The Step-By-Step of an Epic Fantasy
Note the First:
As always, these are guidelines, not rules. Don't fret- if your story still has the same steps in vaguely the same order, it can still qualify as Epic Fantasy!
Note the Second:
For *real* guidelines on how to write your story, please consider checking out some of my other essays (they'll tell you how to get published, too. In fact, I've written an entire book on how to get published. ). But if, on the other hand, you've had enough of all that pressure to write well, then rejoice, for you have come to the right place!
The prologue contains the history of the world. It might or might not be narrated by the protagonist (hereafter referred to as MC for 'Main Character'). It might or might not tell the MC's history.
Chapter 1 (Chapters are always titled in Epic Fantasy. These titles preferably contain foreshadowing.)
Chapter One starts in a field or forest where the MC is enjoying nature. The MC might or might not be on an errand. The MC might or might not discover something important (an object or a clue or juicy gossip). If the MC does not find anything particularly plot-furthering, this entire scene has just wasted the reader's time.
The MC returns home. On their way, the MC's town or village of birth is described, along with the surrounding country. In extreme cases, the entire world's geography will be mapped out before the readers despairing eyes.
Inside the town, one of three things will happen.
a. If the MC is well-liked, the townspeople who see them will wave and smile
b. If the MC is unfairly despised, the townspeople who see them will sneer
c. The MC returns at a time where nobody is around or when everyone is too busy to notice or greet them.
No matter which of these things happens, at one time or another the MC will encounter someone who doesn't like them and who will unfairly discriminate against them.
If the prolog dealt with the MC's history and especially with people the MC is familiar with, these people will be introduced with the same words used to describe them in the prologue. The point of this is likely to cover in the event that the reader skips the prolog.
At some point in either the prolog or the first chapter, the reader should encounter many words s/he is not familiar with. This principle is also used in science fiction (activate the antigrav hovbots, now!) where it serves the same purpose: to show the reader just how amazing and alien this new world is.
Also, sometime during the first chapter (thought it can occur in chapter 2 or 3 in practice if chapters are short), the MC will experience a longing for adventure.
Tragedy strikes. As this is early in the book, there is probably little forewarning except in the title of the chapter ('loss' is usually included), a mention of some vague danger in the area from the prologue, or the reader's own genre awareness. The MC is usually always left orphaned. The tragedy never occurs onscreen.
Whatever chapter the tragedy strikes in, it is usually quite short (or ends soon after the disaster). It ends with a question- what will happen to the MC now? This sentence is usually written out in the above format, with the MC's name in place of MC.
Generally, the protagonist is struck down for anywhere from 1-5 pages. The chapter after the tragedy begins with the MC waking up after crying themselves to sleep the page before. Bewildered, they think for a moment that life is normal, and their parent (figure) will be serving breakfast in a moment. Then they remember that said parent figure is dead. As mentioned before, what ensues can last for 1-5 pages.
Ironically, because the reader only knew the deceased for one chapter, their mourning is even shorter than that of the MC, though the reader's attention is normally far keener.
If the MC has any friends (usually introduced in the past two chapters), they will show up and see the MC through the mourning process. The main events of the story begin here. Oddly enough, stories that are not epic fantasy may still follow the plotline this far, but the main events diverge from the following and betray is as simple 'low' fantasy. This means that the reader must wait until after the tragedy has struck to discover if the story is, in fact, epic.
No epic fantasy ever takes place in a village. For this reason, the protagonist must soon hop town. This can be accomplished in one of three ways:
a. The MC is driven out of town by those cruel, unfair people introduced in Chapter One.
b. The MC runs away from home (commonly accompanied by an intelligent and friendly animal)
c. The old mentor drags the MC out of town.
Even if C is not followed, the mentor figure will join up with the MC soon. This concludes Chapter Three.
The mentor and protagonist travel.
Now is a good time to put in a word about traveling conventions of epic fantasy. In the old days, the MC would have a group of friends, called a 'party', following them around. As MCs grew younger, however, the starting of parties fell out of vogue, or at least became delayed until they could be organized by a suitable council. So it's just the mentor for now, as well as the odd intelligent animal or (even rarer), the MC's only best friend.
There are three things the protagonist must learn before the story continues much longer, and it is the duty of the mentor to teach these to them.
a. Swordfighting. The only way to teach this is for the mentor to thoroughly whup the $$ of the MC to show how outclassed they are, and then to continue swordfighting until the MC learns by trial and error to become a combat master, or until they die of injury or exhaustion. The latter rarely happens.
b. Magic. The MC usually has magic innately, which saves everyone some time, but the basics of magic must still be thoroughly explained by the old mentor. Unlike in swordfighting, the MC is born the greatest magician ever and therefore needs little practice to outclass the mentor.
c. Reading. The MC, coming from a village, will be illiterate. Not for long- it usually takes them less time to learn to read than it takes the reader to finish the book.
These things, lengthy and complicated as they are, may take more than one chapter.
As soon as they've learned enough to be considered genteel and civilized, the mentor leads the protagonist to his first city. This city is one of four things:
a. Evil and corrupt, showing how evil and corrupt the ruler of the land is.
b. Sad and downtrodden, showing how sad and downtrodden the land is under its evil overlord.
c. Dead and destroyed, showing how evil and destructive the evil overlord invader is.
d. Nonaligned and multicultural, showing how wonderful and descriptive the author is, and what a worldbuilder!
The MC is wowed by the glory/sickened by the carnage, and the townspeople, if any are still living, are wowed back.
The mentor does an errand or receives a message in this city, and drags the MC along with him, following a new lead on a mystery the reader hasn't quite heard yet.
Once the mentor has taught the MC the Three Vital Skills and set them on the right path, there is no reason for him (it is usually a he in epic fantasy) to continue living. Chapter Six, or whenever the mentor dies, reads like an abbrieviateed version of Chapter Two, only the death is onscreen and the mourning period is much shorter. The MC does do something in the mentor's memory, and the reader is more likely to remember and even feel for the mentor, having actually seen him for longer than one chapter.
The MC receives a new guide soon after. With this 'changing of the guides', Part One of the book is complete.
Epic Fantasy can only be written in trilogies. However, it would be tedious to write out each book on its own, so instead follow this formula:
Book Two begins at Chapter Three (the tragedy having occurred at the end of Book One). The MC receives a new mentor from which they learn Advanced Skills (the nature of these skills depends on the particular epic, but can usually be classified as Advanced Magic, Advanced Fighting, or (rarely) Advanced Scholarship). These skills often contradict what is learned of their properties in Book One, but nevermind.
Advanced Skills take longer to learn than Vital Skills, sometimes up to one third of the book. Additional plotlines are introduced in Book Two, pretty much operating the same way Part One did for the protagonist, only with different characters.
Book Two ends on Part Two, at the lowest point the characters will be at for the entire trilogy. Despite having only one-third the plotline of Book One, it will be twice as long.
Book Three is a long, overglorified Part Three, but with an epilogue in which the MC takes the place of the Evil Overlord they have just defeated, and takes a mate.
Note: the steps get vaguer over time, I know. Part of this is the tendency for even the truest epic author to go their own way and wander off track, and another part is the documenter (myself) losing interest and developing a wrist cramp.