How do You Start Writing an Epic Fantasy Story? Part 1: Hero’s Journey
Bijgewerkt op: 4 sep.
I love reading epic fantasy. These stories take you to extraordinary worlds and let you experience adventures.
But because epic fantasy stories appear so complex, writing one can seem like a daunting task.
So, I’ve decided to devote a series to writing epic fantasy stories.
We start with the basics, namely story structure, and then we move on to all the other things that make epic fantasy great, such as worldbuilding, creating a cast of characters, coming up with your own language, and creating magic systems.
In this first part, we’ll explore the Hero’s Journey, as epic fantasy stories tend to follow this framework closely.
What is the content genre of an epic fantasy story?
An epic fantasy story lives within the content genre action. Or specifically speaking, the action epic. This means that within an epic fantasy story, there will be a protagonist or group of main characters who have to confront some type of interpersonal conflict, societal institutions, or tyrants. Think rebellions, conspiracies, social destruction, and criminal organizations.
Even when an epic fantasy story is heavy on romance, there’s still a main focus on action. These are adventure stories with a quest to overcome the evil villain. Your story is about life vs. death.
Understanding that an epic fantasy story is about survival helps you determine what type of obstacles the protagonist will face. And how you can structure your story to ensure the stakes will escalate.
Writing epic fantasy with the Hero’s Journey
Epic fantasy stories are tightly woven with the Hero’s Journey framework. As such, you can use this framework to help you structure your epic fantasy novel.
You'll find there's some overlap between these stages and the reader expectations of an epic fantasy story.
The Hero’s journey is made up of the following steps (according to The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler).
1. Ordinary World.
To know what changes for the protagonist, we first need to get a sense of the ordinary world of the protagonist. This does not mean you need an entire scene filled with mundane, everyday things your protagonist does. There has to be something of interest—there has to be movement within the scene.
For instance, in the Hobbit, Bilbo’s ordinary world is briefly mentioned when he sits in front of his house smoking his pipe. Tolkien does have a lot of descriptions about hobbits and such before this to establish the ordinary world. I wouldn’t advise following this. Readers want to start the story instantly nowadays.
Another example is The Eye of the World. We’re introduced to Rand’s world and the common customs within this world. However, tension is added by the shadowy figure Rand spots on his way to the village, instantly letting the reader know that something is coming.
2. Call to Adventure
Also known as the inciting incident. This is the problem, challenge, or adventure the protagonist has to undertake. It’s an incident that’s either causal (meaning it’s purposely caused by a specific action) or coincidental (meaning it’s a coincidence, such as a storm). And it has to be something that changes the protagonist’s life; they can’t go back to how things used to be.
In The Hobbit, the inciting incident comes pretty quickly, when Gandalf asks him to go on a quest with him, later reinforced by Gandalf when he holds a meeting with the dwarves in Bilbo’s house.
In The Eye of the World, the inciting incident happens a bit later, when Rand is home and his house is attacked by Trollocs, and he has to leave the village as a consequence.
3. Refusal of the Call.
In most cases, the hero of your story will refuse the call to adventure. This can mean the hero downright refuses the inciting incident or that they express some reluctance. Few people will jump excitedly in the face of danger without at least some doubts. Something else is needed for the hero to accept, like a change in circumstances or the encouragement of a Mentor or other character.
In the Hobbit, Bilbo initially refuses the Call to Adventure—he doesn’t want to go with the dwarves. Only after a long debate and some time to sleep on it does he decide he wants to go with them.
In The Eye of the World, Rand doesn’t want to leave his home. He especially doesn’t want to leave his father behind. He doesn’t refuse, but he does show reluctance. It takes his father to convince him that he must go, even if it doesn’t make sense.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
Every epic fantasy story has a mentor. The relationship between the hero and the mentor is always present. They prepare the hero for the unknown until they have to face it alone.
In the Hobbit, Gandalf is the Mentor. He gives Bilbo the kick in the but he needs to even go on an adventure—he instigates the Call to Adventure—and guides him during their journey. Until he’s gone, then it’s up to Bilbo to face the unknown without Gandalf’s guidance.
In The Eye of the World, Morraine functions as the Mentor. Rand meets her, and she’s the one who tells him he has to leave with her, after saving his father. They have an interesting relationship, as Rand doesn’t quite trust her. She guides him and the others along the dangers, until the moment they get separated.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
After committing to the adventure, the hero enters the “Special World” by crossing the first threshold. They will now face the consequences of the problem presented in the Call to Adventure. The story really starts going from this moment. You can see this as the ending of the first act and moving into the second act. After crossing this threshold, there’s no turning back.
This is the moment when Bilbo hurries after the dwarves and starts his journey with them, leaving all things familiar behind.
Likewise, this is the moment when Rand and his friends leave their homes. After they’ve crossed the river from the last town they were still familiar with, there is no turning back (Morraine even destroys the ferry they crossed on to illustrate this).
While most epic fantasies involve some type of travel through unfamiliar terrain, crossing the first threshold doesn’t necessarily mean the hero has to travel. It’s about crossing from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This can also be a familiar part of town to an unfamiliar part of town. For instance, a move from the outskirts of the city to the center, or from their regular home to the palace.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
In the second act, the hero will encounter a series of tests—challenges they have to overcome—and they will make both allies and enemies. The hero will begin to learn the rules in the second act. A lot of times, these are encounters in bars or ins, but they can also be encounters on the road or in other places.
Bilbo faces several tests during his journey, such as his encounter with trolls and goblins. They make enemies, such as the goblins and the wood elves, and allies, like Lord Ellrond and the people in Lake Town (who later become enemies).
Rand and his friends are also continuously tested. They’re pursued by trollocs, encounter fades, and fight against darkfriends. Not to mention the dreams they have about the Dark One.
But also the terrain can provide a challenge, such as a cursed city or an inhabitable land with little food. They also meet allies along the way who help them along, such as a kind inkeep or Ellyas, the wolf-man.
As you can see, this particular part isn’t just one moment or scene within the story—it continues throughout the second act.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
Here, we approach the turning point and the crisis. The hero is on the edge of something dangerous, and they often plan before they face their fears. They need to find a way to outsmart the villain’s guards or any other type of enemy they may find there.
Bilbo and the dwarves reach the approach when they go inside the woods to get to where they’re going, even though it’s the land of the wood elves.
Rand and his friends reach this moment when they enter the cursed city to try and divert the fades and trollocs following 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.
This is also known as the midpoint of the story, the “mirror moment.” This is the turning point followed by the crisis moment of the story. This is the moment where the hero starts to change because of the ordeal they face.
There is always a type of “death” at this moment. Within an epic fantasy story, this is a literal physical death—the hero must either die or appear to die (become close to dying), so that they can be born again (hence, the change).
In the Hobbit, Bilbo faces this moment when the dwarves are all captured by spiders. He dispatches of a giant spider and then he’s faced with a choice: Does he go back alone and give up or does he find the dwarves and save them? He now has to put the responsibility of his survival in his own hands instead of others.
Rand’s ordeal comes when they have to flee the cursed city at night. The mist they have to avoid is a literal fear they have to overcome, as well as the trollocs and fade they have to flee from. The crisis moment comes when they have to choose to separate or continue on together. They separate and flee.
After surviving the Ordeal, they will receive some type of reward. This can be a special weapon, a token, an elixir, or even more an internal reward like knowledge or experience to help them defeat the villain. The reward happens before we enter act three, which means it can take a while before they receive it.
Bilbo’s reward is that he now trusts himself and his skills, so that he dares to take risks and stay true to what he believes is right. These are keys to finishing the adventure, getting the Arkenstone, and stopping the fighting.
Rand is rewarded with the knowledge that he is ta’veren, someone who influences the pattern. Knowing this allows him to understand that there are always different options, which helps him defeat the Dark One.
Whatever you decide the reward will be, make sure that it will help them defeat the villain in some way, shape, or form.
10. The Road Back
While it’s called “The Road Back,” this doesn’t literally have to be the road back home. At this point, you’re crossing into act three. The villain and their henchman are still after the hero. You will often find chase scenes at this point.
In a standalone, this stage often marks a decision to go back to the ordinary world. They know they have to leave the Special World eventually, even though they still need to face the dangers. In a trilogy, this decision is often not yet there. They may find a new sense of normal, however.
In the Hobbit, they come across an obstacle with “the road back.” When they arrive at the Lonely Mountain (“home” for the dwarves), they initially can’t find the secret doorway.
In The Eye of the World, they’re in the Ways, a dark road they’re taking to reach the Eye of the World to stop the Dark One. Here, they’re chased by a certain dark wind that could drive them mad.
This is the climax of the story. The hero already had a brush with death during the Ordeal, but here the stakes are even higher. They must be “reborn.” Which means they’re in a life-and-death moment where they’re facing the villain, and they need to fully understand their gifts to defeat the villain.
Whatever it was they learned or gained after the Ordeal, this is the time to use it. After the climax, they are fully reborn—they’re changed in a way where they can never go back to who they were before.
With The Hobbit, I always find it a bit complicated to figure out the actual climax. Some say it’s when he saves the dwarves from the giant spider. However, this would mean the resolution of the story is incredibly long. It’s possible to say it’s his confrontation with Smaug. He relies on his strengths and thus learns Smaug’s weakness, which allows Bard to kill the dragon.
You could also argue the final climax is when he offers up the Arkenstone to Bard and the Elvenking to negotiate peace, standing up to Thorin. In this sense, he relies on himself for his survival; he doesn’t leave it all up to Thorin or the other dwarves. He uses his own wits to come to conclusions and does what he feels is right instead of following along.
Rand faces the Dark One. Here, he becomes aware that he’s using the One Power. And while he doesn’t use it consciously, he’s the one who makes the decision to cut the thread of the Dark One, defeating him. Rand is “reborn” because the Light enters him—he becomes the Dragon (a prophesized figure).
12. Return with the Elixir
This is the resolution of the story. The elixir is some treasure or lesson the hero learned from their time in the Special World that they take back with them. While it can be a physical treasure, often it takes the form of love, freedom, wisdom, and knowledge.
Note that this is often related to your internal or external subplot. For instance, if you have a romance subplot, the elixir might be love. If you’re more focused on the internal subplot, their elixir might be a new worldview, changed morality, or improved status.
When Bilbo gets back home, he brings physical treasure with him. However, he’s also come to appreciate his home and the memories he’s made.
Rand’s elixir is knowing more about who he is, even if he doesn’t like it, and there is now a cautious end to the winter. There are also physical treasures here that the group receives.
Brainstorm the Hero’s Journey moments for your story
Perhaps you already have some idea of what you want your story to be about. Or maybe you don’t really know yet. Either way, take some time to brainstorm ideas for your story based on the Hero’s Journey framework.
You can then continue with the next part of this series, all about the conventions you'll need to include to craft a great epic fantasy story.