8. Epic fantasy and the mini-saga

How many words does it take to tell a story? How many to tell a good story? If it’s a good story, do we actually mind how many words it is?

As popular as epic fantasy has been over the decades, mini-sagas (or “flash fiction”) have become equally popular of late. In our sound-byte, time-poor world, it seems that many readers don’t get the chance for more than fifty words at a time. During “crush hour”, an unfortunate commuter’s nose is more likely to be stuck in someone’s armpit than the book or e-reader that’s in their bag but just beyond reach. They end up reading poster adverts, which are increasingly written as fifty-word customer experiences.

Even authors of epic fantasy like me (A J Dalton, pleased to meet you) need to be able to convince overwhelmed agents, publishers and editors that they want to read more. The fifty-word sales pitch is often called the “lift test” or “elevator pitch”. Imagine you get into a lift/elevator and there’s a top publisher or Hollywood producer in there. Chance or fate has given you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put your idea to someone who really matters. But you only have as long as it takes their lift/elevator to reach their floor.

Can big ideas really be done any sort of justice in such a short narrative? Well, here’s a mini-saga called ‘It all comes out in the wash’, which I wrote the other day:

The young washing machine would shake with excitement when the family visited it and asked that it clean their clothes. But after a few years, the family didn’t seem to like the machine anymore. Some men came to take it away and the washing machine never saw the family again. The end.

Ahh. Well, there’s a pretty big theme in there – our throw-away society and how it’s affecting personal relationships, etc. It’s then a fairly short step to describing the plot of your entire novel in fifty words. Here’s the elevator pitch for my first successful novel, Necromancer’s Gambit:

It’s about a soldier raised from the dead by a desperate magician who needs his help. The soldier doesn’t remember who was when he was alive, so it’s a reverse murder-mystery as he finds out who he was, who killed him and what he can do about the fact he’s dead. With a load of gods and demons thrown in for good measure.

Alright, so it was sixty-three words, but you get the idea. Marketing companies now employ people to write flash fiction for websites and the backs of products. There are regular national competitions for flash fiction. So before you go writing that epic fantasy, start with a decent mini-saga and see who likes it. By the way, if you do have time to read an epic fantasy, there’s always my new one, Empire of the Saviours, on release from 17 May 2012. What do you mean you want the fifty-word version?


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