Quick: think of your favorite epic fantasy or sci-fi story.
And I don’t mean the kind of “epic” that clickbait titles use to sound more grandiose. Rather, think of a story that has massive consequences for the world and the heroic and imperiled characters that live in it. A story that bears some resemblance to the Hero’s Journey in its overall structure. More to the point: a story that gets you feeling swept into another place and time; a world apart from our own, but immersive and seemingly infinite all the same.
Show of hands, how many picked the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Harry Potter?
These tales are the paragons of popular epic stories over the past century. All of them succeeded masterfully when it came to the scope and scale of the worlds they introduced their audience to.
Middle Earth captivated us with its different cultures and languages.
A galaxy far far away showed us a cantina full of alien species.
Magical Britain let us taste the pleasures of conjured confectionaries.
The characters in those stories seemed all the more alive for inhabiting those worlds. Like us, many of them were as awestruck by the things they encountered there as we were (the Shire-sheltered Hobbits in Rivendell, farmboy Luke in the Death Star, orphan Harry in Diagon Ally), making them that much more relatable.
I believe that much of the runaway success these stories have enjoyed is precisely because of these worlds. In these cases, the enjoyment is not simply about the characters — though they do give us access to the world in the first place, as well as a reason to care about its fate.
These works tell their story, yes, but in an environment of endless possibilities. They provide the audience with ample room for their imaginations to explore beyond the scope of the plot. These places may be incidental — even tangental — to the story, but exist as available space, ripe for discovery.
My term for this is the Sandbox Phenomenon. That is, the enjoyment that a reader gets from being given a brand new world — a sandbox — to play in and explore. In all of its strangeness. Its mystery.
And that sense of wonder is what is most important. That is what draws us in, captivates our senses, and keeps us as rapt attention. That is what drives our urge to continue our exploration, to feed that sense of wonder more and more.
Without that, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons, no Expanded Universe, and no Harry Potter theme park.
With it, the reader will not just follow the hero along and watch. They will take up arms themselves to defend that world with the same patriotic vigor they would summon for their own country. And maybe more.
If you are a reader, you know that this is what you are really after when you look for your next epic read. You ask, in one way or another, “Will this give me that same sense of wonder I felt when I read (that other work)?”
If you are a writer, then Job #1 is cultivating that sense of wonder in your fictional world. In the coming days, I would like to write more to that very subject.
In the meantime, what incites your own sense of wonder in the fictional worlds you’ve explored?