How to manage story arc in Epic Fantasy

Just had a revelation about plotting Epic Fantasy novels that I had to share with you!

Writing a fantasy novel is hard work! It took me around 8 months to get the 130,000 words of the first draft of RULED BY SHADOWS written — and after a brutal structural edit I’m now over half-way through the rewrite.

I’ve changed a lot of things during the second draft—but one of the biggest discoveries for me is in how to manage the story arc.

Epic Fantasies are big, complex books. Add some romance to it and you have a lot to balance.

One of the things that has struck me during this rewrite is that Epic Fantasy novels are like matryoshka dolls (those little Russian dolls that nest inside each other) — there are stories within stories. Arcs within arcs.

What do I mean by this?

Think of the classic story arc:

  1. Set up
  2. Crisis
  3. Resolution

This is the traditional three-act structure, which of course most stories will have. The problem for me is that in a long story, these three are too over-arching, too generic.

Here’s an example of the three act structure for Star Wars (from William Coleman, Flickr):

3 act structure

That’s great — and it’s important to be able to break your story up into these three steps — but it doesn’t take into account that each section of your story needs to have it’s own arc and flow.

So, instead of just focusing on these three over-arching plot points, I’ve broken down my novel into sub-sections, and then focused on each section having it’s own arc. This process is massively important to Epic Fantasy, because these stories usually head toward some epic battle, or climatic show-down. It can be tempting to focus too much on the destination and not on the journey. Yet Fantasy is a slow-build, it’s all about world-building, character development, and creating a net of subplots that all come together in the end.

The reader should feel that each section of the novel has a sense of completion.

To do this, I broke my current work-in-progress, RULED BY SHADOWS, into sub-sections. Here they are:

  1. Set up on The Isle of Orin
  2. The First Journey (from Orin to The Royal City of Rithmar)
  3. The House of Light and Darkness
  4. The Second Journey (from the Royal City of Rithmar to the Shadefell Mountains)
  5. The Epic battle at the Shadefells and the grande finale

Not all of these sections will be the same size. Some will be six chapters, long, some nine, other’s twelve.

Once you’ve split your story up into sub-sections, decide on how long each one is going to be. This is an important step — it’s easy to let sections drag on too long, or rush them. To avoid this, figure out how many chapters you’re going to need for each stage: SET UP, CRISIS and RESOLUTION.

Let’s take section 2 of RULED BY SHADOWS as an example: The First Journey

I decided that since this journey takes place in the first third of the novel, it shouldn’t drag on too long. Not only that, but it has to move the story forward as well, not just be an entertaining diversion with my main characters travelling and encountering danger along the way.

The First Journey: 9 chapters

  1. SET UP: goal is to show that something is wrong with the world while allowing the readers to get to know the main characters.
    Ch 1: characters leave the port city of Idriss, encounter a shadow creature on the way out of town and barely escape with their lives. Very strange event as these creatures don’t usually go anywhere near towns. Not only that but the weather has gone gloomy and cold — even though its the middle of summer
    Ch 2: characters reach first town and discover that there shadow creatures have been attacking settlements after dark. There’s unrest and fear. Weather is still grey — they haven’t seen the sun in days.
    Ch 3: characters reach a village on the edge of the highlands, half-way through their journey, and discover the locals have gone rogue with fear. Our heroine saves a mother and son who are about to be sacrificed to the shadows.
  2. CRISIS: goal is to show the background menace on the journey exploding into real danger — our four companions must depend on each other for survival
    Ch 4: Rough night in the village in which shadow creatures attack and cause a lot of damage — our heroes wisely stay indoors although they see the devastation the following morning
    Ch 5: They make camp on the road and are attacked by shadow creatures during the night. Barely escape with their lives and manage to hide under a boulder until dawn. The days are still dark—no sign of the sun.
    Ch 6: They hide-out in a cave the following night but witness a bloody attack on The Brotherhood (the group of assassins who’ve been tracking them since Orin), in which all of their pursuers are butchered.
  3. RESOLUTION: goal is to bring our characters closer together as it becomes a fight for survival. Will they actually reach the capital?
    Ch 7: The companions stop for a much needed rest and our hero and heroine share a first kiss  (it’s also a romance, after all!). A much needed drawing of breath after three action-packed chapters
    Ch 8: Problems start again at dusk when they can’t find anywhere safe to hide out for the night. They’re still three days from their destination and will never make it in time. Shadow creatures close in and it seems they’ve finally been caught.
    Ch 9: A patrol of enchanters — the very people they are travelling to see at the capital — come across them, just before the shadow creatures do, and protect them just in time. The next day they safely escort them the rest of the way to their destination.

The notes above are very sketchy, and I deliberately kept them so. I like to have a bit of mystery when I write. If I plan everything out in minute detail I lose interest — there’s nothing left to discover! However, this type of planning really helps me create a strong skeleton to hang my story on.

I’ve actually just rewritten this section — here are my chapter titles:

Chapter Seventeen: The Encounter
Chapter Eighteen: By the Fireside
Chapter Nineteen: Sacrifice to the Shadows

Chapter Twenty: A Sleepless Night in Hillbrook
Chapter Twenty-one: Flight in the Dark
Chapter Twenty-two: The Valley

Chapter Twenty-three: Collecting Firewood
Chapter Twenty-four: The Net Tightens
Chapter Twenty-five: The Enchanters of the Light

My original journey was long-winded and a huge digression from the main storyline. This one develops the characters and adds to the central conflict. The journey makes the stakes higher. Not only are our characters are on the run pursued by assassins, and taking a precious talisman to safety, but even though it’s mid-summer, the days have grown dark and cold, and shadow creatures — servants of a past dictator — are now attacking towns with increasing viciousness. Everything seems to be going wrong.

When should you plan out these story arcs?

First draft would be ideal! However, second drafts are also are good place to start. By this stage you have a strong idea of your world and characters and have a greater sense of what you want to achieve.

Hopefully, you find my advice on creating multiple story arcs within your novel useful—this discovery was definitely a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me. 🙂

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