Epic-ness is all well and good, but without a personal touch, it can fall flat. We wouldn’t care whether or not Middle Earth fell to Sauron if we didn’t get to know Frodo and Sam along the way. It’s the little, everyday details that make us care; that show us the relevance of the big picture by connecting it to a close-up of the character(s).
This concept really threw me the first time I read Out of the Silent Planet. A man is on a walking tour in England, when he loses his backpack and is kidnapped by two men who take him to an alien planet. He escapes, and spends the next several chapters living among the locals, learning their language and discovering fascinating things about the universe. Then, on page 96, he gets a chance to look through a telescope at a planet the locals call Thulcandra:
He wondered for a moment if it was Mars he was looking at; then, as his eyes took in the markings better, he recognized what they were—Northern Europe and a piece of North America. They were upside down with the North Pole at the bottom of the picture and this somehow shocked him. But it was Earth he was seeing—even, perhaps, England, though the picture shook a little and his eyes were quickly getting tired, and he could not be certain that he was not imagining it. It was all there in that little disk—London, Athens, Jerusalem, Shakespeare. There everyone had lived and everything had happened; and there, presumably, his pack was still lying in the porch of an empty house near Sterk.
This last sentence is so amazing it makes me dizzy. From the alienness of another planet, the hugeness of the universe, the awe of seeing Earth from space, the vastness of human history—to the ordinariness of a backpack left on a porch. This is why C.S. Lewis is my favorite writer; he turns my brain inside out.
Douglas Adams does something similar (but much more humorous) in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, when Arthur Dent is falling to his death and suddenly remembers he has a bottle of olive oil in his knapsack—possibly the last piece of the Earth left in the entire universe (this realization enabled him to learn how to fly…but that’s another post).
And I experienced something similar when I was driving home from visiting my grandparents last Christmas. We stopped at a Denny’s, and I happened to notice that the walls at this Denny’s had the exact same texture as the walls at home. And although I hadn’t been gone long enough to miss home, I suddenly got a lump in my stomach and felt homesick.
Moral of the post: the details make it meaningful. The next time you are writing a “big picture” scene, consider making your character notice or remember something that gives you a “close up.”