Have you ever noticed the small quotations at the beginning of a book or its chapters?
Those, my friends, are epigraphs!
Including a short quotation, saying, poem, or paragraph before the first chapter of your book or at the top of each chapter isn't a necessary ingredient for baking up the perfect story, but including an epigraph(s) can be useful for several reasons.
Shall we break them down?
Why might you include an epigraph in your novel?
Before we dive into the different reasons you might choose to employ epigraphs, it's important to note that every last element in your novel MUST serve a purpose–and that includes your epigraphs.
Keep in mind, using a quotation from Shakespeare or Nietzsche just to make your novel seem a bit more ~fancy~ or cultured is definitely not a proper purpose.
Just like prologues and epilogues, if your epigraphs doesn't serve a very distinct and necessary purpose, you should cut them from your manuscripts ASAP. That said, epigraphs can add a lot of value to your novels.
Here are a few ways to use them skillfully, with examples from literature to boot:
Purpose #1: To set the mood.
In literature, the mood is the feeling or emotion an author seeks to evoke in their readers. Using an epigraph before your first chapter or at the top of each chapter can be an excellent tool to urge readers to feel a certain way about the story they're about to read.
Check out these examples from literature:
- "'If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.' – Juan Ramón Jiménez", Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- "'An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.' – P. Smirnovsky, The Textbook of Russian Grammar", The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
Or, for a longer example, click here to read the three-paragraph epigraph from The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. It's one of my favorites!
Purpose #2: To foreshadow an event.
Epigraphs can also hint at events yet to come in your novel. Take the opening passage from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald for example:
"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!" – Thomas Parke D’Invilliers
If you've read The Great Gatsby, you know exactly how this passage foreshadows certain events in Jay Gatsby's life.
Purpose #3: To imply characterization.
Epigraphs also offer a way to share important details about your main characters–perhaps things they haven't even realized about themselves as your story opens. Need a few examples?
- "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay.' – Deuteronomy 32:35", Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- "'Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?'
– Paradise Lost, X, 743-45", Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
"'Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.' – Charles Lamb", To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Purpose #4: To reveal context.
It can be tough to reveal enough exposition to give readers context without info-dumping. Using an epigraph can help you get all of the necessary context out in the open without boring or overwhelming your readers.
Take the epigraph from one of my favorite novels for example:
"Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for the Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie."
This poem appears before each book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien to give context to the question, "Who is the Lord of the Rings?".
Other epigraphs that fall into this category may serve to reveal the time period during which the novel is set, share vital backstory, clue readers in on important character relationships, or explain a world-building concept.
In any case, the important thing to remember when creating an epigraph that fulfills this purpose is that it must be presented in a way that intrigues and hooks the reader.
If Tolkien had decided to share this backstory info in a textbook-style explanation, readers might've closed the book before hitting the first chapter. It is his use of poetry that intrigues and hooks instead.
You certainly don't have to write a poem for your own epigraph, but make sure to keep things interesting. Okay?
Purpose #5: To introduce theme.
Likely the most popular purpose of any epigraph is to explore theme. Here are several examples to set your mind to spinning:
- "'Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.' – G.K. Chesterson", Coraline by Neil Gaiman
- "'Everything not saved will be lost.' – Nintendo 'Quit Screen' message", The End Games by Michael Martin
- "'The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.' – Ecclesiastes", The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- "'What is past is prologue.' – Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum", White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Should you use epigraphs in your own novels?
The choice is up to you, friend. Unfortunately, there is no blanket statement I can make that will help you decide whether or not an epigraph is right for your book.
Are they necessary? Absolutely not. Can they add to a story? Absolutely.
I chose to include epigraphs in my upcoming fantasy series, The Books of Maveryn, for two reasons:
1) I wanted to introduce readers to the main character in each book in a way that wouldn't be so easily accomplished inside the narrative.
2) I wanted to foreshadow future events and instill readers with a sense of apprehension.
For example, here's the (unedited) epigraph from the first book in the series, Lady Legacy:
"Life is full of falls.
Men spill off their horses. Children trip. Women catch their babies as they tumble from their wombs. On occasion, the troubled pitch themselves from rooftops or rock faces in the hopes of ending a more visceral fall. But at the end of the day, it’s not the fall that matters.
It’s the landing–or rather, what results of that landing. Broken bones. Bruises. Tiny little scratches that blossom with pinpricks of shiny crimson, or cuts so wide-mouthed and frightening they leave even the strongest of men queasy as a maiden on her wedding night. Though, if we’re being honest, the wounds don’t matter either. I was always the one to fix them, and make no mistake, I fixed them well. I had been fixing them all my life. Second nature, through and through.
Maybe that was why I never saw my own fall coming."
It's my hope that this epigraph not only gives readers a look inside the mind of who the heroine is by the end of her story, but that it also burrows deep down in their consciousnesses to remind them that she is never safe. That something threatening looms in her future.
Sharing my reasons for using an epigraph in my own novel may not make the decision easy for you, but I hope it helps clarify whether or not an epigraph is the right choice for your book.
Your epigraph questions answered...
Have a few questions about the proper use of epigraphs in your novels? I've got your back!
Do I need to include epigraphs for each chapter if I've used one at the beginning of my novel, or vice versa?
Not at all. You can choose to include an epigraph at the beginning of your novel, at the beginning of each chapter, both, or neither. My only recommendation is including an epigraph before every chapter if you choose to go that route. Consistency is key!
Does the epigraph have to quote someone/something else, or can I write my own?
Again, the choice is up to you. But if you choose to use a quote from an outside source (be it a movie, novel, poem, direct quote, etc.), make sure you have the legal right to do so.
I recommend reading through this blog post from Better Novel Project to better understand the legal issues surrounding this topic.
How long should an epigraph be?
While there are no set rules for the use of epigraphs, I do recommend keeping your own under one printed page–a few paragraphs at most. Remember, you want to hook the reader with an intriguing and insightful snippet, not bore them with an unnecessary chapter.
Looking to the other end of a spectrum, your epigraph can be as little as one word. Take this quotation from Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon for example:
"'What?' — Richard M. Nixon"
Can my epigraph have multiple purposes?
Absolutely. Many of the epigraphs I listed in our breakdown above could probably slide into another category on the list. I even purposely created my own epigraphs to fulfill multiple purposes.
So if you feel your own epigraph might be multi-faceted, don't hold back! The more purpose, the better.
Hurray for epigraphs! Did I answer all of your questions in this breakdown? If not, make sure to ask them in the comments below. I'd be happy to answer them for you.
I'd also love to hear examples of epigraphs from your own novels. In true literary geekiness, I'll admit that epigraphs are one of my favorite underused literary devices. Send 'em my way!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!