Occasionally I’m asked about what is needed to make a story epic.
There are several definitions of epic, including the great mythic tales that have survived over hundreds and thousands of years as part of our human cultural heritage.
My brief thoughts today reflect on the modern written genre epic. I consider this to be a story that needs an expansive canvas to accomplish the scope and tapestry of its narrative.
My short answer? I like to think in layers and in terms of camera view.
Often it is useful to plot in layers: start with a global (or galaxy-spanning) plot which serves as the big tent under which all else is covered; add a couple of regional level (however you are defining regions) plots that may have a political, economic, military, religious, or larger cultural significance, and then ground all this with intimate personal plots that move forward within these larger narrative arcs.
In film terms we might say you need to mix long shots scanning the landscape, medium shots (Fred and Ginger dancing; people talking in a room; sword play on a staircase yes Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn I am talking about you in The Adventures of Robin Hood), and close ups. If all your shots, if all your plotting, is at intimate or medium range, you may have a fantastic story, but it won’t be an epic. If it’s all long shots, I’m not sure quite what you would have although it might be very beautiful but a little distant.
Likewise, your personal plots move in tandem with or against the global and regional plots. Some may have been, in fictional terms, created by the larger plots; some may gallop on despite the larger plots, that is, they don’t purely serve the function of the larger plots in plot terms although they must be woven into the overall tapestry in such a way that if they did not exist within the whole, the whole would be lessened.
Tone can also be a form of distance. If every scene emotes or colors with the same tonal feel, then it’s difficult to create a sense of the wide world. Don’t be all grim, or all chirpy, or all tragic, or all jocular, all the time. Vary your palette.
Contrast works wonders here: parallel a love story that turns out happily and is precipitated by global events with one that had begun before the story begins and is tragically destroyed by some element in the larger plot. Yes, as horribly cliched as this is (so cliched that even Shakespeare used it!), contrast a comedic subplot with the dead-heavy serious one.
What don’t you need? Just adding episodes to make it longer. Length doesn’t make an epic. Contrast and variety and stakes and emotion do.