Epics – why do we love them so much?

For as long as we humans have sat together telling stories, by the fire or the summer sunset, we’ve had a huge appetite for epic stories. Every culture has them, stories like The Arabian Nights, Wales’ Mabinoginon, Israel’s Exodus story, Spain’s Cantar del Mio Cid, Ireland’s Sweeney, Bran and Couhoulain for example, sometimes dating back to the Bronze Age. They can be national crossovers like Beowulf, written in Old English but telling a story of Danes and Swedes. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table borrow heavily from the French Chanson de Roland. A cracking story is a cracking story, wherever it is set.

Hollywood knows a great genre when it sees one and has spun millions out of excellent versions of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A Game of Thrones reached huge audiences through HBO. Epic authors are the superstars of fiction writing, so what can we learn from them?

Why were epics first written?

The oldest epics were around long before most people could read or write and would be recited to an audience by a professional saga teller. In Ireland’s post-Roman period, for example, the ollam, or arch-poet, would train for at least twelve years and at any given time would hold 250 ‘prime sagas’ in his head and around 100 secondary ones. These sagas were in rhyme (easier to learn) and would improve in the telling over the years, as yarns and stories do.

What were they for?

Usually ancient epics had something at their centre about a community in crisis. Courageous heroes saved them all from Monsters and were welcomed back among grateful loved ones with feasts and treasure. The heroes themselves might have been sitting in the audience. It’s more likely that the sagas were looking to heroes of the past to excite listeners for new battles ahead.

What are an epic’s ingredients?

Epics are usually long but it’s about much more than the word count.

  • The story should be grand in scope and theme. A girl leaving home is a Coming of Age story – Joan of Arc’s leaving home is epic. Teenager Joan leads the French army into war, thanks to divine guidance, and withstands torture by the enemy English before they burn her at the stake. Joan’s personal story and martyrdom symbolise the clash between the two nations.IMG_2036
  • An epic can have several grand themes, spanning the whole range from the nature of true love or the experience of exile through discovering personal integrity to sheer survival, and they are all bigger than any single character.
  • There’s usually a quest of some kind in there and a great journey.
  • A large backstory influences the present.
  • Political elements are strong, such as the emergence of a new nation or resisting conquest.
  • The events have greater importance than any of the characters.
  • Which is not to say that the characters should be bland – the reverse is true. It’s in a wide range of realistic characters, each with their own complete journey, that we can all find ourselves and a true epic finds resonance through many generations.
  • Epics are capable of gripping whole communities and their success often lies in timing, in their coinciding with a community’s need.


What are your favourite epics? Here are a few titles to get you started: War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Earthsea, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost and of course Harry Potter.

Taking your favourites in turn, give yourself ten minutes or more to have a scribble-chat:

  • What do you love most about these stories? Generally, and in particular.
  • Who are your favourite characters? Why?
  • Make a list of your favourite moments, taking as long as you like. Are your chosen moments similar in any way? If so, why do you think that is? (There is no wrong answer.) Choose one or two favourite moments and write yourself into them for as long as you like – be one of the characters or the author, it’s up to you.
  • How important is the geographical place to you? Think of a scene you love and describe the place where it happens in all the detail you can remember. Some of that detail might be yours alone, it doesn’t matter. Just be there and feel the place around you.
  • Do your favourites leave you with a debate going on in your head, asking where do you stand on this or that? Take some time to chase those themes around on the page. Enjoy discussing them with yourself. There is no need to come to any conclusions, just let the arguments breathe into your writing and you may find characters coming to you, wanting you to tell a new story.

Let’s look at some epics more closely, starting with one of the oldest in Western literature. In many ways it’s the most surprising and can teach us a lot.

Homer’s Iliad

I grew up with my darling dad telling me Homer’s great stories at bedtime. By the time I was eight years old, I adored Odysseus’s weird sense of humour and was in love with the Trojan hero Hector.

What makes The Iliad epic? A Trojan prince called Paris fell in love with Helen, a Spartan princess of great beauty who happened to be married to one of the most powerful Greek kings, Menelaus, and took her home with him to the city of Troy (in present day Turkey). Menelaus wasn’t best pleased and called on a treaty with all the other Greek kings that if one of them had to go to war, they’d all join in support. The Iliad is the story of the gathering of the Greek armies, their ten-year war with the Trojans and how eventually a long siege of Troy came to an end, all told through the prism of the climactic final weeks of the siege.

Homer is thought to have written the poem around the 8th century BC, about events that are reckoned to have been the 12th century BC.

If you think that’s far too long ago to be intense or exciting, please think again. This story is packed with vibrant, contrasting characters, amazing jinks in the plot, heroism and failure on both sides, and timeless understanding of poor human bipeds like us struggling through our lives.

Did I say timeless? Let me give you an example of how Homer strode right into my life as if he were writing his stories that very day.


When the various paramilitaries promised ceasefires in the Northern Irish Troubles in 1994, poet Michael Longley (a Classics graduate from Trinity College, Dublin, like my father) wrote Ceasefire. It was published in The Irish Times and rocked Ireland north and south back on its heels. Longley chose to write about the closing moments of The Iliad when the Trojan King Priam, Hector’s father, visits the Greeks’ greatest warrior Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s mutilated body for loving funeral rites. Achilles has defeated Hector in a duel of the best and, in high rage about the death of his own close friend, has been desecrating Hector’s corpse by dragging it around the city walls. With both Priam and Achilles exhausted by years of war, it’s a scene of reconciliation, not just of handshakes in suits but of eating together and feeling each other’s suffering. In the final lines, Priam says these almost impossible words:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Not many of us would dare to rewrite Homer but, like Longley, you too can take these timeless characters in their ancient scenes and reimagine them for your own life and time.

More about what we can learn from these great epics next time. On a scale from one to ten, how obsessed with Harry Potter am I? About nine and three quarters.

Have a wonderful writing week!

Show and tell? What’s the difference?

In many writing courses, you will be told firmly to ‘show, not tell’. But we’re telling stories, aren’t we? What’s wrong with ‘Once upon a time in a land far away lived a king who had three daughters’?

Thanks to cinema and television, our readers are more used than ever before to being shown a story as it unfolds. Yet even among the relentless action of soaps and ‘reality’ shows, you will find scenes where characters swap stories from the past. They tell each other things.

Both showing and telling have their uses. So, what is the difference between the two?

 Great Expectations

Let’s look at the first page of Dickens’ masterpiece:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Dickens starts by introducing us to his main character who tells us in the first person how he’s known by his childhood name. It’s endearing; Dickens knew it would be.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.

So poor old Pip’s father has died. In Pip’s voice, Dickens develops the lad’s tragic history:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

What beautiful detail. Just where it’s needed. Dickens even brings in an odd little smile about his five little brothers’ headstones. It feels as if it just fell from the pen – but nothing is wasted, it is all precise.

Then, after just two vivid paragraphs of background, Pip draws us into the first, terrifying slice of action. Look how carefully Dickens places us in the churchyard, beside ‘the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry’:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Take a moment to look at how much detail Dickens has given us so far, and how much he has not given. There is exactly as much as we need to see and feel the place and the small boy in it. Now to raise the stakes sky high:

Hold your noise,’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’

2016-07-15 15.12.33Dickens is accused of verbosity but he’s anything but wordy here. There is no mawkish simile about ghosts ‘as a man started up from among the graves’ – the man is all too real. Dickens hurtles on with no time for verbs:

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

`O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror. `Pray don’t do it, sir.’

The perfect mix of show and tell. If the author or a character is explaining something, we are in ‘tell’ country. If we are in the midst of action and dialogue, we are being shown.

 Wind in the Willows

In chapter 8 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad is in gaol, chatting with the gaoler’s daughter who has a plan for his escape.

First, as you read this, notice how wonderfully lively this scene is. How does Grahame do that, when the action could have been dismissed in a couple of sentences?

Second, take a moment to mark where you find ‘show’ in it, and where it becomes ‘tell’:

One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments.

“Toad,” she said presently, “just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.”

“There, there,” said Toad, graciously and affably, “never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.”

“Do be quiet a minute, Toad,” said the girl. “You talk too much, that’s your chief fault, and I’m trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you’re very rich—at least you’re always telling me so—and she’s very poor. A few pounds wouldn’t make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached—squared, I believe is the word you animals use—you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You’re very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.”

“We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff. “I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.”

“So has my aunt,” replied the girl, “for what she is. But have it your own way. You horrid, proud, ungrateful animal, when I’m sorry for you, and trying to help you!”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right; thank you very much indeed,” said the Toad hurriedly. “But look here! You wouldn’t surely have Mr Toad, of Toad Hall, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!”

“Then you can stop here as a Toad,” replied the girl with much spirit. “I suppose you want to go off in a coach-and-four!”

Honest Toad was always ready to admit himself in the wrong. “You are a good, kind, clever girl,” he said, “and I am indeed a proud and a stupid toad. Introduce me to your worthy aunt, if you will be so kind, and I have no doubt that the excellent lady and I will be able to arrange terms satisfactory to both parties.”

Next evening the girl ushered her aunt into Toad’s cell, bearing his week’s washing pinned up in a towel. The old lady had been prepared beforehand for the interview, and the sight of certain gold sovereigns that Toad had thoughtfully placed on the table in full view practically completed the matter and left little further to discuss. In return for his cash, Toad received a cotton print gown, an apron, a shawl, and a rusty black bonnet; the only stipulation the old lady made being that she should be gagged and bound and dumped down in a corner. By this not very convincing artifice, she explained, aided by picturesque fiction which she could supply herself, she hoped to retain her situation, in spite of the suspicious appearance of things.

Toad was delighted with the suggestion. It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and with his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished; and he readily helped the gaoler’s daughter to make her aunt appear as much as possible the victim of circumstances over which she had no control.

“Now it’s your turn, Toad,” said the girl. “Take off that coat and waistcoat of yours; you’re fat enough as it is.”

Shaking with laughter, she proceeded to “hook-and-eye” him into the cotton print gown, arranged the shawl with a professional fold, and tied the strings of the rusty bonnet under his chin.

I’m shaking with laughter too!

It’s all about telling stories in the most engaging way possible. What engages our readers most is vivid characters, their thoughts, feelings, actions, their hopes and dreams.

So when is telling good and when is it better to show? Both have their uses…

How to ‘show’?

  • Dialogue. The surrounding text can be present or past tense – we will look at that in another post soon – and as each character speaks, we learn about that character as well as what is or is not going on. Please do not forget to bring in how they move as well; sometimes this can contradict their words.
  • Action. The plainer your action language, especially your verbs, the stronger your action will be. Strip away as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, they just hold things up, and try not to forget ambience as well as action.
  • Thoughts and unspoken feelings. Cinema, television and theatre use monologue as a diversion from the action to show us a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Where Hamlet comes to the front of the stage to say ‘To be or not to be’, for example, the audience is entrusted with emotions he cannot share with anyone else. But visual media tend to use dramatic monologues sparingly and actors wrestle with ways to show their audience what they think and feel. For us fiction writers, those unexpressed inner workings, maybe unexpressed even to the characters themselves, are our special territory and whole books can be written in it. This is why fiction gives such unique depth of empathy with characters, and has been credited with changing societies.

 When is it better to TELL?

First of all, beware of the info-dump.

In your character work you will have discovered where your character was born, went to school, first fell in love, was first rejected or sacked, and how he or she feels about it all. Before Dickens wrote his first page of Great Expectations, he will have known all that too. Did he set down to tell us at length, or did he bring us as quickly as possible into one of the most terrifying scenes ever written? Agents can tell beginners by the slabs of casual biography dropped into their sample pages, known as info-dumps.

Train yourself to spot an info-dump – a boring slab of ‘tell’ – and learn to spin it, as Dickens did, in engaging ways. There. That’s all there is to it.

How can ‘tell’ serve our story?

Use it above all to vary your pace, tone and the rhythm of your story.

  • It can bring some distance after a heated scene or crisis.
  • A quiet moment, in a garden for example, between crises can raise poignancy, especially if your character is not likely to survive (for example, Jesus’s time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion).
  • You can slow down the action to stretch a scene and deliberately raise stakes.
  • You can use it for you as author or for a character to comment ironically on what has just been, or to raise a question that will not be answered yet.
  • It can be a handy way to carry your story in a few lines across time, geography or culture.

The best description uses those few precise details that bring us there, not forgetting our five-plus senses.

Proportions of show and tell?

Many writers begin by thinking that the main job is telling, with intervals of showing. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Yes, you will have plenty of classic books on your shelves and e-reader that do it that way but our readers today have often been educated by cinema and television screens and this means two things. Not only do they expect to be in the middle of a story as it unfolds  – a trick incidentally as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – but they do not need as much detail as previous generations did. They like to guess. Credit your reader with being a few steps ahead of you and you will rarely be wrong.

So it’s show and tell, with a strong emphasis on show, being aware of both and the jobs they can do to engage your readers to the maximum.


Two people are arguing in a car park. They get into the same car which moves off.

  1. You are one of the two people. Tell us what is going on in the present tense as it’s happening, in the first person with dialogue and action.
  2. You are a reporter watching from a distance, not involved. Write your report in the third person, after the event so past tense, for your local newspaper.
  3. Write the same scene in dialogue only.
  4. Using your text from 3, add one sentence of action between each line of dialogue, eg: ‘A yawns, looks at his mobile’, ‘B pulls her skirt down over her knees’. Action only please, no description or thoughts. See how much you can convey in those lines of action about where and who they are, eg: ‘A kicks the tarmac’.

What do you notice? What difference does it make to your writing to be among the dialogue and action? How do you bring feelings into play? How does your balance of show and tell affect the stakes?

There are no right or wrong answers here; it’s a matter of being aware of what you’re after and how you bring it about. The distant observer can throw up questions that raise the stakes just as effectively as telling the story from the point of view of a terrified child in the back seat of the car.


Finally, in just two or three paragraphs each, without ever stating the obvious, describe all or any of the following. It’s up to you how you show or tell:

Harry was thrilled to be going on a date for the first time in ages.

If she had to put up with one more takeaway, she’d scream.

Sam stood outside the boss’s office shaking with fear.

Ellie hadn’t expected him to look so ill.

Any minute now she was going to grab his phone and throw it out the window.

The bedroom was a shambles.

The last thing she wanted was show how frightened she was.

It was a dark & stormy night…


A note to myregular readers of this blog,

I did promise to write today about the great epic novels of the past and present from The Iliad to Harry Potter but I’ve had an exceptionally busy week with no time for the extensive reading that post needs. Next week, I hope! Today in the mean time, as they used to say on Blue Peter, is one I made earlier. Not long ago I met a radio and television celebrity who is working with an editor on a novel. What was the advice coming his way, time and time again? Show, not tell. 

Happy writing – more next week!

The weather outside is frightful…

This week in Europe, the weather has been busier than usual, hitting us with heavy snow and longer periods of sub-zero temperatures than we’re used to. It’s been a time of crises, travel disasters and unexpected fun. How does weather affect our fictional characters and how can we use weather in our storytelling?


Treat yourself to five to ten minutes of free, private writing about anything you like: yourself and your week, your characters, your book and what you hope for it, why you write and what you love about it

When you’re (ahem) warmed up, turn your thoughts to weather. We all live in some sort of weather all the time so let’s think about rain, lightning, storm, strong winds, mist, fog, scorching sun.

Choose one. Hold it in your mind.


  • You are walking, moving in this weather. Doing something. Take a minute or two to imagine it through your body. Feel the light in your eyes, the heat or lack of it on your face, air moving around you, how your clothes feel on your body.
  • Imagine you and this weather are in a place you know well. Look around you in this imagined place. Notice how the weather is affecting the place, how people and animals behave in it. Keep scribbling/typing as you go.
  • List at least 5 words or phrases that describe your chosen weather for you in that place. Enjoy being there and let the exercise take you wherever you like. 
  • List another five. Expand. Be specific. Be accurate.
  • Read over what you’ve written – is there anything there that you have ever seen somewhere else (such as ‘raining cats and dogs’ or ‘blowing a gale’)? Score it out. Delete.
  • List another five.
  • Underline the best 5 of all.
  • Which 3 are the best of those five, the most arresting & specific? Those are the ones you use.

You don’t need to go through this each time you describe something – it’s just training – but it is what you’re after. Try the exercise again in idle moments until this sifting to find the best word comes to you automatically.


Find a chapter or section of your draft, something you’ve written a while back, where characters are busy getting on with the story but there is no mention of any weather. It’s easily done in a first draft, you’re keen to get on with the action and, sitting at your desk, it can be easier to think in terms of indoors than out.

Take a moment to imagine your way back into that chapter, thinking especially about the time and place of it. What would the weather usually be for those characters on that day in that place? Well, it’s time to think up something unusual for them, a bit more challenging – winter sun, sudden gusts of wind, heavy rain – and rewrite your section. I don’t mean just inserting a few words here and there – take the time to reimagine and rewrite your scene with the weather interfering and rearranging things. Weather can bring people together in unexpected ways, make them drop things or run, be late, it can break tension or split up a promising encounter.

Your new weathered version could be the one that qualifies for your final draft, maybe not, that’s up to you. The exercise may well deepen the reader’s experience and help you jump a plot problem or two.


What is your favourite book? If you have it handy, open it anywhere and see how the author uses weather. It’s impossible to imagine Wuthering Heights without mighty gales on the moor and ice around that ghostly window, Pride and Prejudice without muddy walks, Moby Dick without deathly storms, Wind in the Willows with no sunlit picnics or Bleak House without Dickens’ extraordinary description of fog in Victorian London and its court system.


Finally, any time you are outside, take a few moments to notice the weather. Be extra aware of what you see around you: how does it makes you feel and behave, how does the air feel on your face and as you breathe, how do your clothes and footwear feel in this weather, do you feel like dancing and jumping or curling up in bed? Study how it makes other people behave too. And wildlife – one of the extraordinary things about a fresh fall of snow is that even birds fall silent.

Close observation and selecting your best words (editing out the lazy options) are as important to your writing as cracking on with your draft. Have a happy time with both.

After slaying all those monsters last week, I found myself deep (very deep) in research about epics from Homer to Tolstoy and Rowling. What makes something epic? Where did they originate? How have epics evolved to the present day? Epic writers are the superheroes of storytelling – join me back with them here next week!


How to make heroes and heroines from stuff there on your desk

The oldest plot of all could be the one where a monster torments everybody until someone steps from the crowd, faces up to the monster in an unfair fight and slays it.


Anonymous painting of St George with his dragon from the British Library, end 14th century.

The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia is thought to be the oldest written story we have, possibly around 4,000 years old: our first great work of literature. For today we’ll leave academics to wrestle with exactly how old various versions of it are – let’s head straight for the meat of the story.

Gilgamesh is king of Uruk (about 30 km east of Samawah in modern Iraq) and, lucky guy, he’s two-thirds god and one-third man. He is too proud to listen to the gods though and enjoys his power a bit too much, especially ‘droit de seigneur’ or a lord’s right to sleep with every new bride on her wedding night before her husband gets a look in. Gilgamesh’s people call to the gods for help.

In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens showed droit de seigneur inflaming French peasants to Revolution in 1789. (There’s an interesting post about jus primae noctis or ‘right of first night’ here.) The Sumerian gods’ solution is not a guillotine in the centre of town; they send a primitive ‘wild man’ called Enkidu to live alongside Gilgamesh as his equal and bring him into line. As soon as Enkidu finds out that Gilgamesh is about to interfere in another wedding night, he sets off to teach Gilgamesh some manners and the two of them wind up in a fight. Neither wins. Instead they become friends.


What an extraordinary fight scene: the toff, bent on what he thinks is his right, against the wild man brought up among animals, who knows better. What style of fighting do they each have? How does the dialogue pan out? Have a go at writing it – fight scenes are about character and dialogue much more than violence. The characters, time, context and outcome are up to you.

Gilgamesh cannot go on as he did. He needs to make a heroic name for himself somehow and hits on the idea of slaying a rude and horrible monster in the Cedar Forest called Humbaba. Enkidu hates the idea of more violence but has to follow. With the help of the gods – all very exciting – they win and bring the monster’s head home in triumph.

In Tablet Six the friends wind up tangling with Gugalanna next, the Bull of Heaven, through no fault of their own. They win and save the city, without divine help this time, and everyone is celebrating. But Enkidu foretells his own death, seen as some sort of payment to the gods for all this slaughter, and Gilgamesh is bereft.

Tablet Nine sees Gilgamesh living in the wild, dressed in animal skins as Enkidu was before they met, sharply aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend. The only cure for his grief, he thinks, is to know the secret of eternal life so he sets off on an epic quest, involving gods and many miles of dangerous terrain, until eventually Gilgamesh has his great insight. He learns that to fight human death is pointless – our happiness lies in relishing each fleeting moment of life. Our greatest joys – sharing food with loved ones, walking hand in hand with a cherished child, enjoying sensual love with a beloved – all derive from our mortality.

The poem is too long and eventful to cover all of it here. Have fun with your research if it appeals to you. Enough to say that Gilgamesh, a demi-god but all too human, slays monsters alongside his dear friend and learns humility on his way to winning the most precious wisdom of all, the richness of life.

Incidentally, a literary Indiana Jones hovers on the edge of our story by the humble name of George Smith. He’s an Englishman who rediscovered The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872. As far as I know, no-one has written his story yet.


How many fairy stories can you think of where a monster is killed to resolve the story? Little Red Riding Hood? Jack and the Beanstalk? Hansel and Gretel? Any others? Choose one and write it in the high, heroic style of an ancient epic poem, just for fun. Or write it set in today’s world if you’d rather. See where it takes you.

Let’s move now to Europe around a thousand years later and the story of Beowulf. Though written in Old English, our hero Beowulf (who happens to be Swedish) is helping out Hrothgar, king of the Danes, by slaying a monster called Grendel and its vengeful mother. This wonderful epic poem dates from anywhere between 700 and 1000 AD (again we’ll leave tussles about the precise date to the academics) but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the poem was recognised as a major work of European literature. Until then, it had been the preserve of academic historians (though there is no evidence of a historical Beowulf) looking to study Scandinavian kings and place geographical boundaries. Then in the 1920s an Oxford don, none other than JRR Tolkien, had a look and the story took hold of him. He realised that here was a beautifully constructed story written with balance and passion. It was not an historical document like the Domesday Book or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was a poem.


Why does this matter to us? Because historians had dismissed the monsters in the story as irrelevant; nobody knew better than Tolkien (a survivor of the Battle of the Somme, busy writing The Lord of the Rings) that the monsters were central to a magnificent Slaying the Monsters tale.

He made his point unforgettably in his 1936 Oxford lecture The Monsters and the Critics and Beowulf has been vital to Western literature ever since.

What was Beowulf’s story?

  • The poem starts by establishing Beowulf among his own people, the Geats in southern Sweden.
  • We join the Danes where King Hrothgar is having a marvellous new mead-hall built. But a monster has been ravaging the area for years, stealing and eating the young people each night.
  • Beowulf sets off to help with 14 of his warriors.
  • A moment of realism: as soon as he arrives, he has to explain himself to the locals or they’ll kill him.
  • He’s allowed to go to the mead-hall and explain himself again.
  • Up go the stakes as locals swap horror stories about the appalling monster, Grendel. Everything they have tried has failed.
  • Everyone agrees that single combat between Grendel and this fresh-faced Dane called Beowulf would be a good thing. Beowulf and his warriors stay in the mead-hall overnight …
  • I love this moment: Beowulf takes off his armour because the monster would have no skill against it and he must fight a fair fight!
  • Grendel slips in and eats his first warrior, even the hands and feet.
  • It’s time for the Big Fight we’ve been waiting for.
  • Beowulf and his warriors win and nail the monster’s severed arm and claw to the wall as a trophy.
  • It’s time to relax and have a party.
  • Who’s that knocking at the door? In fact, who’s knocking her way straight in? Grendel’s mother has come for revenge.
  • Beowulf has to follow her to her lair at the bottom of a swamp to fight her. No concessions this time, he keeps his armour but her toxic blood melts his sword.
  • After a colossal fight, Beowulf and his lads win and head back to the mead-hall in triumph, laden with the monster mother’s treasure.
  • After big celebrations, Beowulf and his Geats go home where Beowulf becomes king of his own tribe for fifty years.
  • Here is the story’s second part that Tolkien believed balanced the first part so beautifully: a dragon sweeps the land, Beowulf fights it in single combat but this time he’s an old man and is mortally wounded in the tussle. I can’t help wondering if this later dragon could be an image for plague or another illness, fought with heroic courage by a king so loved that to say he died in bed would be unfitting.

What Tolkien saw was that Beowulf’s story fits our basic plot arc beautifully:

Situation of appalling danger – call to heroism – inciting incident – series of mounting difficulties – crises/ battles rising to the final battle – resolution – the new future.

What else does this plot remind us of?

Theseus and Perseus? David and Goliath? Tristan and the Moorholt? Can you think of any others? It’s no coincidence that The Slaying the Monster plot has thrived in human imagination since our most ancient cultures; the more dangerous life is, the more communities cling to these stories. We are always free to play with classic structures in any way we like but it’s useful to see how this most ancients of plots has served storytellers for at least four thousand years.

Since the 19th century, it has enjoyed developing all kinds of subtleties in what feels like an almost complete takeover of the fiction world. Dracula by Bram Stoker brings us one of the most hideous monsters but one who can be beguiling and almost sympathetic. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley pulls off the extraordinary trick of rendering her monster both hideously cruel and a victim of circumstances beyond his control. In RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we have the beginnings of examination of the monster within us.

Like Beowulf, Sherlock Holmes and Watson travel to track down monsters/murderers and remove dangers to society. Parallels between Jack the Ripper and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde did not escape readers.

Many war stories (where the bad guys never bother us again), James Bond, Westerns, superheroes and sci-fi – yes, Star Wars too – all share this Slaying the Monster template including, most common of all, thrillers. Which just goes to show how flexible and useful it is, how much potential there is for you to play with.

Is it only men who slay monsters? Of course not. From warriors like the Iceni Queen Boudicca who fought the Romans and Jeanne d’Arc to Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Erin Brockovich and the #metoo movement, women have courageously spoken truth to power on all kinds of battlefields. In fiction they range through Katniss Everdene (The Hunger Games) through Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, Lucy in Narnia, Mathilda and the Trunchbull and of course Wonderwoman.

A Gender in Fiction study published its results recently, showing that women were more fairly represented in novels in the 19th century than they are now. There are so many heroine stories waiting to be written and plenty of people of all kinds waiting to read them.

Whatever you write – happy writing.

What does Maisie know about Rite of Passage stories?

Let’s start with a bit of light anthropology.

Rites of passage are community rituals that mark an individual’s progress from one stage of life to another. They can involve an ordeal of some kind designed to test the individual to the limit and communities have always had them. Once through the test, the newcomer is welcomed into the community where everyone shares a renewed sense of courage and togetherness. You can see this in initiation ceremonies into school groups and gangs, and in military services worldwide. It can make sense to test the limits of someone’s courage when your own life or that of the community could depend on it.

But a rite of passage is not always about risking life. Confirmation, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations all give family and community a chance to get together with food and dancing to bless the new development. There are plenty of less formal rites too, like a new uniform on moving up to Big School, or a stag party.

IMG_0949Each of these rites makes a statement of solidarity. It’s about joining and acceptance. Rite of Passage fiction, on the other hand, can be about resistance to blending in. It is where individuals courageously discover their own singular worth and destiny, possibly at odds with society around them.

Do I mean Coming of Age stories?

Who occurs to you whenever you think of a rite of passage story? Do you think of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or the boy in the film Shane? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Ralph in Lord of the Flies? Some young man moving from youth to manhood? Actually, anybody can feature in a Rite of Passage story, whatever their age and gender. Maisie, for example.

What Maisie Knew

Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897. Maisie is ten years old when her parents divorce and they are granted alternate custody of her for six months each. James says in his own preface: ‘The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.’ He’s rather betrayed himself in talking about the child as ‘it’ but never mind. Her parents are ghastly, unreliable and useless. Regardless of what Maisie wants or needs, they both remarry pretty quickly, as much to spite each other as anything else. Maisie’s parents continue to suit their selfish selves, leaving their gorgeous new spouses to fall in love with each other.

Where does Maisie fit in all this?

In the (otherwise excellent) 2012 film Maisie chooses to live with the beautiful, loving young couple who used to be married to her parents. In James’ novel, crucially Maisie considers this option and rejects it. Her experience is that adult relationships don’t work and she’s not going to trust this new one either. Instead she decides to spend her future with the only constant person in her life: her nanny – not the most beautiful person in the world but utterly good-hearted and steady – called Mrs Wix. It is a brave choice for the little girl to make and James describes it tenderly as Maisie’s ‘great moment’.

Here is the essence of a Rite of Passage novel: having been pushed to the limit, the character has a ‘great moment’ of realisation of what she or he most fundamentally needs – and finds the courage to act on it. Hurray for Maisie! 

IMG_E0087What are the ingredients of Rite of Passage stories?

Many of the well-known Rite of Passage stories tend to follow the classic story arc, the one that goes: Problem – obstacles – increasing stakes and crisis – battle – insight / epiphany – resolution from the main character’s own inner resources – aftermath leading to the new future.

My usual caveat, by the way: I have no interest in tying you to any formula. Forget what you’ve just read, whatever you need from it will come to you as you write. The shape of your story is up to you.

What makes it a Rite of Passage tale?

The theme. Your main character is on a journey of potentially revolutionary self-discovery at the deepest level:

  • Who is your character really?  What kind of person will they choose to be?
  • Is this the kind of life they need or will they be better off somewhere else?
  • Do they have the courage to make the move?
  • Will the character’s views of that original community of theirs ever be heard?

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) is a classic tale of conformity versus vocation, Rite of Passage and escape. (With elements in common with Jo’s story in Alcott’s Little Women.) The novel was rejected many times until the publisher William Blackwood declared it to be the first great Australian novel with (feminism aside) magnificent descriptions of the outback. William Golding also suffered many rejections of Lord of the Flies. These novels were saying the unsayable and had a tough time gaining acceptance.

Another difference from other stories is the frequency of unhappy endings. In Lord of the Flies, a naval officer arrives and removes the surviving boys to safety and we have no sense that anyone has learned anything except (in Golding’s words) ‘the darkness of man’s heart’. Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) discovers loving happiness in being with his little sister but the novel hints at a difficult future for him and does not resolve his sense of being an outsider. Salinger’s brilliance lies not just in the honest, first person style but the sly exploration of whether it’s Holden or the conformist society around him that is deranged.

Let’s take a moment to distinguish survival stories:

In a survival story, darkness descends on the main character and has to be suffered until the character is rescued or finds a way to escape. There is no sense that the character deserved or needed this experience.

In a Rite of Passage story, the dark experiences are the making of the main character and provoke the necessary decision about the future that they would not otherwise have had the strength or opportunity to make.

Anybody who endures a horrifying experience learns in the course of it. But in Twelve Years A Slave, for example, no-one would allege that Solomon or any of the other slaves needed to endure what they did to become more fully themselves.

Lord of the Flies is often held up as classic Rite of Passage but I feel that it’s actually a survival story. Ralph learns more on the island than anyone his age should know but he does not need the appalling sequence of events to become more fully himself. He remains the fundamentally decent man he was when he first put the conch to his lips.

You may well feel differently. I’m not laying down rules, just throwing up thoughts for you to consider while you work out where you draft might benefit from a little help here or there.


  • What are your favourite Rite of Passage stories?
  • Why?
  • What sets them apart from other similar stories for you? Is it the character(s), the story arc and how it resolves?
  • Is the location important? Why?
  • Is there anything about this story type that rankles with you? Can you give an example or two of what put you off? And work out why?
  • Think of a couple of fictional characters, maybe from the novel you’re writing, and sketch out Rite of Passage stories based on their lives. Think about what the crisis scenes would be and where they would fit together.

Happy writing! Next week, we’ll be Overcoming the Monster.


Thank you, Loose Muse in Winchester

Monday evening’s event in Winchester’s Discovery Centre (aka public library) was excellent fun – thank you to everyone who turned out on a chilly evening and especially to Sue Wrinch who organises Loose Muse so deftly. It was an honour for me to hear the wonderful open mic readers and to read alongside Jacqueline Saphra whose poetry I admire so much.

Sue Wrinch writes up the evening here.

IMG_1840Because of the weather, I stayed the night in Winchester and spent Monday afternoon, as far as I could, in the company of Jane Austen who came to Winchester for urgent medical attention in her last days and died in College Street. She was 41 years old.

Thanks to her brother Henry’s connections, she was buried in the cathedral. She lies among bishops, soldiers and other powerful members of the community, one of precious few women. Like the other women, her floor plaque describes her by reference to her family men.

IMG_E1835Henry Austen has been criticised for not mentioning her writing in that first memorial of hers but, standing there, I realised that he was probably guilty only of conformity in emphasising her sweet character instead. Who knows what pressure he was under from powers that be in the cathedral who felt they had conceded enough in allowing a woman to be buried there at all? Anyway, it wasn’t long before a second memorial was added – if you look up from the floor to the outer wall, you’ll find a pretty brass plaque – and for a third to follow in the form of a stained-glass window describing St Augustine as … St Austin.

I’ve been a fan of Jane Austen since my teens when it was common for men as well as women to list her among their top five writers. She teaches us writers several things:

Not to throw away our early writings. Most of what we read by Austen was written in her twenties and, crucially, rewritten in her mid to late 30s.

We won’t always be in the right place and circumstances to write. While Jane and the family lived in Bath, apparently she wrote nothing. The move to Chawton (sixteen miles outside Winchester) loosened the burst of writing and rewriting that was so sadly cut short by her final illness.

Do keep going and relish every scrap of encouragement, wherever it comes from.

Happy writing.