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Posted on Sep 13, 2018

What is an Epigraph?

An epigraph is a quote, paragraph, or short excerpt typically found at the beginning of a book. It usually serves as a preface or introduction to your story before any character makes an appearance or the action begins. Most often, they are quotes from writers or other influential people, but this is not always the case.

The rules surrounding the use of epigraphs are pretty flexible. We’ll dive deep into them later in this post — but first, let’s take a look at why you might want to consider using epigraphs in the first place.

Why use an epigraph?

An epigraph probably won’t make or break your book. However, it can serve as a way to introduce readers to your story — or at least to elements of it — before they get into the meat of the matter. When the correct quote is chosen, it can be the crumb that makes them want to eat the whole cake.

Although the epigraph is an optional feature in the front matter of a book, it can serve many different purposes within the story. Here are four.

1) Set the theme

The theme is the central idea the story conveys and the epigraph can help kick it off it in a very concise manner.

Let’s take a look at one of the three epigraphs from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. Genesis 30:1-3

This particular quote from the Bible deals directly with the issue of children, fertility, and the idea of bringing someone outside the marriage to produce children: all points of great importance in the novel.

2) Set the mood

In just a few words, an epigraph can show readers whether they can expect an exciting, happy, or sad story. Take this example from The Night Circus:

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. Oscar Wilde, 1888

The Night Circus
image: Anchor Books

Throughout the book, everything that happens within the circus has a dream-like quality to it. Additionally, there are several references to dreamers, most notably the name of the circus, “Le Cirque des Rêves” (The Circus of Dreams), and the name given to its most devoted fans, “rêveurs" (dreamers). The book even goes as far to end with the words: “You are no longer certain which side of the fence is the dream.” Everything comes back to the effect the circus has on all who visit, perfectly introduced by Wilde’s quote.

3) To give context

An epigraph can also be used to highlight important information about the story, which can range from setting to background details. It should not give away any main plot points — but it can pique the reader’s interest by providing just enough to whet their appetite.

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 epigraph, written by Tolkien himself, appears at the beginning of each of the three volumes that make up the Lord of the Rings series. It gives the reader background information about the rings, eventually focusing on the One Ring and its powers. Additionally, it provides context about who the titular “Lord” is: an evil being who wants to use the One Ring for world domination. This gives readers a small taste of what the epic story is about, without giving away the main points.

The Lord of the Ring Series image: George Allen & Unwin

4) Foreshadow the plot

Epigraphs can also point towards the way in which a specific event will develop or how the story will end. It doesn’t need to reveal all the answers, but it can show where the ultimate resolution is heading. The epigraph from And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie is a brilliant example of the use of foreshadowing.

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine. Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight. Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven. Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six. Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five. Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were Four. Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three. Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two. Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One. One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself And then there were None. Frank Green, 1869

This current version of this nursery rhyme doesn’t only provide the title for the novel, it also leaves clues to the crimes and even hints about the resolution. Red herring, anyone?

How to use an epigraph

As we have mentioned, the good news is that there really aren’t any set rules as far as the use of epigraphs. The flexibility they offer is a great and powerful tool that — when used well — can enrich your book.

That said, there are a few conventions when it comes to epigraphs. Let’s take a look at them now.

Where can you put an epigraph?

image:  Penguin Classics

While the most common place for epigraphs is at the very beginning of the story, such as the prologue, some authors choose to place different ones before each of the chapters, sections, or parts of their book — particularly if it’s a lengthy work.

The novel Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is divided into four different parts, before which there is one epigraph. They each introduce either the theme of the section, or are somewhat related to the events that take place. They read:

Part One: Beyond the Zero

Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death. Wernher von Braun

Part Two: Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering

You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. Merian C. Cooper

Part Three: In the Zone

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore… Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Part Four: The Counterforce

What? Richard M. Nixon

Conversely, several epigraphs can also be found together at the beginning of the book, with some having three or even four in a single page.

Along with The Handmaid’s Tale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows also starts with multiple epigraphs. Its first epigraph is a quote from a classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, while the second one is from a 1682 collection of epigrams and sayings by William Penn. Both of them deal with death — one of the major motifs of the book.

What can an epigraph consist of?

There is just as much freedom in sourcing your epigraphs as there is in their placement. They can come from just about anywhere — books, proverbs, songs, speeches, or classical and religious texts. However, you can also choose not to quote others and instead write your own epigraph.

Epigraphs from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The epigraph from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a quote from the Bible:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

The epigraph from The Great Gatsby, is a quote by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, a character created by Fitzgerald himself for his novel This Side of Paradise.

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 Color Purple, Alice Walker uses a quote from Stevie Wonder’s song “Do Like You.”

Show me how to do like you. Show me how to do it. Stevie Wonder

Can you use any quote as an epigraph?

If you want to quote a published work for your epigraph, then you might need to follow certain rules. Don’t assume that you can simply use a quote from your favorite song or book, make sure you know what you require in order to take the necessary precautions.

If the quote you want to use is in the public domain — in the United States, this means anything published before 1923 — then you’re probably in the clear and don’t need permission to use it. If not, then you most likely need to get the Copyright Holder’s Permission, which will ensure that you won’t be liable for copyright infringement. No matter how well an epigraph fits your story, the trouble of not following the appropriate procedures is not worth it. To learn more about copyright, check out this post. Or go this way to grab a free copyright page.

While epigraphs are optional features within a book, they can provide information that can enhance the readers’ experience. It’s not just about choosing any random quote, but instead about looking for — or coming up with — one that will serve a purpose within your story.

What are some of your favorite epigraphs? Let us know in the comments below!