How a Master Writer Manages a Sprawling Story

Are you writing a book with a convoluted plot? Or maybe your story is told from a dozen different viewpoints? Or perhaps it all depends on hundreds of years of complex back story that you’re not sure how to fit in or where?

How do you clue the reader in briefly while keeping your story rolling right along?

You might want to think about using epigraphs.

An epigraph is a “phrase, quotation, or poem that is set at the beginning of a document.” (You can read the full definition from Wikipedia here.) An epigraph can be a quote taken from a work in real life—like a poem or the Bible—or it can be a fictional quotation from a fictional work.

One very well-known book that uses fictional epigraphs is Dune by Frank Herbert. The beginning of each chapter starts with quotes ranging from fictional proverbs, to fictional biographies of the characters, to fictional reports made on the events of the story.

I just finished reading another book that also uses fictional epigraphs for each chapter start: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. The plot involves time travel, a complex police organization, and a large cast of characters. Fforde included quotes from the autobiography of the protagonist, diaries of some of the other characters, and historical accounts of the organization.

The result was that I went into every chapter with a snippet of valuable information, or a rare insight that went a long way toward helping me put all the pieces together.

The added bonus of working with fictional epigraphs is that you can also use them as a writing exercise. If you want to dig deeper into the layers of your main character, try writing a short autobiography of them in first person. Or if you want a few additional clues as to how others might see your protagonist, write a few diary entries from the point of view of a more minor character.

Or imagine that your main character has a favorite book he or she is obsessed with. What’s the name of that book and what kind of snippets from it would your character point out to you if you asked? What are the quotes they identify with and try to live their life by?

And don’t forget about histories, organizations, intricate family webs, and complex timelines. Writing out a brief explanatory account of how your framework logically fits together can be helpful to you—and to the reader if you choose to include quotes from it within the text.

If you want to learn more about fictional epigraphs and how they work, check out The Dark Half by Stephen King, or as mentioned, Dune and The Eyre Affair. You can also peruse this excellent article by The Guardian here to see some of the most stunning examples of the fictional epigraph by other celebrated authors.

Have you ever thought about using fictional epigraphs in your work before, or have you used them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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