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This is because of someone remarking on the necessity of epigraphs in one of the critiques they did of one of my submissions. They pointed out that epigraphs might not be as necessary for the progression of storylines as we may think and it's an overused style here on the forum. I know for my novel I'm working on, it's a way for me to introduce information to the readers that would be awkward for me to otherwise, but for a lot of people it's different. Why do you use epigraphs? Why should you use epigraphs? Those are questions I want answers to when y'all get to it.

Can you take epigraphs out of the story and have it still make sense without a whole ton of explaining? That's a question you should ask yourself before putting one in.

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The negative reaction likely stems from the fact that epigraphs often come off as a way to introduce a bunch of world information, essentially an info-dump, but without having to work it into a character's thoughts or POV.  I know that was exactly why I used them in my first submission.  That's not a good way to use them.

 

Having that information just there, divorced of any character's view makes it seem very extraneous.  If the chapter doesn't work without that information it is probably better to rework the scene-setting of the chapter.  The blocking as Robinski calls it.  That way that information can be integrated with the character's POV, giving it some weight, and for the reader, a reason to care.

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I enjoy these kinds of discussions. My critiquing/feedback freedom for here is usually 2 or 3 stories a week, but I did notice this trend, though I didn't think much of it. I feel like it's similar to prologues in that they have their use and can be easy to resort to and typically show off world building, but aren't always necessary. It's also kind of an aside to the story, and in my case, if it isn't really brief, not all of it sticks as a reader. They don't engage as much as a scene would.

I haven't used either, but I know when I read a prologue, I always wonder/ask if the prologue is doing any work that the story can't do, be it genre setting early or giving vital information so early chapters aren't confusing or fluffy. I feel similar questions can apply to epigraphs.

Edited by Lord Juugatsu
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I have a similar take on it as Juugatsu.  While I do think they can be used badly or to info-dump, I like reading the extra worldbuilding information, even if it doesn't have a lot to do with the story.  Sanderson's epigraphs do a good double duty in that they build up the world, but also give you some hints into characters.  I think you could read his books, skip the epigraphs, and still get a great story.  But if you read them, you get some behind the scenes information, which is what I want.  I'm also the person that reads through the appendices after the Lord of the Rings, so I like this stuff.

In my own writing, I use epigraphs to tell a creation story, or give facts that don't have a good place in the story itself.  If you don't read them, it doesn't really affect the story.

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Okay, so what some of you are saying is that they shouldn't be necessary to the story and should just be behind the scenes things? The rest of you seem to be saying that it should be if it's included. The way I use them is to info dump and to help explain a thing that is going to happen later in the story. The Assassination Letters, as they are called in my book, give a character the inspiration he needs to set up the assassination of someone. He uses them as a justification. I can't have them in any other place in the story so far, so I put them in epigraphs.

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I feel they should be justified, if they aren't necessary, if that makes sense? Like, if it's completely unassociated to the story and I as a reader don't feel I need to know the information, then I'm probably not going to commit it to memory. Let's see if I can explain that a bit better: For epigraphs, I'd probably ask first 'Why do I want epigraphs?'. Assuming I have some valid reason beyond 'Why not?' then I'd ask 'Does this provide information necessary for the story, that I can't work into the story in some other way?' or 'How do these epigraphs support the story?' If the answer to the former was 'No' and the latter was 'It doesn't', then I personally wouldn't use them, even if I had a cool idea on what I could do with them. If the story doesn't work without the information, and there's no way to better work into the story, then I'd say it's necessary. If preemptively sets up information regarding some new thing within the chapter it prefaces or probably no more than a chapter or two following, I'd say it's justified as it helps keep the learning curve down a bit by preemptively bringing up this information so that the characters don't stop mid-action to have a lengthy discussion about whatever the things was in a way that just very obviously was pushed in.

But each reader is a bit different. Mandamon sounds like he likes those extra bits, where I'm more interested in them if they're relevant to the story a bit more directly. A friend of mine in another writing group I'm part of has a fantasy romance story she's working on, and she's had two prologues. The first one was just history and back-story, so when I was providing her feedback on it, I explicitly asked if the prologue was necessary and what the story would lose if she just got rid of it. In her new prologue, it's a lot shorter and rather than being an info-dump, it sets tone for the story in a way that chapter 1 doesn't and it hooks a lot stronger than her first chapter does. Her prologue wouldn't work as a chapter 1, however, because the content in it doesn't connect with the story until around chapter 4 or 5 when things really start to pick up, not that her early chapters aren't engaging, so it introduces cultural elements, world-building, and characters before jumping heavily into the plot. I personally felt she could make the story a bit more 'difficult', but that's a decision she, as the writer makes, in deciding how to manage her learning curve.

However, standard disclaimer, I'm not published or professional by any means, and this is all just opinion.

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I think Epigraphs are fine so long as they don't give any radically new information. In my mind they should be used to further the readers understanding, using something that the viewpoint character has already learned. So with mistborn as an example; (SPOILER) when they steal the lord rulers journal, Sanderson uses the epigraphs to give us the relevant info that Vin would've read, without infodumping a chapter with Vin just reading a diary.  

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I'll start by saying I'm not sure about anything at this stage.

 

I use a short prologue in the way that @Lord Juugatsu says his friend does - to prepare the reader for an event in Chapter 3 and think it works in that regard.

 

I am fiddling with an epigraph on the Dulcet's Hammer sample I posted - not sure if it will survive though. The reason I did that is 1) it sort of foreshadows her future importance and what will come. 2) it sort of serves as a narrator would "little Johnny Dirt had no way of knowing that in some distant future he would become the King of blah blah" so the chapter would be in the character's PoV performing some mundane stuff, but the epigraph would hint at some far great challenge or event in the future of this person..."

 

I think it could be legit but reactions so far, from those who have seen it (out of context as a single chapter) - has been 50/50

 

I found this article on the subject interesting http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/mar/30/epigraphs-toby-lichtig

Edited by stormweasel
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I've read a lot of works where the epigraph isn't even any worldbuilding, but a quote from somewhere.  It usually ties in with the chapter in some subtle way.  Sanderson's epigraphs sometimes tie in, sometimes don't.  Personally, I don't think they have to be tied to the story, as I like reading backstory filler stuff.  Of course, they're an extra bonus if you can tie them in to a twist at the end of the story like Sanderson did with Mistborn. '

 

@Juugatsu: Once of the best (recent) things I learned from Writing Excuses: if you write, then you can call yourself a writer.  You don't have to be published or a best seller to have an opinion--It's still very relevant! 

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I've read a lot of works where the epigraph isn't even any worldbuilding, but a quote from somewhere.  It usually ties in with the chapter in some subtle way.  Sanderson's epigraphs sometimes tie in, sometimes don't.  Personally, I don't think they have to be tied to the story, as I like reading backstory filler stuff.  Of course, they're an extra bonus if you can tie them in to a twist at the end of the story like Sanderson did with Mistborn. '

 

@Juugatsu: Once of the best (recent) things I learned from Writing Excuses: if you write, then you can call yourself a writer.  You don't have to be published or a best seller to have an opinion--It's still very relevant! 

 

I was thinking about how epigraphs might be used while I read this and want to throw out a couple random ideas ....

 

-how about as a countdown to some event i.e. you could have chapter 1 epi be "the alien craft passed through the atmosphere of Neptune slowing just enough to scoop up large quantities of Hydrogen..." and each chapter epi after can have it progressing from planet to planet on the approach to earth. ie "the giant ship cast a shadow on mars as it circled, seemingly lifeless or as if waiting ...." then ".... and the sheperds in the desert looked up, and beheld a star growing brighter, and then a beam of light descending from the vessel, and then the legions of hell were set lose upon the earth..."

 

in fact now that I think about it better (doh) it actually can be any type story in and of itself. Or it can be a PoV unique to itself, a future writer looking back at the events occuring historically, a prophet showing the events were foreshadowed, hmmm... I think I may have to take a closer look at epigraphs. I hadn't really looked at them as anything other than a little dressing at the head of the chapter.

Edited by stormweasel
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Brandon has definitely used them to what I think is the best effect that I can recall seeing in each of the Mistborn books (original trilogy), where the epis gradually reveal the contents of Alendi's, Kwaan's Sazed's 'journals' and which are very important to the story.

 

There is something of a countdown effect to these, as they reveal key plot points germane to the events in the main narrative. Very well done.

 

I think what you alude to, Storm, is a similar idea (not the same), in that rather than the epis providing background, they provide information on another thread that is running parallel to the main work, probably on a collusion course!! It's kind of plotting by stealth, but I think it's a great idea - so good I wouldn't have posted it here!!!!    : o )             (Your idea is safe it me.)

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