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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  • Reply Dover Whitecliff 21 April, 2014 at 10:03 am

    I love epigraphs… Robert Aspirin does some pretty good ones as well. I’ve used them at the beginning of each part (usually a history text of law), but have never been clever enough to do each chapter… Thanks for the awesome post!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 April, 2014 at 10:10 am

      Thank you so much for reading! And I’ve never used epigraphs at all. I was just so impressed by Fforde’s use of them in The Eyre affair that it really got me thinking.

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 21 April, 2014 at 11:42 am

    It’s funny because I just started thinking about these recently. Never really thought to use them in my novels, but I can see where they would be useful. BTW, The Eyre Affair is such a great book!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 21 April, 2014 at 11:57 am

      I totally agree Phillip! The Eyre Affair was the first book I’ve ever read by Fforde, but I loved it so much I will definitely be checking out some more of his stuff.

      • Reply Christy Esmahan 21 April, 2014 at 4:05 pm

        As soon as I started reading your post about epigraphs, I thought of Jasper Fforde! Yes, he is amazing, and although his series are distinct (the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crime series) they are best read in an alternating fashion as he eventually weaves them together. So my recommendation is that you read The Big Overeasy next, then the second TN, Lost In a Good Book, then back to NC, The Fourth Bear, then after that it’s all TN. I wait eagerly for each new book. The Shades of Grey series (he’s only put out one book) is very different, and it takes a while to get into it, but once you do it’s also terrific.

  • Reply Ty Unglebower 22 April, 2014 at 10:15 am

    I have never used them, personally, though I don’t object to them. I have read in some places, however, that to some agents and other “official” book people they are cheating. That their use can make writing look weak…that is if you can’t include everything relevant within your narrative to reveal what needs to be reveal, you are a lazy writer or your narrative is to unruly and needs to be decreased.

    Again, I have no problem with their usage, myself. But I was just presenting what I’ve found in my reading about fiction that “works” or is “marketable.”

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 April, 2014 at 10:42 am

      That’s interesting! I had never heard that. I just love them, but I also really love “unruly” writing 🙂

  • Reply K. M. Alexander 22 April, 2014 at 11:43 am

    So, something for people to be mindful of: when publishing to digital platforms it’s typical (and recommended by the platforms) for most publishers and self-publishers to skip the epigraph, dedication, acknowledgements, basically all the front matter, and go straight to the prose. The idea being: get the reader into the work as quickly as possible.

    There are exceptions of course, but they aren’t typical. So if you put an epigraph at the beginning of chapters like Jasper Fforde does in “The Eyre Affair” then you be okay, but big epigraphs at the beginning of a work—like Stephen King’s used in “Dark Tower” series—it will probably be automagically skipped.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 22 April, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      Wow, I had no idea. I’m learning a lot from the comments this week, about epigraphs and all sort of other things!

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 25 April, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I love epigraphs, though I have learned not to use them in submissions. I think I will follow your advice and use them as I work. The Guardian article is terrific and I happen to be reading Middlemarch at the moment and have been delighted with the epigraphs.

  • Reply Setsu 25 April, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I loved the epigraphs in Dune. What a great way to worldbuild in just a few lines.

    Joe Abercrombie uses “real” quotes from people in our world for epigraphs at the beginning of his sections; but he writes in a completely fictitious world. At first I found it jarring, but I decided I liked it anyway, because it works with his prose.

    He writes fantasy — with all the trappings and traditions — but the insights and grit, the language they use, it’s all very modern. The characters are wry or snarky, and they cuss the way we do. Between the epigraphs and the dialogue, he draws pretty clear parallels between that world and this. It made the stories more engaging and accessible.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 26 April, 2014 at 8:36 am

      I’ve GOT to read Joe Abercrombie, you’ve been telling me about him forever! If you get on Goodreads you can suggest some of his best titles to me…;)

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