Epic Fantasy Novels and Long Beginnings

It’s been a while since I’ve read a typical epic fantasy novel. I’ve been caught up in the realm of fantasy romance and science fiction, and only recently found myself returning to a more old-school breed of fantasy when I picked up Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

I’m about halfway through it and am really enjoying it so far, but reading it reminds me of the love-hate relationship I have with epic fantasy. This relationship is largely caused by one thing: beginnings.

Starting at the Beginning

Many epic fantasies, particularly more traditional ones, take a while to warm up. They have long beginnings. More specifically, they often start at what feels like the VERY beginning.

Instead of starting when Jack the almighty wizard begins his quest to save the world and vanquish evil, these books often start when Jack is a young boy. We see Jack losing his parents, finding his place in the world, discovering his magical talent, training with mentors, learning the way of things, making friends, making enemies etc. etc.

While other grander narrative elements are often woven into this, the fact remains that a lot of time is spent simply getting to know Jack, and how he came to be who he is.

A Matter of Perspective

I could say that these kind of beginnings flat-out annoy me and that they should be done away with, but it’s not quite that simple.

I often find that when I am reading these long beginnings, I feel impatient. I wish we could get to the more interesting part of the story. I wonder why so many epic fantasies have to start like this. Occasionally, I’m a little bored, and sometimes I’m contemplating giving up on the book altogether.

However, as I make my way further into that long beginning I start to forget my annoyance and get drawn in. I’m actually interested in the various trials and tribulations of the character and their young life.

And by the end of the book (if it’s a good one) I look back and find myself appreciating that long beginning. I feel like I wouldn’t have understood the character as deeply or enjoyed the book as much without it. I’m sure that everything that came later wouldn’t have had as much meaning without it.

And I’ve had this experience with several books (for example: The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Ill-Made Mute, Assassin’s Apprentice, Daughter of the Forest, A Wizard of Earthsea), so it’s a repeating pattern.

Short Beginnings

On the other hand, there are epic fantasies that don’t have long beginnings (e.g. Sabriel, The Final Empire). They start as soon as the character is thrown into whatever major trial or challenge awaits them, and you get to know them as they tackle the problem. If you need to know anything about what happened before you met them, that backstory is littered throughout the narrative.

Yes, sometimes the character is young, and you see them growing up through the experience, but ultimately your introduction to them is through the main story rather than through a prelude to it.

These kinds of short-beginning epic fantasies can be just as enthralling as the long-beginning kind, and can leave me feeling just as attached to the character as those that spent hundreds of pages expounding their past.

Which is Better?

On the whole, I’d say I tend to prefer epic fantasies that have short beginnings. I’d rather do without the epic life-story introduction if the book doesn’t need it and jump straight into the meat of the narrative.

That said, I don’t want to dismiss the long-beginning breed of epic fantasy entirely, or claim it has gone out of fashion. The popularity of The Name of the Wind is evidence to the contrary, and I think this kind of fantasy still has it’s place. In fact, I am really enjoying The Name of the Wind so far. The slow beginning meant I took a long time to make progress, but once I was a certain portion of the way through (and quite a significant portion – at least 100 pages!) I sped up, and found myself less able to put the book down.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. For every person that gets fed up with a long beginning and puts an epic fantasy down, there will be someone who relishes it. There will be readers who revel in the leisurely pace of the epic narrative, and will settle in with a feeling of comfort and ease as the great wizard Jack’s childhood begins to unfold. And I guess occasionally, even if a little grudgingly, I am one of those people.

12 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy Novels and Long Beginnings

    • Yes that’s true, The Lies of Locke Lamora shifted back and forth in time much more, rather than being a linear introduction (though I seem to remember the childhood segments were more frequent in the first section?). I particularly liked the way the lessons from their mentor and some of the childhood experiences really came into play later in the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Long beginnings focused on story telling in a very linear way. Books with short beginnings tend to use structures that shifts back and forward in time (either in the characters head or in the narrative structure) in a very non linear way. As you say Nicola linear story telling can be plodding because you know its not the main game its building to something and you might not want to wait around to find out. Non linear is trickier to do and can be confusing and disjointed. In order to keep the momentum going you can’t afford to bounce back too often. I think the success of either structure it depends on how well you generate mystery. Non linear story telling has mystery inherently built into it because there is a lot that has gone before that you don’t know and you can feed to to the reader when they (hopefully) dying to know about it. Linear story telling structure needs to be imbued with mystery mainly through good story telling, characterisation etc, although there is always something that has gone before to draw upon its just not as imbedded in the structure as non linear story telling. Harry Potter was very linear but was curious enough about what Harry would find to keep on going. You could probably put the first three Harry Potter Books together and call it one fantasy brick with a long beginning.

    Like

  2. I opted for a short beginning for my first novel. The beginning begins with an argument between the hero of the story Spaulding and his best friend Trevilin. In the first page you realize both of them are elves, yet Spaulding is a Lord and ruler of a small castle. Trevilin soon mentions Spaulding is a mortal hybrid elf with human blood and that he inherited his noble title after his father died of old age 90 years ago. Any other hints about Spaulding’s past becomes slowly unraveled during the story albeit I leave some things about the darker aspects of him as a mystery.

    I think starting the story faster is more interesting. I hate Prologue introduction chapters. You don’t know the characters yet and don’t care about the touching story of their first baby step. Begin with some important aspects of the protagonist and as the story progresses, show their character traits and little bones to nibble on regarding their past.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I know I’m several years late, but I’m fairly new to your blog and I just wanted to say that as a striving fantasy author, I appreciate your thoughts in this post. I feel pretty much the same way you did about Name of the Wind; I spent a long time wondering when the story was finally going to “go somewhere,” yet at the same time the sort of memoir-style storytelling drew me in. I think there’s definitely a time and place for all kinds of beginnings, it all depends on what works for your story. A Game of Thrones, for example, wouldn’t be the same if it started out with Ned already in King’s Landing. Of course, the ASOIAF books are very long and the plot unfolds at a slow pace which isn’t for everyone, but the beginning of the book set the pace and tone for it very well (as well as kind of having it both ways with a more action-and-mystery-heaving first chapter).

    In my novel I’m working on now, I guess you could say I’m trying for a “medium” beginning; not very short since I want to be able to establish the three main plot threads that will eventually bring the main characters together, but not too long, either. The main protagonists are already in early adulthood, and although the major life changes that are about to happen to them require some buildup, starting with their childhoods would only stall the action of the story. One of the characters (for example) does have a “poor orphan who was discovered to have magical powers and taken for training” backstory, but it IS a backstory by the time the book starts. How she got to her current position in life does affect her as a person and ties into later events, but it’s not vital to the inciting incident of her plot arc.

    It’s definitely a delicate balance to strike, though, figuring out how long the “introductory” part of the story needs to be. I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting the reader’s time with tedious details, but at the same time I don’t want to throw a bunch of dense exposition at them to get it out of the way quickly, or be too skimpy on relevant plot and character details and leave them frustrated or confused. But hey, that’s what second drafts are for, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you can relate – it is a very tough balance to strike, and impossible to define a right way to do it. It sounds like you’re taking a good approach with trying to find a medium between the two though. And as you mention – there’s always the second draft to fix things if on reflection you think it starts too early or too late!

      ASOIAF is an interesting example, because I think that book actually lost me with it’s slow beginning and slow pace (I ended up giving up on the book and just watching the TV series instead – which I adore – though I plan to go back to the books in future and hopefully push through to the tipping point where I’ll get drawn in). That said, knowing how great the story is and how popular, I would hesitate to claim it should’ve been written any differently! As you said, if we’d started with Ned in king’s landing it just wouldn’t have been the same.

      Like

Leave a Reply to Michael K. Eidson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.