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Selling Sprawl: The Case for Expansive Storytelling

Geeks are rejoicing! In fact, a weeklong epic fantasy geek-gasm is ongoing even as I type this essay. But if you’re not one of us, you probably haven’t noticed. That’s because we epic fantasy geeks aren’t really the party-in-the-streets sort of revelers. Instead, we’re the disappear-in-our-caves-and-read-the-newest-big-fat-book types. And the big fat book that instigated this round of rejoicing is no ordinary epic. We’ll be in our caves for some time.

Last Tuesday, Oathbringer  was released—Brandon Sanderson’s latest edition to the wildly popular Stormlight Archive [1]. And yes, it’s his biggest, fattest yet, weighing in at 1,220 pages.  And get this: Oathbringer is the third in a planned ten-volume series! Talk about ambitious.

The Stormlight Archive isn’t just long, it’s expansive—a story-world with 30 systems of magic, dozens of cultures, and 6,000 years of history mapped out. In the first two editions there are over a dozen POV characters (though there are merely three to five protagonists, depending on how you count them). The themes Sanderson is weaving are not just socially-conscious, but in my opinion are extremely relevant and applicable. They include climate change, religious dogma versus evidence-based science, the politics of oppression, and making war for profit, to name a few.

Epic Inspiration

I’m not here today to sell you on The Stormlight Archive. The series might even be considered daunting by some fantasy fans. But I do want to share how heartened and inspired I am by its success. And I also want to share a few thoughts on the trend in my genre toward more expansive storytelling.

These days it seems there is no shortage of readers out there who are undaunted by a sprawling tale. This is good news for many fantasists. But for me, Sanderson’s success with Stormlight is particularly inspiring. You see, he started writing the first draft of it fifteen years before the publication of the first edition in the series, The Way of Kings. Prior to that, he sold a standalone fantasy  (Elantris) and a trilogy (Mistborn) set in the same universe (or the Cosmere, as he calls it)—not to mention being hand-picked to finish Robert Jordan’s popular Wheel of Time series following Jordan’s untimely passing—all before he undertook revising The Way of Kings for publication.

Talk about accomplished. Talk about prolific!

And yet, as lauded and productive as Sanderson is, I see a bit of my own journey in his. And when I say “a bit,” it’s not mere diffidence. Sanderson wrote fifteen(!) novels before getting published. So far, I’ve written five. After Elantris was published his editor read a version of The Way of Kings and thought it was too ambitious—particularly for a second novel. Even Sanderson has said he wasn’t a good enough writer at that time to pull it off. Likewise, my gut tells me that when I wrote and revised my first trilogy, A Legacy of Broken Oaths, I wasn’t good enough to pull off.  And so I moved on to write other stories in the same world—one of which I hope to sell. But I still have hopes for LOBO.

Brandon Sanderson’s success with The Stormlight Archive keeps that hope alive.

Inhibiting Conventions

When my original story started to sprawl, I had no idea this was a bad thing. I had no experience, therefore no restraint. I did nothing to rein my story in, or to keep it tightly focused on one protagonist or one central story question or theme. That was both bad and good. Bad in that I spent years creating a story that was unsalable and would require many years to revise (even more than I’ve already spent). But good in that I was uninhibited. I didn’t let conventional wisdom keep me from exploring a huge world and a story with a lot of working parts.

Conventional wisdom frowns upon longer stories (though there is leeway offered to the speculative and historical genres). Convention is not particularly fond of large casts or multiple POV characters. Convention would have us stay focused on a single story question, with one inciting incident, one antagonist, and the change that occurs to one protagonist during the plot’s resolution.

And you know what? I needed some conventional wisdom. I needed to learn the reasons these precepts exist, and to understand the consequences of ignoring them. I recognize that the process of learning the rules, and how and when to break them, should never end.

Sprawl’s Benefits

Writers like Sanderson, George RR Martin, and Robin Hobb, to name a few, are not just exceptions to convention, they’re masters of  exceeding the established boundaries of the medium. Through their example, I’ve come to see some potential advantages to expansive storytelling, for both writers and for readers alike. Including (but not limited to):

World Evolution versus World-building: For most standalone stories, the world-building works to provide consensus of the setting’s status quo between writer and reader. It’s sort of like bringing the reader up to speed. The world conveyed is static, and that’s perfectly fine for a story that takes place over a relatively short duration. In expansive stories, the world-building is often dynamic and ongoing. For example, in The Stormlight Archive many of the events that were heralded as the end of the story’s world (called Roshar) have already come to pass. The cataclysms alter the structures of society, international borders, and alliances. Even their religious and scientific understanding are undergoing upheaval and epiphany. The world with which readers began to gain familiarity in book one is already a vastly different place in book three. And I’m delighted to predict that the evolution will continue.

Protagonists versus A Protagonist: I suppose this one is not so simple. A lot of people strongly believe in having one protagonist, and for good reasons. If a story is not the events or plot, but the changes that result for the protagonist due to the resolution of the plot, then how can there be more than one protagonist? I suppose a romance is the most obvious exception. The resolution of the plot generally produces the same change for two characters—they fall in love, end up together, and live HEA.  But beyond that…?

I suppose stories with three to five protagonists, like Stormlight, can technically be parsed into various sub-stories—each producing various changes for the corresponding protagonists. But for me, that’s splitting hairs. Each of these characters have their own overriding arc for each book in the series. And, of course, those arcs interweave and affect one another. I find myself rooting for all of them. And I don’t feel the least bit distracted or annoyed by hopping from the storyline of one to another to another. For me, the result of the weave feels like one big story. Perhaps expansive storytelling is expanding the very definition of story. But I’ll leave that one to the craft gurus.

Character Metamorphosis versus Character Change: Carrying on with the premise above, for every story question, for every conflict that it produces, which a character then resolves, a change or changes result. In expansive storytelling, the overarching tale can encompass many such changes in an individual. We witness their growth and/or descent over the course of those changes. Sometimes a lifetime’s worth. Robin Hobb’s FitzChivalry Farseer springs to mind. We meet Fitz when he is five or six years old, and through many exhilarating highs and tragic lows over the course of nine big books, the diligent reader is rewarded with the unfolding of the rest of his fascinating, momentous life. His metamorphosis made Hobb’s recent final book in the series one of the most rewarding and moving I’ve read.

Multidimensional Forces of Antagonism: It’s always great to have a central or personified antagonist. Darth Vader is scarier than “The Empire,” after all. But with expansive storytelling there can be so many more layers. Using Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives again, there is a sort of demi-god, Odium, who is the primary baddie—the force seeking the demise of mankind. But also there are assassins, a secret society of anarchists, wicked ancient spirits, slaves freed by Odium which he transforms into fierce super-warriors, and even purported allies bent on betrayal (several!), to name a just a few additional layers of antagonism. It’s great fun never knowing who can be trusted, and that those you’re rooting for are always surrounded by danger.

Expansive Aspiration

However you define it, whether what I’m calling expansive storytelling is one big story or a series of stories building to an overarching resolution, it’s a growing force in the marketplace.

Sanderson and other fantasists have shown me not just that conventions can be broken, but that there is much to be gained in doing so. Not to say that success can be achieved merely by breaking from convention. On the contrary. Those that break the rules must write with even greater skill and appeal, just to get published let alone broadly read.

And yet I am heartened. To me, what all of this means is that one day I can write the expansive and challenging books I have envisioned—of the type I accidently attempted before I knew any better. My ever expanding and increasingly complex world awaits, as well as a huge cast of characters I can’t wait to revisit. I believe there is an audience for them. Sprawl, done well, sells. All I have to do is continue to get better. And I’m far from done trying.

What about you? Do expansive stories appeal to you? Or do you prefer a more focused type of storytelling, perhaps with a more definitive beginning, middle, and end?

[Photo is: Tokyo, Japan, by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on Flickr [2]]

About Vaughn Roycroft [3]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.