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Posts Tagged ‘stakes’

This issue isn’t really about reader expectations, much. It’s just something of a reality about the two sub-genres. And something I’ve been thinking about.

Sword and Sorcery stories are almost always short—no longer than novel-length at most and often shorter. Where the main character(s) of a Sword and Sorcery spawn a series, it’s almost always episodic—each story is a separate adventure. Like detective fiction, the only common denominator in the series is the protagonist(s). (And I only say ‘almost’ because there may actually be an exception out there, but, if so, I can’t think of it.)

  • Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories were mostly novelettes or novellas . A novelette is basically a very long short story, from 30 pages to 60 pages long. A novella is from 60 pages to 200 pages. A more or less average novel (if there is such a thing) would be about 400 pages, though anything over 200 pages counts and, of course, some are much longer.
  • Same with Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
  • Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone started out the same, but did grow into several novel-length works as well.

Whereas, although I can think of a few single-book examples, for Epic Fantasy more often than not a series is the default. A reader expectation, in fact.

  • Lord of the Rings is one very long story published in 3 volumes, adding up to (in my copy) almost 1100 pages (excluding the appendices).
  • David and Leigh Eddings’s Belgariad and Malorean are each 5 volumes.
  • Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, finished by Brandon Sanderson, is . . . 14 volumes and over 10,000 pages!

My theory about that is that the smaller stakes of Sword and Sorcery cannot support a longer story. The goal simply isn’t worth it when that many obstacles and risks begin to pile up. There are, after all, other possible adventures and, probably, other treasures and a character smart enough to be interesting ought to recognize that at some point. But the obstacles and risks are much more worth it if the character is saving the world.

I also think that failure to realize the difference between Sword and Sorcery and Epic Fantasy—especially when it comes to length—can cause a story to fail. We, as readers or audience, lose interest if the stakes are too low to support the weight of the story.

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