Writing Exercise: The Epical Story

The knack to writing an epical story is writing it backwards. First, you work out how you are going to misdirect the reader, fundamentally at the final turn – and what the final ‘direction of travel’ will be, what truth it will assert about your character(s) – then, you spend the other 99% of your time, as a writer, trying to make a convincing, absorbing and also far-from-predictable story that will point in the other direction (for the bulk of the story).

Withholding and Misdirecting

The thing which drives a reader to turn the page, to stick with a story, to move not just from paragraph to paragraph, but from sentence to sentence, is a single magnetic force: the readers’ faith in the fact that they are not just having certain information withheld from them, but that the information, when it comes, will provide order, shape and meaning. That the story will be structured, and locate its meaning in that structure; that there will be sense to ‘the universe of the story’, even if it's being kept from them for now.

The withholding of key information is part of what whets the readers’ appetites and keeps them hungry, but it’s only half of that hunger… the other half is a sense that there is an order at work, behind the withholding of info.

This order must itself be a lie; a misdirection. The complete picture being glimpsed at, incompletely, by the reader (who, presumably, is joining the action in medeas res) is a falsehood, a fallacy. It is underpinned by a truth that is its very opposite - namely the final revelation that lands on the story in the last scene. However, as the vast majority of the story is about setting up and pointing in the direction of a ‘false picture’, that false picture actually takes more of the writers’ time and skill (presenting it in glimpses) than the underlying ‘true picture’. In this, the epical story is rather like a magician’s conjuring act. The magician will spend the majority of his time misdirecting the audience – asking members of the audience to check up his sleeves or tap the bottom of his hat, or talking to his beautiful assistant – when, in reality, all of these flourishes are designed to draw the audience’s eye away from where the real sleight of hand is taking place (the beautiful assistant especially). Writing plot is all about misdirection; at the microscopic and macroscopic level. How many layers of misdirection you need usually depends on the type of story you’re writing. If it is a literary, psychological or domestic-realist story one misdirection is usually sufficient – classic epiphany stories like Joyce’s ‘Araby’ or Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ spend all their time directing the reader one way (to believe one set of motivations and opinions), and only at the last moment pulling the rug out from under that picture, to reveal all a set of motivations or nature .            

apparent picture
← true picture

If it’s a thriller story, playing to a thriller audience, then two or three misdirections may be necessary.

Thriller Plots

The revelation – i.e. the turning-point where one picture gets replaced with another – has to relate to the fundamental nature of someone the reader has already become familiar with (and painted their own picture of). The revelation is worthless if it’s about a relatively new character, who only arrives late in the story, even if the nature of that revelation is fairly categorical – i.e. not something that requires subtle psychological adjustment to accommodate, but sweeping redefinitions: a good-guy becomes a bad-guy, or vice versa. Thus, with thrillers plots, where a certain number of characters is usually required for the basic mechanics of the story to work (often somewhere between 7 and 11), certain classic devices are used to wrong-foot the reader from the start. Two common examples of these:

(i) The Unequal Ally

This is often a friend, a lover, a business partner, someone close (and perhaps long-standing) who for some reason is slightly at odds with the protagonist; for example a ‘far better-looking lover’, a long-term begrudging business partner, a less-than-perfect boss. This allows the protagonist to doubt them very early on, and place them as an agent or assistant to the nemesis (that force working against him). The final revelatory picture will show them to be as much a victim of the nemesis as anyone.

(ii) The Obviously Corrupt Official

This is someone supposedly working for the forces of good (e.g. a police force, or a government official) who shows immediately dubious qualities, aggression, truculence, etc. Suspicions are meant to fall on them immediately. But once again, when the final revelatory picture emerges, they turn out to be one of the few people the protagonist can truly rely on. The real nemesis (or the primary agent of the nemesis) is often one of the very first people the protagonist meets when starting a case; the protagonist’s closest ally and ‘guide’, in fact, in that case.

Literary Plots

A key rule of thumb with literary plots is ‘less is more’. A masterclass in this particular maxim is Joyce’s opening story in The Dubliners, ‘The Two Sisters’. This is the first task of Exercise 1: read ‘The Two Sisters’. This is a shockingly short story, cruelly short, describing and summing up an entire life, hinting at a downfall that isn’t even fully described, and lifting off abruptly – brutally abruptly – before anything is remotely concluded. We see glimpses of there being a problem with the priest – allusions to it in the comments and unfinished sentences of Old Cotter [CARTER?], but that’s all. This story is also a classic example of the short story’s ‘informational structure’:

Act 1: We stand, with the protagonist, on the brink of an ending (or a change)
Act 2: We see some of the back-story, the reasons why this represents a change or an ending, the context of how the protagonist got to that point. Within this Act we also see the protagonist’s attempts to avoid the change that’s approaching, negate it, and/or we learn of how he’s negated or avoided it in the past.
Act 3: We step off the brink – with the protagonist – into the unknown of that change.

The story explicitly acknowledges this ‘starting at the end’ structure, with its opening sentence: ‘There was no hope this time.’ The unknown, into which the protagonist steps into at the very end, is his new, evolving perspective on the priest.

The mis-direction in this story is with regard to the fundamental nature of the priest. The narrator wants to put him on a pedestal, as his mentor, and seeks to defend him later. But the revelation is hinted at. The grey face of the now dead priest that troubles him in a dream wants to confess something. But Joyce turns the idea of the confession on its head, and presents a moment where nothing is confessed, nothing is learned.

Another classic in literary misdirection comes straight after this one in The Dubliners: ‘The Encounter’. Here there are perhaps three misdirections – a primary, overreaching one to which most critics attach the story’s ‘meaning’ – and two others regarding the narrator’s relationship with his friends Malory and Dillon.

The primary misdirection is fairly straightforward: the subversion of hope. The narrator wants an adventure, and the story delivers a sense that he shouldn’t wish for it; escape, adventure, liberty – the outside world he craves for, far from the Latin and history lessons of school (and represented by Wild West books and adulthood) – is far darker than he knows.
Joyce's first, throwaway irony, comes in an early aside about the third of the friends, Dillon (too rambunctious for the two of them, who disappears from the story, but not before Joyce tells us that despite his violent behaviour he later became a devout priest).

The primary revelation comes through the encounter with the lecherous old man who (just out of the narrator’s view) masturbates in public. This is what the outside world, adulthood and freedom amount to: self-contradiction, lack of control, lechery, depravation.

The third, and again lesser, misdirection is given to us in the very last line of the story. As a counterpart to the earlier aside about Dillon’s future, this is a late-delivered (but key) piece of information about Malory’s past. It seems the narrator has never really liked Malory – an extremely late piece of ‘false picture’ setting – only to be subverted and instantly replaced with the genuine, surprising relief the narrator feels when he catches up with him.

Your task: to write a story using any one of these devices. But remember, the ‘false picture’ will require more work than the underlying ‘true’ one.