Updated: Aug 15, 2019
The tiny tales that build big worlds.
Epic fantasy is known for it’s large page counts. The genre is full of tomes like George. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and expansive series such as Robert Jordon’s 14 volume The Wheel of Time. Epic fantasy is also known for it’s ephemera; illustrations, maps, or letters tucked in the beginning of the book or throughout the chapters.
Ephemera / e·phem·er·a
things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.
items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.
Ephemera is often looked at as writing fan fiction for your own book — or in other words, that it holds no value beyond providing the reader with extras. But ephemera can have a lot of bearing on the plot of a novel.
Brandon Sanderson is a big fan of using ephemera in his novels. His Wax and Wane series has a full page of newsprint before each chapter often depicting the events of the books, and in his Way of Kings series the short parsed sections of text below each chapter heading, sometimes fragments of fictional texts or letter communications between characters, can reveal important information and foreshadowing, but only if you’re really paying attention.
Maps are the most common type of ephemera you’ll find in speculative fiction novels. Maps of cities, treasure maps, building schematics, and whole globes are often depicted on the first few pages of the book. Sometimes these maps are just novelty or to help the reader orient themselves, particularly in books where the characters cover a lot of ground, but they don’t have to be just for looks.
Ephemera is an important tool for writers and if you include it in your novel you should be making it pull it’s weight and help to tell your story. Take the map for example. Half way through reading a book you meet a character named John Wilum. You know very little about this character yet but something about the name seems familiar. Flip to the glossy map at the front. Ah ha! A large plantation labeled with elegant letters: The Wilum Estate. So the character is likely from this rich family, rich himself or perhaps cast out. You could discern more from the context of the book (if this were a real book) but it at least gives you a hint of whose this character is and what his backstory might be.
Text excerpts work the same. In my novel, Summoned, I use short passages from a fictional magic textbook to let readers know things about my magic system that the characters are already aware of. Often the Teacher and Apprentice trope is used so that the reader can learn as the main character learns, such as in Harry Potter, but I didn’t want to use that trope so I allowed my characters to have prior knowledge about magic and fed readers what they were misses through the excerpts at the beginning of each chapter. By doing this I saved myself from writing chapters of introductory world building and theoretically shaved a couple thousand words form my word count, making the book exactly the length I intended.
Ephemera can also contain facts even the characters don’t know. I’ve seen prophetic poems, sketches of species of dragon, legal documents, mathematical proofs, spaceship schematics, and so many other creative ways of delivering important information to readers without taking up words that could be dedicated to action, dialogue, and moving the plot forward.
A much as I recommend ephemera as a story tool, I will also caution against getting too caught up in it. There does come a point where you are writing your own fan fiction rather than writing the novel you started. Tolkien famously wrote pages and pages of text beyond what was eventually published and it took him years, all because he was caught up in this insanely expansive world building, much of that world building consisting of what could be classified as ephemera. Then again, it worked pretty well for him.