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 point...so 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 write...it 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 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 characteristics...like 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.