What do readers expect from an epic fantasy novel?
When you’re writing your epic fantasy story, you want readers to love it. To ensure that they do, you can brainstorm the specific reader expectations that fit with an epic fantasy story.
By combining the conventions of an epic fantasy story with the reader expectations, you’ll have exactly what readers want in an epic fantasy novel.
Understanding reader expectations in epic fantasy
The expectations that fit within the action genre will play a role in an epic fantasy novel.
Here, we will see a lot of overlap with the Hero’s Journey framework because epic fantasy tends to follow this closely.
You can find reader expectations in the inciting incidents, turning points, and climaxes of a story. If you’re looking for more examples, read some epic fantasy books that you love. Note where they have similar types of inciting incidents, turning points, or climaxes. These are your reader expectations.
For your convenience, I’ve compiled a list of reader expectations with examples below (you can also find this list on the Story Grid website under the action genre).
1. An inciting attack or threat by the villain
The villain acts, thus creating a certain problem, challenge, or adventure for the protagonist to undertake. While the villain doesn’t yet have to be aware of the protagonist’s existence, what they do should still influence the protagonist’s life.
In The Lord of the Rings, the inciting incident is a threat rather than an attack. Gandalf informs Frodo that the ring he inherited is the One Ring and that Gollum was captured by Sauron’s minions. Gandalf knows Gollum told them the name Baggins. This directly affects Frodo’s life.
2. Hero sidesteps responsibility
Most of the time, the hero doesn’t really want to have their adventure—they want to stay at home where it’s safe. They can express some reluctance. This doesn’t mean they downright refuse. For instance, a hero can instantly accept their responsibility because they know it’s the right thing to do, but inwardly feel reluctant and unsure of themselves.
In The Blood of the Elves, Geralt sidesteps his responsibility by asking Triss for help with Ciri instead of Yennefer. In this story, the actual inciting attack/threat by the villain happens in chapter 1, when Dandelion/Jaskier is captured and tortured by Rience for information about Ciri.
However, Geralt only learns of this later in the story. There’s another threat as well: the rulers of the Northern Kingdoms decide they have to find and kill Ciri to prevent the Emperor of Nilfgaard to marry her and legitimize his occupation of Cintra.
The inciting threat for Geralt himself appears to be Ciri’s magical fits, where she prophesies people’s deaths, including that of Geralt. When these fits first start, he turns to Triss, who is less powerful than Yennefer.
3. Forced to leave the ordinary world, the hero lashes out
When the hero has no choice but to accept their challenge and leave their ordinary world behind, they often lash out. For instance, they can put on an unpleasant attitude, sneer at those who wish to help, or look for a fight.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo first leaves Bagg End (reluctantly) and then decides he has to leave his new home sooner rather than later as people have already been looking for him. When he finds out his friends have spied on him and gathered information, he doesn’t know whether to feel angry, amused, relieved, or foolish. He does give a little snide remark, “But it does not seem that I can trust anyone.”
It's a short moment, as he quickly laughs and is glad that his friends will come with him. This is also in character for Frodo, who doesn’t seem like the angry, spiteful type.
4. Protagonist discovers and comes to understand what the villain wants
This is also called the antagonist’s MacGuffin. During this moment, the protagonist knows what the villain is trying to achieve. This is important, as it will help them figure out a way to stop the villain. What the villain wants is often the direct opposite of what the protagonist wants. Their goals conflict.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo learns early on that Sauron wants his Ring back, so he can cover all the lands in darkness.
In Blood of the Elves, interestingly, this moment doesn’t happen on the page. At one point, we realize Geralt knows that Rience is interested in Ciri and likely works for Nilfgaard. It’s implied a little later that Jaskier/Dandelion told Geralt and that they came up with a plan to draw Rience out.
5. Hero’s initial strategy against the villain fails
The hero will try to go against the villain. They make a plan to outwit the enemies they’re facing, but they don’t manage to stop the villain. They might achieve something else, such as rescuing a friend, but the fight’s not over yet.
In The Lord of the Rings, the initial plan is for Frodo to deliver the Ring to Rivendell so that it can be kept safe there. However, there’s not enough strength for the Ring to remain out of Sauron’s hands forever if it stays. Their initial strategy fails.
In The Blood of the Elves, Geralt tried to draw Rience out. However, Rience sent other people after Geralt; he didn’t come himself. Geralt manages to get rid of the goons, but he’s still no closer to getting Rience and fully understanding what they want with Ciri.
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6. All is lost moment
This is a low point for the protagonist, often happening around the 75% mark. This moment is also called “The Dark Night of the Soul” (in the Save the Cat! book, for instance), to give you an idea of how low of a moment it is.
In Lord of the Rings, this is the moment they fight the big shadow creature in Moria and Gandalf dies. First, Frodo almost dies—he should’ve been pierced by a spear. However, because of his special tunic, he’s unharmed. Then they have to flee and Gandalf sacrifices himself to save the others.
Up until that point, he was the one who guided the company and seemed to know what they were doing. He provided the group with a type of safety. Once he’s gone, the group feels at a loss.
In Blood of the Elves, it’s the moment Geralt’s fighting against Rience’s goons and the monster in the water. The goons are looking for Ciri, who isn’t there. Geralt is struggling in the water and if wasn’t for the people on the boat, he might not have made it.
Further, Geralt wanted one of the goons alive. While the people on the boat kept one alive for him, another monster surfaces and kills the last goon, robbing Geralt of further answers.
7. Hero is at the mercy of the villain
This is the climax of the story, the moment readers have waited for. If there’s one moment in your story that has to be spot-on, it’s this one. Finally, the hero is facing off against the villain (or a more minor version of the villain, if you’re writing a series).
In Blood of the Elves, Geralt fights against Rience, the rogue mage who is after Ciri (likely for Nilfgaard). First, he fights against mercenaries hired by Rience and finally fights against Rience himself.
In Assassin’s Apprentice, Fitz has to confront Regal. This is not so much a physical fight, as Fitz can’t harm someone from the royal family (although Regal has no qualms about hurting Fitz). Instead, it’s a moment where he outs Regal’s plan and stops it from happening.
8. Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded
The hero has sacrificed something during their confrontation with the villain. This can be a loss of self, an ultimate shift in what they thought was true, or a more physical loss, like severe injuries or the death of a loved one. But because they defeated the villain, they will get some type of reward, either physical (gold, weapon, or land) or symbolic (rise in status, a reciprocated love, or a more meaningful outlook on life).
In Blood of Elves, Geralt is rewarded (although it doesn’t appear to be quite as rewarding) with more knowledge. He now knows Philippa has her own agenda and cause—and that there are likely others who have made plans for Ciri. While he still doesn’t want to get involved in politics (hoping to keep his neutrality), it’s clear he won’t keep that neutrality when it involves Ciri.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is rewarded with company. Sam comes with him so that he doesn’t have to make the rest of the journey alone.
Brainstorm your reader expectations
Hopefully, you now have a good idea of what the reader expectations for an epic fantasy story are. Use the examples above and try to find the reader expectations within other books you love. Then, brainstorm them for your own story!
Or, if you’ve already written your story, see if you can find these reader expectations within your manuscript. Are there any missing? Are there some that could be better?