Several months ago, a new character I’d created went rogue and escaped the world I’d placed him in. Leaping between realms, his ghostly spirit crashed into a peaceful wood where a fisherman dipped his net into portals and God sat in his favorite spot, thinking.
I was stunned. How could this have happened? I was just a humble fantasy writer trying to hash out a trilogy. Today that unexpected idea has expanded into a universe of seven worlds, eight planets, multiple books, and a slowly developing mega plot. It’s overwhelming.
Maybe you’ve experienced this phenomenon while writing or brainstorming too. A simple plot morphs into a labyrinth of settings, characters, and events. And you wonder whether you should grab the inspiration or resist it. The answer depends on whether you’re ready for the task ahead.
Are You Equipped to Handle a Highly Complex Plot?
Godzilla-sized plots are a thrilling opportunity I wouldn’t curse my enemies with. Your brain will hurt, and you might worry about dying before the story reaches its conclusion. Hopefully these behemoths never become a fad.
Convoluted plots probably aren’t for you if…
- You’ve never written a story longer than 80,000 words. Baby steps are okay. If you dive in headfirst, you might drown.
- You haven’t produced anything of professional caliber yet. If you’re starting out, I’d recommend that you aim for a stand-alone novel, perhaps with the potential for a sequel. Otherwise you might look back and wish you’d published better material. Stand-alone novels are more forgiving of mistakes. If you grow to hate a series you’re working on, you’ll either have to abandon it in the middle or rewrite the installments you’ve already released.
- You don’t especially enjoy books that contain complicated plots. Bigger is not necessarily better. Some of the most powerful stories I’ve read have been short.
Even if none of the above criteria fits you, don’t immediately dump your million-word plot into a document. The larger and more intricate it is, the more time it needs to stew before it’ll flow. Unless you’re strictly a plotter, don’t force the process! Wait until an idea hits you like it did me. That’s a sign your brain is muscular enough to carry the immense weight. Later on, you can consciously outline and brainstorm.
Now that you’re thoroughly intimidated (but hopefully still excited), how do you execute a plot of great magnitude? First, remember that epics are a niche market, so the effort you invest will help you stand out. Second, let me introduce you to seven basic rules you can apply to most genres but particularly fantasy and sci-fi.
1. Leave Fear in Your Parents’ Basement
You have a burning idea that will transform your narrative, but you don’t know how to proceed. While you’re trying to steady your mind, prepare yourself for another shock!
I was a plotter until I experimented with epic fantasy. Though I still follow a structure as much as possible, I’m often forced to write in faith, hoping the pieces will fall together. So far they have.
Never limit your dreams. However, if your dreams themselves feel restrictive, that can actually push you toward your full potential. Perhaps you’re determined to connect two disjointed plots, but you keep bashing your head against the wall, wishing you had more freedom. You may be surprised where that frustration leads.
Years ago, I took a course in permaculture (think regenerative agriculture for hyper-geeks). During it, my instructor recounted a situation where government regulations prevented him from carrying out a design. Hours of feverish thinking later, he proposed a workaround that was twice as good as his original plan.
A famous permaculture principle is: the more limitations you have, the better your design will turn out. In writing, the more impossible your idea sounds, the more likely the solution will wow readers.
2. Follow Sanderson’s Zeroth and Third Laws
Brandon Sanderson is an epic fantasy writer who occasionally shares writing advice. His unofficial zeroth law states: “Err on the side of awesome.” When he was driving through fog one night, he conceived the “mists” in Mistborn, which dramatically altered his story’s setting and parts of the plot.
When you want to flesh out a massive story, don’t ask what happenings or details would make sense. Instead, ask what would be fun. Then you can figure out how to rationalize it.
I decided to draw hell in the center of one of my fantasy world maps. Why? I believe it will catalyze stronger themes and unique cultures. It’s a big question staring me in the face—one that my brain itches to resolve.
Throwing every idea into your story will give you worldbuilder’s disease, however. The cure is found in Sanderson’s third law: “Expand what you already have before adding something new.”
Charles Dickens is a superlative example of this. He recycles his characters almost excessively. His sprawling and sometimes overdone storylines are held together by the fact that readers never meet a throw-away character. Bringing in a new character to stimulate conflict would be like divorce! Much better to stick with someone readers have a history with.
You can keep the third law while also entertaining new possibilities by attempting to link two separate elements. If your protagonist needs to discover the villain’s schemes, your love interest could be a former spy for the dark lord. If your world contains sentient plants and mind-manipulation magic, perhaps magicians use mind-manipulation to change the plants.
Another approach is to worldbuild deep rather than wide. Instead of focusing on the flying giraffes that are begging to be included, analyze your story world. Was it created flat, or did it become flat? How are cultures on one side of the world affected by the lack of trade with the other? Does the landscape plummet into nothingness on each end?
Consider all the ideas, and jot down each one in case you need it later. Eventually, though, you must weed aggressively. Half your ideas won’t belong, and a simpler, stronger story is a hundred times better than a bloated one.
3. Start the Snowball Early
If two snowballs sit at the bottom of a hill, you wouldn’t need to investigate their trails to verify that the giant one rolled farther. Plotting an epic is similar to that. Ideas accumulate and gain momentum, then the story slides to a stop as you run out of content to pack onto it.
Are you the problem, or was it your starting point? Instead of brainstorming a couple events before the protagonist enters the scene (e.g., an evil empire creates a super bomb), explore deep into the past. Decades ago, perhaps an order of space monks secretly resolved to manipulate intergalactic powers so their religion would slowly become dominant. They stir up a resistance (which the protagonist joins) to force the galaxy to turn to them for salvation. Now your snowball-plot has more surface to pick up subplots as it tumbles down the slope.
The vastest plot I’ve encountered to date is in The Stormlight Archives. If a normal story is a three-story building, it’s a skyscraper. The characters, each with their own goals, become entangled in a plot that’s enormous because it’s been building for millennia.
Consider how the conflicts and circumstances in your characters’ backstories could resurge within the current plot. Also, utilize that information to put the villains and antagonists steps ahead of your heroes and heroines.
4. Let Your Magnum Opus Mature for a Decade
If Tolkien spent twelve years on Lord of the Rings, Brandon Sanderson began developing the concept for The Stormlight Archives ten years before writing the first book, and Victor Hugo took seventeen years to complete Les Miserables, I’m not going to rush either. I want to shape one world in my fantasy universe into something legendary, so I’ll write all the other worlds’ stories first and save it for last.
Stories are best aged, like wine. With time, you’ll distinguish the brilliant ideas from the absurd, and you’ll be able to chisel monolithic plots into readable material.
For those of you in the historical fiction genre, you’ll need at least a decade to accomplish the research necessary for accuracy in a masterpiece like Les Miserables. Even speculative fiction writers need to study different eras and cultures. Hefty plots generally involve characters from all walks of life—urchins, bankers, sailors, surgeons, priests—who beg for realistic portrayals.
5. Know Your Destination
Dreaming up a massive plot is easy. Making it cohesive is not. How do you avoid losing your bearings in a multi-world universe, a generational epic that spans three hundred years, or five thousand pages of attempts to defeat a supervillain?
If your plans for the story change over time, that’s fine. But you still need a vision for where all the characters’ struggles are leading—and that moment should be one of the most exciting in your series. A superficial conclusion doesn’t deserve a huge plot. A sequence of loosely connected stories would be more appropriate.
Maybe your worlds will meet in a final battle of good and evil. Maybe your generational epic is about a line of kings searching for the words that will bring peace to their kingdom, and the last heir finally discovers them. Maybe your superhero series is about rebels learning to surrender their selfish motivations so that they’re willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent a colossal disaster.
But what if you have the ultimate climax, yet your beginning or middle just floats? You have three recourses:
- Weave in subplots. These can deepen characters and increase tension, but make sure they’re closely integrated into the main plot or they’ll be a distraction.
- Be a darwinist. Only let the fittest parts of your narrative survive. If readers are falling asleep, a pair of scissors may help.
- Write darker characters. In the first draft of my work-in-progress, the protagonist was on the brink of discovering the story’s moral truth from the outset. Instead of shortening the story, I distanced him from the moral truth. His mistakes added drama, and his character arc now matches the scope of my plot.
6. Add Otherworldly Elements
Speculative fiction, particularly epic fantasy, abounds with opportunities to be imaginative. Limiting yourself to real-world possibilities is like building with one LEGO set. The combinations will be effective, but you can construct bigger, flashier plots if you use multiple LEGO sets.
Spiritual beings will instantly add another dimension to your plot. The God-figure, who is eternal, probably created other spiritual beings before the human characters. These spiritual beings will have their own motivations and goals that may clash with or influence the humans’ actions. The Bible records God coming down and sharing a meal with Abraham before going to view Sodom. Directly involving God, angels, or demons in your plot is not necessarily unorthodox.
Another option is to have your characters travel beyond their planet, whether via spaceships or portals. Other realms can also exist within your story world. Wakanda in the Marvel universe, for example, or a kingdom of dwarves living secretly in a mammoth cave. Yet again, some realms may be magical like Brandon Sanderson’s “cognitive realm” where ideas take physical form.
Speaking of magic, incorporating it into your story is like letting half the players in a Monopoly game operate under exclusive rules. Suddenly strategies have more pressure points to manipulate or slip up on. All you need is a system readers can understand.
7. Read for Inspiration
Last but not least, look to the authors who’ve gone before you. I’d have no clue what I’m doing if I hadn’t read Brandon Sanderson. I’m currently investigating other epic fantasy series as well.
My favorite cheat for developing a humongous, heart-grabbing plot is comparative titles. The exercise helped me describe my work-in-progress as a mash of two books: Mistborn and Till We Have Faces. That epiphany quickly prompted more ideas, because conflating two stories is easier than pulling one from thin air! (Your story shouldn’t be a pure blend of other authors’ work, though. It needs to be its own organism.)
Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
A plot of epic proportions is one way to express excellence through your craft and reflect the infinite imagination of your Creator. It can enthrall readers and allow you more time to delve into a theme or character arcs, as well as setting the story apart in a crowded market.
The advice in this article may overwhelm you, but that’s a normal, healthy reaction. Begin reading epics that resemble the kind you aspire to write, and after a year or two, you’ll probably have gotten a sense for the genre. If you decide this type of project isn’t meant for you, however, don’t feel inferior. There are many members, but one body. Where would the world be without writers of reasonably sized books? Your stories have just as much value.
 Do not request more info. The project is top secret, and this is the first I’ve told the public.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. To read his books, including one free one, follow him at daeuslamb.com