the reader as connections suddenly form between themes and lines of dialogue and seemingly random scenes.

But chasing those dragons (pun intended) isn’t a bad thing. A rich, complete series bible is the greatest tool a series writer can have. Being able to delve into histories whenever needed is huge. And making those same sudden connections that the reader makes, when one thing you came up with lines up with a problem in your story and helps you solve it, that is an amazing feeling.

In fact, it’s downright addictive.

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