Backpacks across the galaxy: how to personalize the epic

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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.”

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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13 Comments

  1. Excellent advice, and likewise for the example. Lewis’ space trilogy is sorely overlooked and underrated. I’d be willing to say it’s the most complex and brilliant thing he wrote, and that’s from a man whose nearly every article could turn one’s brain inside out, as you put it. I really need to reread it again. I remember taking a college course where we were reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, except I wasn’t caught up with the reading during the class discussion. So when the professor asked me to comment on it, I just started comparing it to Perelandra. ‘-)

    • Oh, I’m so glad to come across someone who has actually read it AND appreciates its brilliance! So many people read the Narnian chronicles as kids, and might switch to Screwtape and Mere Christianity as adults, never realizing the depth of genius in his science fiction (or if they do read it, completely don’t get it). Plus, after reading the Space Trilogy, you get so much more out of rereading Narnia, because you understand the theology better.
      I’m curious if you’ve read the even lesser-known ‘Til We Have Faces? Also incredible, but a bit over my head, which is why Perelandra remains my absolute favorite.

      • I have! I believe it’s the last book he wrote, right? His narrative style is very different from his usual, in Narnia and in the space trilogy, but the themes are 100% him. It was fascinating to me because it retells the myth of Cupid & Psyche, which I’ve studied at university. The twist he puts on the story is so simple, but it changes the whole thing into a beautiful allegory about faith. Hm…that one needs a reread too.

        P.S. You’re right that Douglas Adams is pretty good about doing that too. It’s amazing how Hitchhiker’s Guide retains a fairly personal touch throughout its epic journey of goofiness. Also, Joss Whedon. He’s a master of little character touches that add such life to the story, such as when he had Jayne, the buff and crude mercenary, eagerly wear a goofy-looking hat that his mom made him.

        • Ah. Therein lies my problem; Faces would probably make more sense to me if I was more familiar with the original myth.

          I’m not super familiar with Joss Whedon, although just the other day I was reading up on the browncoats’ movement to help Nathon Fillion buy the rights to Firefly from Fox so that they can start making episodes again – and breakout author of The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss, says he’s willing to help with royalties from his new book. Exciting stuff!

  2. Very good point! I had not thought about the small details until you mentioned them. They really do make the story and I now recognized them in my favorite stories. Thank you!

    • Thanks! It’s amazing how we can notice something like this literary device in one story, and then suddenly see it in others we’ve read–like something has clicked and now we can decipher a bit more of the deeper meaning. It makes me pity people who only read books once!

  3. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that movement goes. Unfortunately, Fillion has tweeted that it was just an off-hand comment, and that he doesn’t want people to send him money. He and others seem to think that a true revival is impossible, especially because Joss is the only one who could possibly helm it and he is busy elsewhere. It’d be difficult, sure, though I don’t think it would be impossible. They do new shows and spinoffs of older shows all the time: with Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, and others. I’d love to see another show in the Firefly universe. That’s his crowning achievement, in my opinion — you should check it out. Hulu rotates up to 5 episodes at a time, every week. The mercenary Jayne I mentioned is from it.

    Also, check out Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” That was my introduction to his work, and it’s brilliant.

    • I’ve seen a few episodes of Firefly, and I’ve seen the movie, Serenity, a few times, but it’s been awhile, and I haven’t formed my position as “like” or “love” yet. But I hope they do resurrect the show. It’d make a great grassroots story.
      As to new shows, I’m not impressed with the latest Star Trek and Stargate series (Enterprise/Universe), but I’m a nut about Doctor Who (the main series, at least, haven’t watched the spinoffs). Actually, my next post is probably going to be a study on why DW continues to be good after all these years.
      Dr. Horrible! Now that, I know. I didn’t realize it was Whedon.

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  5. This reminds me how desperately I need to finish Lewis’s space trilogy. I am thrilled that you have read Till We Have Faces, though! So few people I speak to have and it is one of my favorite books of all time. Every time I read it, it speaks to me more.

    This blog post intrigues me greatly. Once again (I have lost count of how many times you’ve done this) I find myself considering my writing from an angle I have not before. The personal, the simple, the relate-able, means so much to us.

    • Yes! Yes! You must finish it! You can’t fully understand his theology or even the depth of the Narnian Chronicles until you’ve read the Space Trilogy.

      I’m honored to have given you something new to think about. I suspect that is difficult to do. Thank you.

      • Yes ma’m, I will get onto that immediately. ^_~

        Not difficult, as the world is so vast (not to mention the universe!), but you have provided the most food for thought relating to my writing that I have ever had in such a short period of time. It complicates matters, but also inspires me to improve my work, for which I owe you thanks.

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