Saturday, June 4, 2011

On Chapter Epigraphs

A witty saying proves nothing.

An epigraph is a phrase, quote, or poem set at the beginning of a document or component. They're those pithy little sayings you find at the start of chapters or sections in a lot of sci-fi/fantasy works. They can serve as a preface, a summary, counterpoint, or just set the mood. There's two types of epigraph: ones from the real world, and ones pulled from the fictional universe the work is set in.

When I first started collecting my Tale Of The Exile tweets and formatting them into chapters, I used a lot of epigraphs as prefaces, scouring the web for quotes I thought would work well to set the theme of the chapters. I started doing this with just random witty quotes, then moved on to hunting specific songs to quote when I moved into the third night. It wasn't long after this that I decided to do away with epigraphs altogether. Here's why:
  • It takes a lot of effort to find a good quote. This is creative work, and entertaining, but it really doesn't help write the story. Trying to find good quotes to sum up or set the mood for Gaven's story takes time away from writing the story itself. It's an empty calorie kind of creative exercise. I didn't start looking for quotes until I had finished the first and second nights, so I didn't notice how much it was bogging me down until I had to do it for the third night. This is partly what lead me to stop.
  • The quotes were entertaining, but didn't add much to the story. Mostly they acted as summations for the chapters I was writing. I suppose if I were writing epigraphs from whole cloth, as pieces of metafiction about the world of Aldora, that might be different, but the epigraphs I used were bits of the real world intruding on my story. I shouldn't be making summaries of the chapters...I should let the chapters speak for themselves.
  • In some cases, the epigraphs were spoilers.  Along with setting a mood, the quotes sometimes revealed bits about the chapter ahead. I tried to avoid this as much as possible, but a spoiler is a spoiler. I recently read "Mistborn: The Hero of Ages," which also used a lot of epigraphs. I decided to read all the epigraphs first. Big mistake. Most of them were only counterpoints to the chapters, but some near the end lead to major, major spoilers. Someone reading my work the same way might decide to read the epigraphs I put in all at once before starting in on the chapters themselves, and in the process learn things that they shouldn't. That's always an issue with skipping ahead...epigraphs just make the unintentional spoilerage much easier.
  • Some of the epigraphs were getting really long. As I mentioned in my soundtrack post, I chose a lot of songs for specific reasons. I decided to use lyrics from those songs as epigraphs, but to get the context right I had to use several lines from each song. This started to get out of hand. I found myself tempted to quote half of some songs, just to get the right context for the quote. This was too much fucking work for something that was just supposed to be a bit of fun.
  • The epigraphs were breaking the fourth wall a bit. Gaven's story is told in first person, and it's being told as if the reader has a direct link to his mind while he's experiencing things. I chose to write the story this way to help with immersion (which is why it's done in the present tense, as well). The epigraphs are not helpful in preserving this immersion. They're bits of out-of-context text that you either read, or skip, but either way they aren't part of Gaven's experience. This would be true even if I were manufacturing world-specific epigraphs. Each epigraph jerks people out of the story just a little bit and reminds them that they're reading a story, not experiencing it. I decided to minimize this, and took them out of later drafts.
I don't hate epigraphs. I still plan to use them. However, I'm going to put them at the start of each Night instead of each chapter, where there are natural breaks in the story and I'm expecting the reader to break and digest what they've read. I don't think I'll be doing chapter epigraphs again in this book. The next book, which I believe will have multiple viewpoints, might be able to have more epigraphs in it.

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