Crafting an Epic – The First Step
As this series on epics becomes epic itself, we eschew the traditional order of sequences and talk about the first book in your epic, and what it means for the rest of them.
Whether you’re writing an episodic serial or an ongoing epic, the first book is equally important.
If you’re going for episodic, the first book still has to introduce your main characters, their back stories, the world they live in and all of their strengths and flaws. A lot of crime fiction falls under this category, with your central detective/detectives working on a case (or two) with each volume.Â
It can be tempting to write this kind of serial because the first book is by far the most difficult. Once you’ve got all the key pieces in place, you don’t need to do a massive amount of background work for the following books. Half your job has already been done. I’m not saying the remaining books are a cakewalk (whatever that means) but there’s far less work to do for your protagonists. It’s just the antagonists that you need to worry about.Â
But what of ongoing adventures, such as those in The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire? With these, you aren’t writing a series of books, you’re writing one very very large book (an epic) and splitting it into different volumes (which you can view as chapters.)Â
The First Step
As I mentioned last week, in my experience of writing sequels, I hadn’t sufficiently tied up the plot of the opening ‘episode’. While it is essential to have ongoing challenges for your protagonists, I felt I’d skipped the ending altogether. I’d written a sequel-friendly ending with no conclusion! The worst!Â
How can you avoid this? One method is to view your first book as the prologue. Prologues are a strange beast. They often serve as a short â€“ but significant â€“ episode which really kicks off the plot. They can be (almost) entirely unrelated to the rest of book, the events occurring in the prologue not folding into the plot until much later.Â Â
It’s snappy, self contained, but part of a larger fabric. Your sequel (in the case of larger epics) is where the events really kick off.
Let’s look at some examples, shall we? From different media no less.Â
It’s all there in the title. While this anime series does play with the concept of the ongoing/stand alone episode structure as it progresses, the first few episodes are fairly basic ‘case of the week’ adventures which establish the world, and the themes and conventions. You can see there is a larger ongoing story, but the meta-narrative takes a back seat, to ease the audience in.Â
What the series does well is introduce elements that seem to be relatively unimportant in the stand alone episodes, but which have an impact on the ‘complex’ (ongoing) episodes later.Â
Your mileage may vary on this, because the first book in what could be classed as the polity series â€“ Gridlinked â€“ is essentially stand alone. Though it does feature elements from some of Asher’s earlier shorter fiction, it introduces us to the world of the Polity, and our central character, Agent Cormac.Â
The book deals with a single incident which our central character investigates, all while undergoing the challenges faced with being ‘disconnected’ from the information grid through his augmentation (Hence the title).
The investigation of the incident is wrapped up by the end of the book. But there are many elements, characters, and themes that continue, and when you read the later books, you see how much detail was actually woven into the earlier volume.Â
The Ongoing Yarn
The first book â€“ your prologue â€“ should also try to be relatively simple. You don’t want to dump readers in so far at the deep end that your plot is impenetrable. Using my current project as an example, it takes place across many worlds, each with their own complex political, societal and ecological systems.
But we don’t visit all of them in the first book. In fact, we only spend a significant amount of time on one of them. At the same time I’m trying to establish that there are many worlds in play, and the relationships between them are fragile.Â
Weaving elements into your background narrative is a fine-line business. You have to remember you may not get past your first book, and you don’t want to frustrate your readers by having lots of loose endings hanging about. Each book must have a satisfying conclusion. This doesn’t mean you have to wrap everything up, but in the case of the first book you have to have a greater sense of closure than your ‘middle’ books.Â
If your prologue is well received and successful, you may have more leeway, but each book â€“ each chapter â€“ has to have some big reveals and some resolutions. You need to avoid filler at all cost. I’m not saying you have to have all action all the time, but there needs to be intrigue, interesting stuff happening, otherwise your readers may abandon you.Â
And remember, you can always use an epilogue as a teaser for your next book (just don’t rely on them to get your readers back). This can work particularly well if your book climaxes on a massive revelation, for example. Just when your characters think they have a bit of respite, some machinations elsewhere begin to come into play.
Over to you:
How do you treat your openings? Do you have an example of a book series that got it right? One that got it wrong? Let us know in the comments why dontcha?