24 September 2016

How to Write an Epic Fantasy with Dragons

This season I shall be offering my newest novel, an epic fantasy. However, the story of how I came to write this book and how it changed chapter by chapter is a story in itself. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, my fellow writers said to me: 
"Why don't you write an epic fantasy? You've never written one of those." 
So I replied, "Sure, I could write one of those fat books, no problem." 
"Wait! There's more," they said: "You have to have dragons in it, too." 
"Dragons? No problem," I responded, adding a typed LOL.

[You can read in detail here how my writer friends goaded me into writing an epic fantasy. You can read here (part 1) and here (part 2) about dragons and the choices I made about portraying them in my epic fantasy novel.]

At first I was thinking it would be more of a spoof. I would use the tropes and memes and cliches and stock characters of epic fantasy but I would put my own warped sense of humor upon the proceedings. I started with a scene of a dragonslayer, my protagonist--let's call him Corlan. It seemed a good idea to construct a story about dragons around a dragonslayer, after all. I cast a hunky hunk in the role, then sent him back to the city where he had the worst weekend ever. I've never liked hunky hunks so it was fun making him suffer. So he is banished by the snooty prince and we have our quest, which will take up the bulk of the book.

As seems to happen on epic fantasy quests, there are episodes, miniature story arcs, new characters introduced and old characters dispatched. I also had to have a dragon attack about every other chapter. So I crafted a map of the journey area and plotted where this and that would happen, all the way to the geographical end of the journey. I had a rough idea what would happen at the end of the journey but I did not worry about it since I was still at the beginning. 

Meanwhile, I had an old screenplay for a novel I had long intended to write just sitting on my computer waiting for me to turn it into a novel. I had tried a few times but the "epic" story seemed too big to be written until I had endless hours during my retirement. The dragonslayer's story seemed a good way to incorporate this other medieval-esque story of five princes and the trouble they cause in the realm. So I decided to make the five princes another story line. I would interweave them.

Then I had another idea. A little princess, Adora, absolutely cute yet with unspeakable powers, would make a good counterbalance to the daring-do of my hunky hunk dragonslayer. I knew then that they would have to meet at the end. I was not sure what would happen when they met, of course. I was still in the planning stage. I also thought of two other story lines which would interweave with the others. I did not care about length because I was working on something "epic"!

I started writing the story line of the hunky dragonslayer. Good enough. I wrote the opening scene of the scribe's story line, preparing to tell the tale of the five princes. Good enough. I started the little princess's story line. I dabbled a few paragraphs of the other two story lines just to get them started. I had about 3000 words total written when I decided to cobble together a temporary book cover, mostly for fun but maybe also to help me focus. Being an "epic" I knew it would take forever and so I was in no hurry.

On the back cover I wrote the following blurb. At that point in time I did not know how any of the story lines would go or how they would end. I did what I've heard Dostoevsky liked to do: invent interesting characters then see how they react to each other.
Corlan the dragonslayer is in trouble. Again.
He has not met the Prince’s quota. He has defiled 
a Lady of the Court, too. His grandfather offers 
him a secret treasure that just might save him. 
Of course it requires a long and dangerous journey.

The Scriber Iz-Mal is determined to set straight 
the history of the realm even at threat of death. 
A thousand years after the War of the Five Princes
the truth of what happened to turn their kingdoms 
into a vast wasteland remains untold.

Princess Adora dares go against the Queen’s 
harsh command to hand over the newborn baby boy. 
He is destined to serve as just another soldier 
in the matriarchy’s army, but Adora 
spirits him away to safety in the wilderness.

Then I decided to write out the dragonslayer's story first, since that was where my mind was at that time. I left the other story lines. My hunky hunk dragonslayer had his day in court, the palace court, that is, and was banished to the Valley of Death. So far, so good (as a writer, I mean). Now to add some complications.... 

To skip ahead a bit... 
I wrote on EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS from November through June, all on the dragonslayer's story line. I wrote at night. I wrote on weekends. I wrote between the classes I teach, sometimes only a few paragraphs during a half-hour's gap. I liked what was happening to my dragonslayer. I liked him, too. Thankfully, he resisted becoming me; he always acted true to his character. I gradually knew what would happen to him, how the whole book would end. 
By the end of June I knew how long this single story line was going to be--long enough to be a novel in its own right. But I had to keep the little princess story line in because it would dovetail with the dragonslayer's story. So I dropped those other two story lines and found ways to tell the story of the five princes from the scribe's story line within the dragonslayer's story line. After all, when people camp out on a long journey they have to talk about something between dinner and sleep, true? 
In July I went back to Beijing, China to teach a 4-week university course. In my time off, I continued writing. I finished the dragonslayer's story line. Then returned to the little princess's story line and wrote it straight out in 10 chapters (I had one written previously). Then came the difficulty of merging chapters devoted to different story lines. I played with a regular pattern and by pure happenstance I found the arrangement that worked best: every four dragonslayer chapters I would insert a princess chapter (called "interlude" instead of chapter). That arrangement worked so well dramatically--cliffhangers, cross-references, etc.--that I knew it was meant to be. The two story lines come together at the end and as I wrote it tears dribbled down my cheeks. Not kidding! It was perfect. I was blessed to take dictation from my muses. 
Returning back to the USA I had the whole rough draft completed and could begin revisions, first on story elements, then on the smaller technical issues. I faced a 240,000 word manuscript. But it's supposed to be epic! Never fear, I told myself. I can whittle it down during revision. Even so, a novella of 38,000 words with a 198,000 novel wrapped around it is something special. Let us remember that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novels still far exceed mine. The Hobbit is 95,000 words; The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000; The Two Towers is 156,000; and The Return of the King is 137,000. When I was jousting with my fellow writers about writing in the genre many of them write in, I boasted of aiming for 250,000 words, but I did not seriously have that goal in mind. I thought 120,000 would be enough. But the story rolled and my hero and heroine would not stop having adventures. So here it is: 238,000 in its so-called final form.
Once upon a time, I firmly believed that if you have something that is good why wouldn't you want more of it? If a book is good you want to keep reading. So I can only hope that readers will find the pages worth turning. And, as reality often requires, if the pages do not engage, readers are free to set down the book and do something else. I will not take umbrage at the slings and arrows of a fickle readership. Seriously, I think you will enjoy this journey into [S P O I L E R S] and be sorry to see it end.

Now that EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS is finished, I rewrote the blurb to go on the back cover of the book:
When Corlan the dragonslayer is banished by the Prince, it is not the worst fate. Corlan has a plan to rid the realm of dragons once and for all. To complete his mission, he must journey to the far end of the Valley of Death. Only then will he be allowed to return.
Along the way, Corlan teaches a wayward boy how to be a man while questioning everything he thought he knew about his own life. They encounter a surly magus in his fourth life, harpies and hippos, rogues and river wyrms, a clever hunchback and a feisty ambassador, an evil queen, witches and warriors, and strange cities with bizarre customs. And there are always dragons to fight! No matter the cost, no matter what he learns about himself, Corlan must continue to his destiny.
Meanwhile, Princess Adora flees her home with her baby brother to save him from certain death. Chased into the mountains of Yozma, Adora and her companions find the secret to dragons—a secret Corlan only wishes he knew, one that will change everything.

That phrase "will change everything" seems to be required in epic fantasy book blurbs. In this case, it's completely true.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I'm intrigued. Get it done so I can buy it.

    1. 'Tis done. I await only the final remarks from my delta reader. Meanwhile, I tweak here and there to pass the time.