The importance of a story’s central activity, or Spine of Action should never be underestimated when writing, especially when you’re writing longer works. Two beautiful examples of this are George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Two very different epic stories which mirror each other in one central way- both authors ignored the spines of action of their works and paid the price for it.
<Significant spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire and Legend of the Galactic Heroes incoming! Take evasive action and retreat if you want to remain unspoiled about both of these amazing works!>
If you don’t know what a Spine of Action is, or can’t recall, here’s a short video about the subject.
In case you’re not familiar with them. A Song of Ice and Fire (aka ASOIAF, or A Game of Thrones) and Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LOGH) are both epic stories of conquest, politics, romance, and friendship. A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy story about a civil war that breaks out on the subcontinent of Westeros between the ruling families, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a science fiction story about a war between two galactic powers in the far future.
Now, with that in mind, what did each of these stories do wrong?
Both were written as novel series and cover many books, and both start out right from the beginning as war stories. In ASOIAF’s case it starts as a mystery of sorts, and then by the end of the first book turns into full-on civil war as the Lannister family stages a coup and takes over the imperial throne and the other noble families rise up in resistance. In LOGH’s case, the focus of the story is on Reinhard von Lohengramm and his ambitious rise to power with his sights on the imperial throne.
And this is where the writers both make the same mistake.
You see, that actually isn’t what each story is about. ASOIAF isn’t actually about the civil war, per-se, it’s about the rise and fall of dynasties. Similarly, LOGH is also about the rise and fall of a dynasty, not Reinhard’s ascension to the throne. But, both writers hang their plots on each storyline as a way to keep the story focused and under control.
As a result, when at the end of Book 3 of ASOIAF the Lannister’s seize full control of Westeros and win the civil war, and at the end of Book 3 of LOGH Reinhard becomes the new emperor, both book series suddenly come to a screeching halt. The authors no longer have a central act, or spine of action, to build the story around and keep it on track. They have characters, settings, plots, and events, but neither of them have a clear focus for it all.
In ASOIAF’s case, it was so bad that George R.R. Martin made his audience wait six years for Book 4 (a book filled with minor characters and plots), and then six more years for Book 5 to find out where the main storylines were going. He managed to bring it around, but it was nearly a car wreck of a story, and some could argue the story never does quite recover. The TV series dodged this bullet (barely) by being able to see it coming and working around it with a smoother transition from a story about taking power to a story about keeping it and eventually a new war.
With LOGH, there is a similar situation where Book 4 and Book 5 are also a bit of a mess as the story becomes about solidifying power, and it isn’t until the war between the Empire and Galactic Federation begins in earnest that the story gets back on track again. It doesn’t help that Reinhard himself almost becomes an emotional cripple for most of Book 4, pulling his story into a morass that it must struggle to recover from. Luckily for LOGH fans, Tanaka didn’t make them wait six years between each volume to be disappointed! The story also regains much of its footing and grandeur as it regains its focus.
And this, is where the lessons for those wanting to write epic fantasy stories comes in.
If you sell the audience on one kind of story, and the spine of action to go with it, you have to plan pretty carefully if you’re going to change things. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but if the audience signed up for a war story, and you suddenly make it about politics and political scheming, then they have every right to be unhappy. Similarly, you as an author might find that while you were perfectly able to write one type of story, the new type of story you find yourself writing might not be one you’re able to handle quite as well.
Epics are already challenging, since they can easily get out of the writer’s control (especially without a clear central spine to give them direction), but trying to do one without first working out how the major elements of the story are going to fit together is asking for trouble. You can easily end up with a bloated mess of a story that you have no idea how to end or where to go with, and all because you didn’t make sure you had a solid spine right from the start.
Note, if this sounds like I’m being too hard on George and Yoshiki, that’s a fair criticism. Writing these types of stories and doing them well is hard, and also they had an additional problem- some spines of action “Conquering a Land/Galaxy” are pretty big and vague and can be hard to work with. Martin solved this by anchoring everything on the viewpoints of a few key characters and their personal struggles, and Tanaka did something similar. The problem was the characters whose motivations gave the stories the spine of actions weren’t quite big enough to accomplish the goals of the books. But, since Martin planned for it to only be a trilogy (and maybe Tanaka also had no clear ending in mind), this can be perhaps forgiven.