• 5-minute read
  • 26th September 2019

What Is an Epigraph? And How Do I Write One?

Some books include a short quote or phrase at the beginning. These are known as epigraphs. Any book can include an epigraph, but why do authors include epigraphs in their work? And what are they for? In this post, we tell you everything you need to know about using an epigraph in your writing.

What Is an Epigraph For?

Typically, epigraphs are part of the front matter of a book. This means they appear before the main text, so most authors use epigraphs to frame the rest of the book or to foreshadow something within it.

Epigraphs can serve many purposes, but three of the most common include:

  1. Setting the theme, tone or mood of the rest of the book.
  2. Telling the reader something about the world of a story.
  3. Foreshadowing the plot of a story.

We’ll now look a bit closer at how each of these works, with examples.

1. Setting the Theme or Tone

An epigraph is a good way of setting the tone of a book. For example, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with a short quotation:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime. – Balzac

The attribution of this quote is a little debatable. But regardless of who wrote it, it serves an important purpose: the Balzac quote tells us we’re about to read a story in which money, power, and crime are key factors.

One option for an epigraph, then, is to find a short quote or phrase that captures the spirit or theme of the book as a whole.

2. World Building

Sometimes, an epigraph will tell us about the world of a story. This is quite common in fantasy and sci-fi novels, which often begin with a fictional quote about the history or mythology of the story’s world. A very famous example of this comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for 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 is a fictional quote from a poem, offering both background information about Middle Earth and a sense of the mythic tone characteristic of Tolkien’s famed fantasy saga. And since this same quote appears at the beginning of each book, it also helps tie the trilogy together.

3. Foreshadowing the Plot

Sometimes, an author will pick an epigraph that hints at plot points in their story. The title page of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, quotes two short lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?

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This foreshadows the key event of the story: Victor Frankenstein creating the “creature.” But it also hints at the sense of betrayal the creature feels and the conflict between creator and creation. In this case, then, the epigraph hints at the themes of the novel by foreshadowing the plot.

What Can I Use as an Epigraph?

If you’re looking for an epigraph for your own book, the literary world is your oyster. You could quote a book, a historical figure, a poem, a song, food packaging, or really whatever you want.

Alternatively, as with Tolkien above, you could write something yourself.

The only real guidelines we’ll suggest are:

  1. Keep it short (as little as one line, but no more than a paragraph).
  2. If you are quoting a copyrighted text, make sure you have permission.

This second point is especially important, as epigraphs are not usually considered fair use. To sidestep this problem, make sure to ask permission from the rights holder or only quote public domain texts in epigraphs.

Summary: Epigraphs

An epigraph is a short phrase or quotation at the start of a book.

Typically, authors use a single epigraph at the very beginning of a book, but some add one at the start of each chapter or section as well.

You can use an epigraph to foreshadow the tone, theme or plot of a book.

An epigraph is thus a bit like an “appetizer,” with the main course being the rest of the text. As such, a good epigraph will have a similar thematic or tonal “flavor” to the book overall, priming the reader for what to expect.

You can use anything as an epigraph, but if you’re going to quote copyrighted material in full (e.g., an entire poem), make sure you have permission. Alternatively, you can write your own epigraph to fit the world or theme of the book (e.g., a fictional quotation from a character in the story).

And if you need help polishing a manuscript, try our editing services today.

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