Ten Commandments for Epic Fantasy Writing

Well, sort of.

If you’re a budding Epic Fantasy author, you’ve likely read quite a lot of advice about how your novel should start. Having read thousands of submissions and more than my fair share of published novels, I’d like to share with you ten openings that should be avoided. So here, in my opinion, is how not to do it…

  1. Make sure you get all that pesky world-building out of the way up front. How can I ever enjoy your story unless I know everything about the world? What is that clasp on the archer’s tunic made from? Where and when did she get it and how much did it cost? If you want you can put all this in a lengthy prologue, but we need to know this stuff.

  2. Is it raining? Describing the weather is such an dynamic way to start your novel. Nothing says ‘Epic Fantasy’ like a light breeze. We need a least three pages before we can even think about those characters.

  3. The Family History. An extension of 1) really. Ok, so this guy is running for his life. But when was his grandmother born? Quick, I can’t possibly invest in this until you’re told me. That leads us to…

  4. Introduce all of your characters straightaway. Fortunately readers all have photographic memories, so cram in as many names as you can in the first few pages. Better still, give them names that are impossible to pronounce like Horguur’thzogh and Ek’mazikav’tx so they will really stick in the mind.

  5. Describe absolutely everything. ‘She deftly flicked the thin strand of her glossy raven hair from her cold green eyes and purposefully and steadily raised the bow of ancient, dark yew and meticulously…’ Whassat? Sorry, I think I nodded off for a second there.

  6. And it was all a dream. A great way to make your world seem tedious to put a vivid dream right up front and get the reader to invest in it. Then wake your protagonist up, and you can rub it in the readers’ faces that it was all pretend and simultaneously make the ‘real’ world seem really boring. Result.

  7. Waking up. Or you can skip the dream and just open with someone waking up. Every day starts with someone getting up, so why not every novel? Then they can have breakfast, which is one of the mainstays of Epic Fantasy.

  8. Try hiding your info dump in dialogue. ‘My brother Rak, you know how our father, the Emperor, sent us on this quest six moons ago? Well, as we heard those outlanders – our sworn enemies – near our camp last night, if your twisted ankle is up to it, perhaps it is time to lay down the swords that once belonged to our grandfather – a famous hero of his time – and take the long road home through the mountains.’ Smooth, huh? This works well with internal monologues, too.

  9. Use plenty of metaphors. Although you’re writing a Fantasy novel and everything is up for grabs in the first chapter, don’t be afraid of using metaphors from the off. Of course the beast isn’t literally a hundred feet tall or the protagonist really has eyes that shine like blue fire on a dark night. It’s obvious. Your readers are smart; they’ll figure it out eventually.

  10. The epic battle. They say you should open with a bang, so why not a twenty-page action sequence? Who cares that we don’t know who anyone is, aren’t bothered if they live or die, where they are, or what’s at stake! Fight! Fight! Fight!


What Makes “Epic Fantasy” Epic?

Very thoughtful article up at Fantasy Faction on what it is that actually makes “epic fantasy” epic:

Epic Fantasy takes its name from the tradition of epic poetry that reaches back to antiquity and beyond. Epics, in this meaning of the word, were stories that stood as central pillars to the cultures that created them. Preserved orally, they were capable of being repeated thousands of times, so that listeners would grow up knowing the tales, not even able to remember a time before they had heard them. They were massively long and complex, and although they did have heroes, and often battles and dramatic adventure, their role was more complex than merely to entertain. They described a world not different from the one their authors lived in, but one in which the mysterious, the mythic, and the divine were made to speak openly and to make their actions clear. They helped explain the nature of the world.

Further, they showed how it changed. In all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end. When Odysseus returns home, Troy has been destroyed and the mythic age of heroes is over. At the end of the Aneaid, a city is established that will grow to become the largest empire the world had ever known. In vanquishing Ravenna, Rama establishes himself as the God-King on earth, fulfilling the destiny of the seventh avatar of the God Vishnu (I count the Ramayana as an epic in the traditional sense, although it is at the same time a living religious text). When Dante completes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, he has explained the fall and redemption of man according to the medieval Christian understanding.

One Part Book Review, One Part Confessional

Can females write epic fantasy? Melissa Pearl certainly can according to Carl Sinclair. Even so, this is a genre dominated by males (just as paranormal romance is a genre dominated by females). Carl takes the time to lay his presuppositions on the table—please be gentle with the hate mail!—before launching into a very complimentary review of Pearl’s Elements Trilogy. If epic is your thing, you might want to check out the first installment, titled Unknown.