What Is An Epigraph? All You Need To Know – Jericho Writers
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What Is An Epigraph? All You Need To Know

What Is An Epigraph? All You Need To Know

As a reader, perhaps you have enjoyed the use of epigraphs before, but never quite understood why an author has chosen to use them.

Or maybe as a writer, you have considered using epigraphs, but have resisted because you are not sure about how best to implement them. 

In this article, we will include an epigraph definition, look at some epigraph examples, and provide some tips on using epigraphs effectively. Hopefully by the end of this guide, you’ll be able to use epigraphs to improve your writing and make it stand out from the rest. 

So, to begin, let’s discuss what the word epigraph actually means.

What Is An Epigraph?  

In short, an epigraph is a short (typically fictional) quotation, saying, or poem that is used as an extract in an author’s book in order to gently guide the reader into the story’s world. Some authors will use a one-off epigraph at the start of the book, just after the title page, and others will include an epigraph at the very beginning of each chapter heading. In other examples, authors used epigraphs at the end of their books as part of, or solely as, an epilogue. Epigraphs are contained in quotation marks and it’s vital that they are attributed to the correct person.

In some instances, an epigraph will be a simple one-line quote or saying and in other examples it could be several lines of poetry or prose from a literary work. It is totally down to the writers’ discretion how many lines, or how many epigraphs they decide to use. 

So now that we understand what an epigraph is, it’s important to establish its purpose in writing and why you might consider using one (or many of them) in your book. 

person-reading-choosing-an-epigraph

What Is The Purpose Of An Epigraph?  

The purpose of an epigraph is to help set the tone, themes, and subjects that will later materialise in the story.

An epigraph can help the reader gain a sense of what is to come and help an author to establish context very early on in the book.

Epigraphs are often thought-provoking and they create intrigue and interest at the beginning of a text/chapter. They’re also used to foreshadow mood /an exciting event, or make a satirical statement.

To fully appreciate the purpose and effectiveness of literary epigraphs, it is useful to consider some published examples. Below are some examples of texts that have used epigraphs successfully. 

Examples Of Epigraphs  

To Kill A Mockingbird By Harper Lee 

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.

This is possibly one of the most famous examples of an epigraph being used to create intrigue and establish the context for the complex and emotional story that would later unfold. It is wonderfully simple yet extremely clever. 

Life After Life By Kate Atkinson 

What if we had the chance to it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Edward Beresford – Todd 

Atkinson uses three epigraphs at the beginning of this novel, but what makes this quote unusual is that it is actually made by one of the main characters of the book.  

It is also a wonderfully apt quote, perfect to set up the main theme of the novel, which is reliving a life – and by using a quote from a character, we can appreciate his importance in the story.

Watership Down By Richard Adams 

CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror? 

CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood 

CHORUS: How so? ‘Tis but the odor of the altar sacrifice

CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

Aeschylus, Agamemnan 

Watership Down is an excellent example of epigraphs being used at the beginning of each chapter – and this quote from chapter one really sets the theme for the reader. By using continuous quotes and extracts throughout the novel, Adams is able to hint at the terror and threat that is awaiting his characters and can continue to create a sense of intrigue and danger throughout the book.  

book-pile-epigraphs

The Circle By Dave Eggers 

There wasn’t any limit, no boundary at all, to future. And it would be so a man wouldn’t have room to store his happiness.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

By using this quote at the beginning of his novel, Eggers is able to set the theme of his futuristic and utopian setting. This quote helps to pose a question with the reader, hinting that perhaps the safe and happy world that is being presented, isn’t all it seems. 

The Double Life of Daisy Hemmings By Joanna Nadin 

Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Again, this quote is thought-provoking and helps to set up the main theme of book, which is people changing. It is extremely apt and sets the context for the story that unfolds perfectly. 

How To Use An Epigraph In Your Book  

In this section, we are going to explore how best to use and decide on your own epigraph for your book.  

  • Consider using texts, extracts and quotes that have themes that best overlap with yours.  
  • Ensure that you have permission to use the text/quotes or extracts. Remember, copyright restrictions may be in place (this is usually the author’s lifetime, plus seventy years) but it is always best to check with the writer’s estate or agency to be sure. 
  • Consider whether you want to foreshadow an event or mood and if so, try to use an epigraph that can help with this. 
  • You might want to use an epigraph to develop or hint at a character development, in which case you need to find one that best fits those needs.
  • Take time to read through examples and consider how epigraphs might best suit your work. Could a small quote at the beginning set up the scene? Or would continuous epigraphs at each chapter help shape the theme and build intrigue throughout the novel? Decide what best suits you. 

It’s important to remember that most authors are drawn to quotes and texts instinctively and just ‘know’ that they belong in the novel. It makes sense that a piece of writing that has influenced you, or a poem that means a lot to you, will also connect to the story you have written. If your gut instinct feels that it’s right, it often is! Just ensure you are allowed to use it! 

Let’s now consider some frequently asked questions regarding the use of epigraphs. 

woman-reading-book-epigraph

Frequently Asked Questions 

What Is An Example Of An Epigraph? 

An epigraph is a short quotation, saying, or poem that is used in novels. These (often fictional) quotations can either be included at the start of the book or at the beginning of each chapter. An example is the epigraph, “lawyers, I suppose, were children once”, used in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Why Are Epigraphs Used? 

An epigraph helps to set the theme, tone or the subject that will materialise later in the story. It can foreshadow what will come and build intrigue and suspense. 

Where Should I Use An Epigraph? 

This is a totally personal preference. Many authors prefer to have their epigraphs at the beginning of the novel. Others will use epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, some at the end of a novel.  

You need to choose the method that feels right for you and fits with your book. 

How Long Should An Epigraph Be? 

There are no wrong or right answers here. However, it is often suggested that epigraphs which consist of a short phrase or a few lines are best for creating intrigue and holding the reader’s interest. 

What Copyright Considerations Do I Need To Consider When Using Epigraphs? 

You need to check that you have legal permission to use any text, quotes, or extracts. Remember copyright restrictions are often in place (usually the author’s lifetime, plus seventy years) unless the text is in the public domain. If you’re unsure about the copyright, check with the writer’s estate or agency. 

Choosing An Epigraph

Throughout this guide we have explored epigraphs in much detail and considered their use and how they can be most effective in writing. There is little doubt that for many writers, epigraphs are a great way of setting the theme and tone of a novel and helping a reader get a sense of what might be unveiled later in the book. 

The key thing to remember, is that the use of epigraphs is a totally personal one. Take time to explore quotes and extracts that might work for your text. Ensure that you have the correct permissions. Consider whether your epigraph is having the effect you want it to have. 

But most of all, have fun with it and follow your heart. Epigraphs are often selected because they connect to the author in some way and because of this, they will connect to the reader. The most effective epigraphs are the ones that aren’t forced but feel like they belong to the writing. 

Good luck! 


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