Should you include an epigraph in your novel?
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Have you ever noticed the small quotations at the beginning of a book or its chapters?
Those are called epigraphs, and they can include a short quotation, saying, poem, or paragraph of prose. Including an epigraph before some or all chapters in a book isn't a necessary ingredient for baking up a brilliant story, but they can be useful for several reasons.
What do those reasons include, and should you include an epigraph (or maybe several of them) in your book? Let's dive into today's quick and dirty breakdown!
Why might you include an epigraph in your novel?
Before we dive into the various reasons you might choose to include epigraphs in your stories, it's important to note that every element in your novel should serve a purpose. Epigraphs are certainly no exception to this rule, so while including a quotation from a famous writer or thinker may, at surface level, make your novel seem more cultured, you might want to think twice.
But in what ways can epigraphs add value to your stories? Here are a few powerful purposes an epigraph can serve, with examples from literature to boot:
Purpose #1: They can 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 in your book can be an excellent way to prime readers for the story or chapter they're about to read.
Not sure what I mean? 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: They can 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
In The Great Gatsby, this passage foreshadows Jay Gatsby's wild attempts to woo the woman he loves, Daisy Buchanan.
Purpose #3: They can imply characterization.
Epigraphs can also provide authors a way to share important details about their main characters, especially those that would otherwise be difficult to relay in the text. Need a few examples?
"'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: They can reveal context.
Similarly, authors can use epigraphs as an easy way to reveal expositional details concerning the story world that would, again, otherwise be difficult to relay in the text. 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."
You may recognize this as the poem that appears before each book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The poem itself gives 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 details, 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 chapter one. Instead, he poses the necessary information as a poem that lends depth to his story world. You certainly don't have to write a poem for your own epigraph, but make sure to keep things interesting. Okay?
Purpose #5: They can 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 include epigraphs in your stories?
This choice is completely up to you, writer. Simply put, epigraphs aren't often unnecessary, but they can serve many purposes and prove to be an exciting way to open your novel. I personally chose to include epigraphs in my upcoming fantasy series, The Books of Maveryn, for two reasons:
1) I wanted to foreshadow the ways in which these books will break from traditional fantasy genre tropes, as the books to take dark and—what I hope will be—unexpected turns.
2) As each book in the series features a new point-of-view character, I wanted to use the epigraphs as an easy way to transition between these characters.
For example, here's the (unedited) epigraph from the first book in the series, Lady Legacy:
"Life is full of falls.
Men spill from 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 it’s not the fall that matters.
It’s the landing. Or rather, what results of the landing. Broken bones. Bruises. Tiny scratches that blossom with pinpricks of shiny crimson or cuts so wide-mouthed and frightening they leave even the strongest queasy as a maiden on her wedding night.
This was my domain. The wounded, the fallen. All my years I spent single-mindedly devoted to their cause, and make no mistake, I excelled in my devotion. Every suture was my offering, every set bone my song of praise. For my devotion I was rewarded with a skill of hand and a sharpness of mind that spoke of hallowed greatness—a double-edged sword, for it is said that greatness oft breeds blindness.
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 including an epigraph(s) may be 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!
Question #1: 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 in your novel, both, or neither. My only recommendation is including an epigraph before every chapter if you choose to go that route. This may be personal preference, however, so take that piece of advice with a grain of salt.
Question #2: Does an epigraph have to quote someone or something else, or can I write my own?
You can absolutely choose to write your own. However, if do you choose to utilize 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.
Question #3: 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. If you expect your epigraph may be longer, you may want to consider it a prologue.
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"
Question #4: 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 your own epigraph can be multi-faceted, don't hold back. The more purpose it serves, the more powerful it will be!
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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