Writing a good epic fantasy story is no easy feat. There are a ton of things you have to keep in mind, like the magic system and the intricate society you created.
On top of that, you have to come up with a compelling story.
In the previous article, we looked at how you can structure your epic fantasy story using the Hero’s Journey. In this article, we’ll have a closer look at the conventions you can find in epic fantasy stories.
Understanding these conventions can go a long way to crafting your story. It will help you add moments and scenes to your story that readers have come to expect.
That doesn’t mean they have to be the “same old, same old” scenes—you can use them to let your creativity flow and fill these conventions with new and interesting things.
Understanding the genre’s conventions & expectations
The conventions of an action story will play a role within your structure.
To find and understand these, you have to read carefully within your genre.
You will find that there’s an overlap between the conventions and expectations for an epic fantasy story and the hero’s journey, which we discussed before. To help you out, here’s an overview of the conventions of an epic fantasy story (you can find this list on the Story Grid website under the action genre).
It’s possible that while you read books in your genre, you come across other types of conventions. Write these down!
What are conventions of a good epic fantasy story?
Conventions are types of settings, character roles, levels of conflict, and catalysts. To find them, you can read the books within your genre and note the things they have in common on an abstract level.
Below are the conventions you can find in an epic fantasy story.
1. A challenging setting
Meaning, the setting must pose its own challenges. Think about the social environment that gives rise to conflict, such as political unrest. In The Eye of the World, people are getting increasingly suspicious of strangers because of the rising darkness. Then there are those who are against the Aes Sedai and the Queen and those in favor, which causes unrest and conflict.
The physical environment can also give challenges, such as a rugged mountain terrain, a desert, or a dark and cursed place. In The Eye of the World, for instance, you have the cursed city, rivers that need to be crossed, a dusty road, and a dark passageway.
2. Dueling hierarchies
One hierarchy is dominant, whereas the other one is submissive but growing. Essentially, one is static, often evil, and focused on power and tyranny. For instance, the Dark One, Sauron, an evil king, or any other type of evil force you come across in epic fantasy. The other is fluid, often good, and focused on growth and support. This hierarchy is often represented by the hero and their crew.
An epic fantasy needs a hero. More often than not, it’s an unassuming hero who doesn’t believe they’re anything special. Until they find out they have magic, discover they have a certain object, or they’re pursued by some type of evil. And very often, they’re a farm boy (or girl). So, if you’re writing an epic fantasy, maybe skip the farm hero trope.
You can play around with all the conventions and find new ways to incorporate them into your story. For instance, George R. R. Martin played with the Hero convention in his Song of Fire and Ice series. There’s no one “typical” hero within his story. The closest we get is likely Jon Snow or Bran. But as with all things: you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Easy Outlining is a method for plotting your novel that works for every fiction genre and for every type of writer.
Start with a general outline of the beginning, middle, and end, and specify it further until you feel confident to write your first draft.
4. A villain
The terms villain and antagonist are often used interchangeably. However, whereas a villain is a type of antagonist, an antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. In epic fantasy, a villain is often some pure evil immortal dude who is incredibly powerful. This doesn’t have to be the case, of course.
As with the hero, you can play with the villain archetype. For instance, in Assassin’s Apprentice, Regal is the villain. He’s not a typical purely evil villain, though. He’s motivated by selfish gains and doesn’t shy away from doing bad things to get what he wants, but he’s not evil personified. He’s also not more powerful than Fitz in terms of magic or fighting skills. He’s more powerful because he’s a Prince—his power comes from his status and the allies he manages to gather because of this.
5. A victim
The victim is someone who’s less powerful than the hero or the villain; they need to be saved. In epic fantasy, there often isn’t one singular victim that needs to be saved. Often it’s the fate of the world—everyone will become a victim if they don’t manage to stop the villain.
And, more often than not, the hero themselves will become a victim of the villain. You see this, for instance, in The Eye of the World, where Rand is plagued with nightmares by the Dark One. Or in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo becomes more and more a victim of the hold Sauron’s ring has over him.
6. A mentor
Every epic fantasy story has a mentor figure to help the hero along. They either train them in certain skills or guide them along the way to where they need to go. Think for instance about Avalon in The Sword of Shannara or Gandalf in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Morraine in The Eye of the World is also a type of mentor. A mentor doesn’t have to be purely good nor do they have to be an old wizard. As long as they teach the hero something, they’re a mentor.
7. A speech in praise of the villain
At some point, a character will point out how unbeatable the villain appears to be. This comes along with understanding the villain’s motivations—why they won’t give up. In The Eye of the World, several characters mention the strength of the Dark One. Even though he’s still bound and partly captive, he manages to influence the real world. Here, the Dark One reveals his own motivations: he wants to break the wheel and plunge the world into darkness. It’s what he was created to do.
8. A deadline
At some point, usually near the end of the story, there will be a limited time for the protagonist to save the victim. For instance, In Assassin’s Apprentice, Regal devised a plan to steal the throne from Verity by killing him with the Skill. Fitz has a limited time to warn Verity and stop Regal.
In The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam have a limited time to go to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring. They have a chance as long as Sauron is looking away.
9. Fast-paced sequences
An epic fantasy story is, in large part, an action story. Even if it’s a slower epic fantasy, such as Assassin’s Apprentice, there will be sequences that are action-packed and fast-paced to show the reader the hero’s strengths and weaknesses or to help them gain new skills. For instance, The Eye of the World has several sequences where Rand and his friends arrive somewhere, they feel momentarily safe and let their guard down a little, then something happens that puts them in danger again, and they have to run.
These sequences show the relative naivete Rand and his friends have as well as how relentless the evil chasing them is. They also show change, as with each sequence, Rand gains more experience in surviving these encounters. You can also consider training sequences or other types of trial sequences here.
10. Fast-paced plot
Generally speaking, an epic fantasy has a plot that moves at a fast pace. The plot is exciting and characters are forced to take risks within extreme situations. However, it’s not always as fast as a regular action story. Readers expect a slower pace in places to ground them within the world and to enjoy some of the worldbuilding.
As mentioned, in The Eye of the World, the characters have barely time to rest before they’re targeted again and need to run or fight. However, some epic fantasy moves slower, such as Assassin’s Apprentice.
As with all conventions, this is one you can play with. Do note that if you deviate from a convention, not every reader will appreciate that. Many readers who don’t like Assassin’s Apprentice comment that it’s too slow. However, there are also a plethora of readers who enjoy this slower pace—it all depends on the type of story you want to tell.
Brainstorm your story’s conventions
Now that you know what the conventions of an epic fantasy story are, you can brainstorm these moments for your story.
Consider different ways you can fill out the conventions. What can you do to make them stand out? Is there a way you can make them more original?
If you’ve already brainstormed your scenes based on the Hero’s Journey, you can add the conventions you’ve brainstormed to your scene list.
Next is figuring out the reader expectations, another essential ingredient for crafting a killer story.