She stood at the top of the hill by a giant oak as the setting, Georgia sun turned the impossibly red hills to an even deeper shade of rust. She bent over and clutched a handful of the rich loam, so cool against her palm, and understood that what she held in her hand was the very reason she struggled – and worth any price. In spite of the odds and her many defeats, she straightened as her will pushed all else away. Surrender had never been an option.

Her once-fine clothes tattered and her small frame thinner than ever, she trembled and shook her fist of dirt at the sky, crying out with every ounce she had, “As God is my witness! I will never go hungry again!”

* * * * * *

I’m paraphrasing a famous scene from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. (I’m sure most of you got that before I confessed). It was chosen for its ease of recognition, for its universality.

I rewrote the scene above from memory and not as direct quotation because that part is not important. What is important is that the intimacy, immediacy and emotional impact of the scene is so good that it allowed me to remember and re-create it. We remember scenes like this. We relate to her emotion. That’s why this particular scene from Mitchell’s book has been re-translated, copied, aped and mimed by others since it was first written.

Gone with the Wind is an epic story of the American Civil War told through the intimate lens of a driven, spoiled and iron-willed Southern Belle fighting for her survival in the thick of it, and at a time when women were highly restricted by their complete dependence on the men in their lives. Her world is complex. There is society and then – there is The War. Chaos not only reigns, it comes crashing through her foyer, and what doesn’t she chases after in layered petticoats. You might not like Scarlett O’Hara or some of the choices she makes, but you are drawn to her for her daring and her will – you feel her.

This brings me to the topic of writing an epic. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve gotten into conversations with other writers where, as soon as the writer confesses to working on an epic, they get this look on their face that says, “Did I bite off more than I can chew?” There’s a good reason for that. The scope of an epic can fan the heat of doubt in many good writers.

So, let’s say you’re writing an epic and it feels like it’s gotten away from you. How do you break it down and move it forward? Think like a painter.

  • The epic is your backdrop. This is best dealt with through your narrative thread. Here is fertile ground for craft in your prose, and big brush strokes. Put your best verse forward.
  • Your characters, as they live through and within momentous times, are your foreground and emotional touchstone. We get personal here, and as emotionally real as you can manage. Dig deep. This is why Hemingway said, “Writing is easy. Just sit in front of the typewriter and bleed.”  Creating back-story on all your characters is essential for knowing their inner-landscapes. When you know your characters like you know your friends and family – or yourself, if you are brave enough – you can deliver a story that others can feel, which frequently is what defines a story’s odds for success.
  • Do your characters shape the big events of their time through their direct involvement and action/s (knowingly or unknowingly) or are they like Scarlet, buffeted about, and mostly helpless to change the course of the her world? Herein lies the material for your plot.

All great epics feel real and personal. Another good example is the film Reds, directed by and starring Warren Beatty. His character made choices against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, choices that revealed and shaped him. Although he fancied himself “a player,” ultimately, his epic environment humbled him in its scope, and he comes to understand that his actions did little to affect the human surge he found himself within. (Many times in epics, our characters get in over their heads). If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember the scene at the train depot when, having given up all hope, as he is quite literally swept along by the masses, he is miraculously reunited with his love – having finally realized that their feelings for each other were more important than any of his grand schemes. Talk about intimate! It deserved those Oscars.

These are only two examples. Cast around your own reading and viewing experiences to find more epic tales that touch you on a personal level. There are too many to cite herein. Revisit your favorites and study them this time to see how other storytellers have done it well.

Remember, storytelling is an ancient, intimate human experience. Your craft must make the reader care about your story and this cannot happen without characters who touch the reader like breath on their hands as they turn the page.  This goes for both narrative fiction and screenplays.

Whether your story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, during the European Holocaust or at the height of the French Revolution, the best epics feel like close-ups. Craft an “epic sense of place” by putting the bulk of your background where it belongs, in narrative thread. Much of the material you gather from your research comes into play here. Develop plot via your background throwing everything it has at your characters – and with the choices your characters make. Create intimacy and realism through deep knowledge of your characters, like they were family. With these elements, hopefully, your epic can evoke the immediacy and tension it needs to take your readers and/or viewers along with your characters on a Very Big Ride.

Abrazo, bellas

Keep Thinking Big.

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