21 Key Rules and Principles of Writing an Epic Poem

by Jocelyn Alma

Epics are long narrative poems that celebrate the deeds of legendary heroes or the history of a nation. Writing an epic is an endeavor that demands skill, patience, and a deep understanding of both the form and the tradition it embodies. This article outlines the key rules and principles of writing epics, drawing from classical examples and contemporary adaptations to provide a comprehensive guide for aspiring epic poets.

Understand the Epic Tradition

Before you begin writing an epic, familiarize yourself with the tradition. Study the great epics of the past: Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” These works exemplify the grandeur and complexity that characterize the genre.

See Also: How Do We Continue the Tradition of Epic Poetry Today?

Embrace the Grand Scope

Epics are not simple stories. They cover vast landscapes and long periods, often spanning years or even centuries. Your narrative should encompass grand themes such as heroism, fate, and the struggle between good and evil. The scope of your epic must reflect its monumental themes.

Choose a Heroic Protagonist

The hero of your epic should be larger than life. This character embodies the ideals of their culture and often possesses superhuman qualities. The hero’s journey, marked by trials and triumphs, is central to the narrative. Ensure your hero’s actions and decisions drive the plot forward.

Invoke the Muse

A traditional epic often begins with an invocation to the Muse, a plea for divine inspiration to tell the story well. This establishes the grandeur of the narrative and situates the poet within the epic tradition. Your invocation should set the tone and hint at the epic’s themes.

Begin In Medias Res

Epics often start in the middle of the action, a technique known as “in medias res.” This approach immediately immerses the reader in the story and creates suspense. Background information and prior events are revealed through flashbacks and characters’ dialogues.

Employ Elevated Language

The language of an epic must be dignified and elevated. Use formal diction, elaborate metaphors, and rich descriptions. The tone should be serious and grand, befitting the subject matter. Avoid colloquial language and modern slang.

Utilize Epic Similes and Metaphors

Epic similes, also known as Homeric similes, are extended comparisons that describe the hero’s actions in terms of more familiar, everyday events. These similes enhance the narrative’s vividness and help readers relate to the extraordinary deeds being described.

Structure Your Epic in Cantos or Books

Divide your epic into sections, often called cantos or books. Each section should be a self-contained episode that advances the overall narrative. This structure helps manage the length of the poem and provides natural breaking points for readers.

Incorporate Supernatural Elements

Epics frequently include gods, monsters, and other supernatural beings. These elements add to the story’s grandeur and highlight the hero’s extraordinary nature. The interactions between mortals and the divine should emphasize the themes of fate and destiny.

Highlight the Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a central motif in epics. This journey typically includes several stages: the call to adventure, trials and tribulations, a climactic battle, and the hero’s return. Each stage should be carefully developed to showcase the hero’s growth and the narrative’s progression.

Develop Secondary Characters

While the hero is the focal point, secondary characters play crucial roles in the narrative. These characters can be allies, mentors, or antagonists who influence the hero’s journey. Ensure they are well-developed and contribute meaningfully to the plot.

Depict Epic Battles

Epic battles are a staple of the genre. These conflicts should be grand in scale and vividly described. Focus on the strategies, individual feats of bravery, and the broader impact of the battle on the story’s world. The outcome of these battles often shapes the hero’s destiny.

Explore Themes of Fate and Destiny

Fate and destiny are pervasive themes in epics. The hero’s actions are often influenced by prophecies or divine intervention. Explore how these forces shape the characters’ lives and the narrative’s outcome. The tension between free will and predestination can add depth to your story.

Use Catalogs and Lists

Epics frequently include catalogs or lists, such as genealogies, inventories of warriors, or descriptions of landscapes. These lists serve to enrich the world-building and lend a sense of authenticity and grandeur to the narrative. Use them judiciously to avoid overwhelming the reader.

Balance Action with Reflection

While action is crucial, reflection is equally important in an epic. Allow characters to ponder their decisions, the nature of heroism, and the meaning of their struggles. These reflective moments add depth to the characters and provide philosophical insights into the narrative’s themes.

Maintain Consistent Meter and Rhyme

Classical epics often use a specific meter, such as dactylic hexameter in Greek and Latin epics. While strict adherence to traditional meters is not mandatory, maintaining a consistent rhythmic structure can enhance the poem’s musicality and cohesion. Experiment with different forms to find what suits your story best.

Craft Memorable Epithets

Epithets are descriptive phrases or adjectives regularly used to characterize a person or thing. In epics, heroes, gods, and even places often have specific epithets. These repeated descriptions help reinforce important traits and add a rhythmic quality to the narrative.

Conclude with a Sense of Resolution

The conclusion of your epic should provide a sense of closure. The hero’s journey comes full circle, and the story’s themes reach their resolution. While not all conflicts need to be resolved, the ending should reflect the narrative’s grandeur and the hero’s lasting impact.

Respect the Cultural Context

If your epic draws from a specific cultural or historical context, ensure you respect and accurately represent that background. Research thoroughly to avoid anachronisms and cultural inaccuracies. Authenticity adds depth and resonance to your narrative.

Adapt to Contemporary Themes

While adhering to traditional forms, don’t shy away from integrating contemporary themes and concerns. Modern epics can address current issues such as identity, environmentalism, and social justice. These themes can add relevance and engage a contemporary audience.

Revise and Refine

Writing an epic is a monumental task that requires rigorous revision. Continuously refine your language, structure, and character development. Seek feedback from knowledgeable readers and be open to making significant changes to enhance the narrative’s impact.


Writing an epic is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. By understanding the rules and traditions of the genre, you can craft a narrative that resonates with the grandeur and complexity of the great epics of the past. Embrace the scope, elevate your language, and develop a heroic protagonist whose journey captivates and inspires. With patience and dedication, your epic can stand the test of time and join the ranks of the legendary poems that have shaped literary history.

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