Sunday, July 01, 2007

creating the epic story

Like many of you, I'm taking some downtime for this week's holiday. Since so many of you are creatives, thought I'd share a conversation I had with best-selling author, Terry Brooks. I found his method of auditioning characters fascinating. This was first published* several years ago, but the principles remain constant, and it's been one of my most requested reprints.

Happy 4th ... and for those who don't celebrate, go play anyway!! It's good for the Creative Soul.

Creating the Epic Story
Best-selling Author Terry Brooks

By Vicki St. Clair

Master storyteller Terry Brooks made publishing history in 1977 with his first book, The Sword of Shannara. Today, 16 million copies of his books are in print. Known for his sweeping epic adventures, Brooks has earned a legion of loyal fans with his fantasy tales. He recently took time out from working on his latest epic to share some of his insights...

You once said that fantasy is the only canvas big enough for you to paint on. What is it that draws you?

I was drawn to speculative fiction - and fantasy in particular - when I first was experimenting with different forms of writing. So much of what constitutes the body of work in fiction is limited to what we know about this world. But if you write fantasy, you can use an imaginary world and imaginary setting. And given that you are consistent with your writing...and believable...there's practically nothing that you can't develop or write about.

How did you get into epic storytelling?

[I] knew I wanted to write an adventure, but I didn't want the story set in the parameters of this world...and after I read Tolkien's work, I thought, this is the way to do it. Put it in a totally imaginary world where you can set up all the rules and the people, and you can draw parallels...where the readers will [see the connections] between what's going on in your imaginary world and what they know about the real world.

Who influenced you the most?

It's hard to pin it down because really it's your whole background of reading. I was inspired by the European adventure storywriters, Alexandra Dumas. Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott. I was an English major, so I was reading Faulkner [and] Thomas Hardy. They were all having an impact on me in some way because they told sweeping sagas of various sorts...Hardy certainly did. And although he wrote about a confined area, [Faulkner's stories] were generational sagas about families and the interaction between those people.

So there were lots of different authors that influenced me. And you sort of build those blocks that get you to a certain it's easy to say I wanted to retell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe. But I wanted to tell them without the historical context.

How do you begin a new epic?

There's a three-step process I use every time:

  • the dream process
  • the organizational process
  • the writing process.

The dreaming part is spending however much time it takes just thinking about everything that's going into the story - from the setting, to the characters, to the point of view, to the plot - and just playing with it. It's basically auditioning. I take my characters out, I dress them up, they read a part - and I see if l like them. If they're good, then I keep them in; if not, they go and wait for a chance to audition in the next book.

I see it like a movie in my head. [Characters] go through a part of the storyline...and by trying them out in different roles, I find out where they belong, and what it is they're about, and what the story's about. It's fragments at that point, with an overall story arc. I kind of know what I want this book to be about. I know where it starts, where it ends. I'm not sure how it's going to get there, I'm not sure who's going to influence things...that's what I'm playing around at.

When I have sufficient material to start putting the building blocks together, I go back to the outlining mode. I go back and forth, do character work-ups on paper, scene settings, names. And I do this chapter by chapter, until I have an outline in longhand on yellow paper that I feel comfortable with. It's probably not going to be the final story, but it's a starting place. Then I'll type that up and rework it yet again so I have a working blueprint. And then I'll write the story, and as I will all change again.

As you write, you get a better sense of who your characters are and what the story's supposed to be, and the blueprint just helps keep you honest about decisions you might make to change things.

I talk to writers about this a lot...I believe very strongly that if you don't have that blueprint, you're going to make some bad choices because you haven't thought it through. It's too hard to create the story and think through what it is you want it to accomplish if you haven't done some groundwork.

I think most writers will tell you they live in their books all the time. You never get out of your storyline. I may be out for an evening, but I'm thinking about that last chapter. I'm thinking about a character that isn't quite right. I'm playing around with them in my head all the time.
Which characters pass the audition?

In serial stories and generational sagas, you have the same families from one book to the next. So you know that you're going to draw your core people from those families. And you know that you're going to have some kind of conflict and resolution, so you have to decide who's on each side of the conflict. That determines who your characters are going to be when you start out.

Frankly, there has to be a connection with the characters so that what they're accomplishing with their lives, in the story, makes you care ... makes you relate to how they feel and what they're going through. Then you draw from the world - I see a particular thing happen or read something in the paper and think, how can I use this? So I'll make a note and somewhere along the line I'll bring that person in.

The biggest trick to [keeping yourself] honest about what you're doing is not to use a character just because it's a cool idea. Particularly in fantasy, there's a tendency to give characters standard the idea of the blind seer. How many times has that been done? There are certain archetypes that you can't get away from. You know there's going to be some kind of transcendent character, someone who comes of age...who makes the jump between what they know and what's true. But characters should be in a story for a reason... Everything you do should dovetail into the story...everything, including your characters, should advance the story in some positive way.

How do you avoid your work becoming fragmented as you write the epic?

Outlining has always been the key for me. If I outline the story in advance, it's cohesive before I start. It's in my head. I have it on paper, I've thought about all the plotlines and I've worked out the thematic structure. I've drawn everything in tight enough and close enough that it's not so easy to wander off the way you do when you sit there and think, hmm, I wonder what ought to happen next?

I think that's where a lot of writers fall down...because when you start writing, the problem is that the story mutates along the way. It always becomes about something more than what you first thought.

Also, practice helps! If you do it long enough, you have a sense of whether it's going the way it should. If I didn't have to write to such tight deadlines, if I had [long periods] of time between books, I would lose it all...I'd have to learn it all over again.

What happens when you get into a book and you see it needs to go a different way?

That just happened to me with this book I'm writing now. It's a middle book, so it's sort of a transitional book.

A hundred pages into it, I knew that this book was about different forms of redemption. I had no clue that was what it was about when I first started. But it became very clear, seeing where the characters were going, what they were about, and what they were doing, that it was going to talk to the reader about...the possibility of redemption.

If I see the book needs to go a different way, I look at how that [will] impact everything I've already done, and how it [will] impact the rest of the story.

That's the advantage of the outline - you can look and see exactly how that's going to impact the rest of what you were going to do. And you can make the adjustments that you need to make with a few notes. Sometimes you have to rework the outline more comprehensively. But it's less guesswork... There's less writing yourself into a corner, where all of a sudden you haven't a clue where you're supposed to go.

I wrote myself into a 450-page corner with my second book and my editor said, "I'll help you out. Throw it away." It was a terrific lesson...a hard lesson...but a very important lesson, and I never made those mistakes again.

Any final words to epic storytellers?

Patience is a virtue. Perseverance is a necessary asset to your career as a writer. If you worry about publishing more than you worry about the process, you're probably doomed.

*This interview has been reprinted multiple times for a variety of usages. Please contact
Vicki St. Clair for reprint rights.


Ian Lidster said...

Fantasy epics are not my mode of creativity, but I've periodically thought about turning my hand to such a thing. Sometimes I've worked out fairly decent basic plots in my mind, but have never really gone there.
Interesting that in his process he feels compelled to outline, to 'blueprint', as he puts it. Other writers I've interviewed eschew that facet of work, feeling it inhibits them in their quest. I'm inclined to be of the latter group.
Anyway, Vicki, thank you for providing this. It's a keeper and I'm going to print it off.
May you have a 'Glorious Fourth' and all that that entails.
Your friend and fellow scribe,

Pamela said...

an outline in longhand on yellow paper

whew, that sounds like work.

I thought about writing when I was young and energetic. Having his characters audition for their parts is very clever. That part I might enjoy. Like playing with dolls as a child.

ian said...

Hi Bibi,

Pamela sent me over here to read this and I'm glad she did. Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview with us.

Ian (the other one)

peteknowles said...

Bibi, always interesting to read how other authors work. It depends on the length and topic whether or not I outline. And I also do outlining by hand on yellow legal pads. Thanks for sharing. Happy 4th (although you know I don't bloody well celebrate ha! ha!)

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

I do the playing around in my head with music very often.

I will be out and about, then an idea for rearrangement will hit me. The rearrangements I am happiest with usually present themselves when I am away from my instrument.


Cazzie!!! said...

Perseverance is a necessary asset to your career as a writer.... that is also a great lesson in life is it not? :)

DesLily said...

Ohhh, nice interview! I have a bunch of Terry Brooks books, beginning with the Sword of Shanarra! (I love fantasy fiction!)

I've read other interviews with other authors.. some outline, some don't.. I think that's a very individual choice, for whatever works for you.

Thanks for sharing the interview!!

Ces said...

I admire people who can write. It is interesting to learn about their process. I think you are a good interviewer. I was particularly interested on how you followed each question and how you concluded your interview. I think it is a great skill. Not many people can conduct good interviews.

Bibi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bibi said...

Ian, based on conversations I've had, I think many authors who say they don't outline actually do their own form of 'gathering' but it's all in their head--concsiously or sub-concsiously. Others just go with the flow as we've discussed. I've never written anything quite that long, and I don't do fiction, so I'm not sure how I'd handle. ;-)

Pamela, yes, that would be the fun part for me too!

Ian (the other one ;-) Glad you enjoyed!

Pete, I can see that ... depending on length and/or topic.

Ultra toast mosha god, that's interesting. I think that's how the creative process works for many of us ... the ideas simmer, then suddenly start boiling over! That's how it goes for me.

Cazzie, yes, perseverance is one of the key componenets to any success, in any part of life. ;-)

Deslily, thank you. That's right, different strokes (no pun intended) for different folks.

Ces, thank you ma'am. He was a very good interviewee ... very generous with his time. Obviously he's done thousands of them. ;-)

benjibopper said...

I don't write fantasy yet there's a lot of good advice in there for any kind of writer. Thanks for sharing.

Frank Baron said...

It's funny, and fascinating, how the basic process is the same for all of us - we sit down and change thoughts to words - yet aspects of that process can be so dissimilar.

Thanks Bibi.

Bibi said...

Benjibopper, sure ... happy writing! ;-)

Frank, very true, and I'm always fascinated by other people's process and experiences.