The How and Why of Epigraphs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love a good epigraph. That’s the quotation some authors put on a standalone page right before the novel begins. It is not to be confused with an epigram, which is a pithy and witty statement. However, if placed at the front of a book, an epigram becomes an epigraph, thus epitomizing epiphenomena (secondary effects).

This is the epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime. — Balzac

The purpose of an epigraph is one or more of the following:

  1. Hint at the theme of the novel.
  2. Help set the tone.
  3. Create curiosity about the content.
  4. Put a wry smile on the reader’s face.

Stephen King is positively giddy about epigraphs. He usually has two or more. Like in Cell, a novel about an electronic signal sent out over a global cell phone network. The signal turns those who hear it into mindless, zombie-like killers. Why? Perhaps by removing all psychological restraints, resulting in animalistic behavior. Here are King’s epigraphs:

The id will not stand for a delay in gratification. It always feels the tension of the unfulfilled urge. – Sigmund Freud

Human aggression is instinctual. Humans have not evolved any ritualized aggression-inhibiting mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species. For this reason man is considered a very dangerous animal. – Konrad Lorenz

Can you hear me now? – Verizon

That last one gave me a wry smile indeed. Here a few more examples:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Love is the world’s infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it; it is the inevitable blossoming of its opposites, a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood. — Tony Kushner, THE ILLUSION

For my Mike Romeo thrillers, I use two epigraphs. Because Romeo is both classically educated and trained in cage fighting, I choose a quote from classic lit and something more contemporary. For example, here are the epigraphs for Romeo’s Way:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles … – Homer, The Iliad

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. – Mike Tyson

How do I find a good epigraph?

First, brainstorm some of the topics and themes that apply to your novel, e.g.,

  • Drug use among kids
  • Criminal enterprises, darkness of
  • Fighting to balance the scales of justice
  • Chaos in the streets
  • Hope in hopeless situations
  • Is true love possible?

Next, think of your lead character’s strengths and weaknesses, such as:

  • Will kick your butt if provoked
  • Hard to trust other people
  • Has an anger issue
  • Has compassion for the weak
  • Can’t stand injustice anywhere

With those in mind, you can being your search. I have big library of quote books, led by the venerable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I also have “off the wall” collections that provide funny or ironic possibilities. Two of my faves are The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Wikonur and 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne.

There are online resources, of course, like The Quotations Page, which allows you to search by keyword and author.

So you look around and find several possibilities. Later, choose the best one. Save the others in a file for possible use in the future.

Can I make up an epigraph?

Well, some have. Dean Koontz made up many of his, and even a fictional source, The Book of Counted Sorrows. Readers and booksellers all over the world were stymied trying to find a copy of this rare tome. Koontz eventually copped to it, and even issued a short-term ebook version of it via Barnes & Noble. (If you want to read the epigraphs, you can do so here.)

I don’t advise this tactic, however. A reader may become frustrated trying to track down the quote on the internet. And who do you think you are anyway? Shakespeare?

Do I need permission to quote?

You do not need permission from a copyright holder to use a line or two from a published source. An epigraph is the very essence of fair use.

The one possible exception to this is song lyrics. Careful lawyers and nervous publishers will tell you to get permission. That is a long, laborious process that could end up costing you a fee. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the fair use doctrine, which you can find online (as here). I think an argument can be made for the fair use of a line from a song. See, e.g., this well-reasoned opinion. (Note: I dispense no legal advice in this post. Talk about being careful!) The risk-reward ratio may not be favorable for most writers.

Where do I place an epigraph?

On the page just before Page 1 of your novel. And note: an epigraph is not a dedication. If you use a dedication, the epigraph should follow, not precede it.

How many epigraphs can I use?

My rule of thumb is one or two. At most, three. More than that risks overburdening the reader and diluting the purpose.

With a book broken up into parts, you can put an epigraph before each part. If you’re feeling frisky you can use an epigraph for every chapter (!) as Stephen King does in one of his Bachman novels, The Long Walk.

Do I put quote marks around the epigraph?

No.

Do I italicize an epigraph?

It’s up to you. Either choice is fine. Just never italicize the source. E.g.,

The free-lance writer is one who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. — Robert Benchley

What if I can’t find a good one?

When in doubt go to Shakespeare, the Bible, or Mark Twain.

Do readers really read epigraphs?

The true answer is that most probably don’t. Or else they just skim right past them on the way to the story. Which raises the question, is it worth the author’s time to hunt them down?

You have to answer that for yourself. My answer is yes. I like epigraphs and I’m happy to spend the extra time for the readers who like them as well.

Plus, after finishing a novel, my search for the perfect epigraph is like my gift to the book. The book has been with me since the idea phase, whispering sweet nothings in my ear, fighting me sometimes but always with its heart in the right place. I figure I owe the book a little something and a good epigraph is it.

Over to you now. Are you an epigraph fan? Have you used them yourself?

69 thoughts on “The How and Why of Epigraphs

  1. Good morning, Jim. I love epigraphs. One of my major reasons for buying and reading each and all of Ken Bruen’s books is his frequent, seemingly constant, use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter of each novel. Some are from fairly well-known sources, others are obscure as all get-out. All are interesting.

    • That would be interesting, Joe. I’ve seen one or two authors use pull quotes from the actual chapter. I wouldn’t call these epigraphs…teasers, maybe?

  2. Absolutely. Big fan, primarily because they “lead” me into the book. They set a tone or mood and provide a stepping stone from my drab reality down into the world of the story I’m about to read and the characters who are about to act it out.

    In my own novels (and even some short stories) I use them sometimes, if they occur to me. I never go hunting for one unless I already have it in mind and want to be sure about the wording.

      • Jim, I just remembered. I based my The Future of Humanity [FOH] series (10 novels and counting) on a quote from Stephen Hawking that I used as an epigraph:

        “[E]ither a nuclear confrontation or environmental catastrophe will cripple the Earth at some point in the next 1,000 years. However, by then our ingenious race will have found a way to slip the surly bonds of Earth and will therefore survive the disaster.” Stephen Hawking

  3. I tend to skip over all the ‘extra stuff’ at tops of pages. That includes date and time stamps, or in the case of the book I’m reading, the header telling me whose POV I’m in.

    (I did the same thing with textbooks, too. Don’t ask my why my eye doesn’t like them.)

    Notice I began this comment with “I tend” which means sometimes I read them, but if they make me feel like I’m in English class again, trying to “read the chapter and answer the following question: “What does this quote have to do with the chapter/book/story?” I move right along.

  4. I haven’t used epigraphs, but I like reading them if they have a purpose related to the work that follows.

    Although I’ve seen some of the movies based on Raymond Chandler’s novels, I had never read any of his work. So, a few days ago, I bought an ebook collection that contains his 7 novels and 25 short stories. (A good deal for $3.99.) I think many of Marlowe’s lines would make wonderful epigraphs.

    • Boy, that is one great collection, Truant. And yes, so many great lines. Indeed, Michael Connelly got the title A Darkness More Than Night from a line in a Chandler essay.

  5. Love them! Have used them a bunch – sometimes at each chapter change – love finding the perfect quote that pertains to what’s happening in that chapter.

    Here’s one from my April 22 release, The Road to Me:

    “Your life is a pen. You can cross out your past, but you can’t erase it.
    Unknown

    • Or, as it appears in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

      𝓣𝓱𝓮 𝓶𝓸𝓿𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝓯𝓲𝓷𝓰𝓮𝓻 𝔀𝓻𝓲𝓽𝓮𝓼, 𝓪𝓷𝓭, 𝓱𝓪𝓿𝓲𝓷𝓰 𝔀𝓻𝓲𝓽, 𝓶𝓸𝓿𝓮𝓼 𝓸𝓷. 𝓝𝓸𝓻 𝓪𝓵𝓵 𝓽𝓱𝔂 𝓹𝓲𝓮𝓽𝔂 𝓷𝓸𝓻 𝔀𝓲𝓽 𝓼𝓱𝓪𝓵𝓵 𝓵𝓾𝓻𝓮 𝓲𝓽 𝓫𝓪𝓬𝓴 𝓽𝓸 𝓬𝓪𝓷𝓬𝓮𝓵 𝓱𝓪𝓵𝓯 𝓪 𝓵𝓲𝓷𝓮.

  6. Good morning, Jim. Great post. I learned some rules of using epigraphs that I was not previously aware of.

    Epigraph – also not to be confused with epitaph. Although, I suppose with some books, it may be appropriate.

    I’m a fan, for much of the same reasons Harvey mentioned. For me, reading a book, the epigraph tells me how to filter and interpret what follows, what tone and theme the writer is setting.

    As a writer, I love to put hidden meaning into the story. The epigraph is the key I give the reader to unlock and find that secret.

    Thanks for the information!

  7. An epigraph is like an inside joke the reader will get as he reads the book. I haven’t used them since I’m like Terry and rarely read the “extra stuff at the top of the page.” But this intrigues me so I probably will.

  8. Thanks for this. In my current WiP, I quote a Chinese Proverb. It’s several sentences like those used by King and Flynn. Though my editor said, “Kinda long, but it works,” I’ve been debating its use ever since. This blog gives me the confidence to leave it.

  9. I always loved how Frank Herbert (the Dune sci-fi series) used epigraphs for each chapter. He made them up, of course, because they were a retrospective “quote” from his distant future’s past–still in our future. Each characterized an aspect of universal human folly, not necessarily germane to the chapter itself, but pithy enough to give pause. The man moved in other worlds.

  10. I still remember the first time I ever saw one. Bantam, back in the ’70’s, republished RE Howard’s Conan stories (with assists from Lin Carter and L Sprague DeCamp) in mostly chronological order. I picked up the first (still have it and all of the other 11) from that blast from the past, Walden Books. There REH quotes from the Nemedian Chronicles.

    I’ve loved epigraphs since!

  11. Great teaching post, Jim. Thanks…

    I love epigraphs, and I read them. They’re like a delicious appetizer. They whet my appetite for the story. And I always pause over the epigraph and try to figure out what hint it might give me for the story to come.

    For my novel No Tomorrows (still with the agent…can you hear my drumming fingers?), I found this quote from Ben Franklin: One today is worth two tomorrows.

    That quote sums up the MC’s arc to a T, and to a lesser degree, a couple of the other characters.

    And the cool thing is, Deb Gorman is learning from those characters how to live each day like there’s no tomorrow…because, well, there isn’t yet. 🙂

    Have a great Sunday!

  12. I definitely am an epigraph person, Jim. The set a tone, herald a hero’s hurdles or accomplishments, pose a question, heighten a reader’s awareness. I like them in others’ books, and, recently, my own. I made one up for “Runaway Moon.” The thoughtful reader will notice the quote is from my heroine who dreamed about being a famous writer, and finding a home and partner.

    The quoted epigraph attribution is signed with her initials “C.C.” paired with the surname of the man who pursued her. Calling her a (fictitious) Will James Book Award author suggests shr realized her writing dreams in a big way!

  13. I use an epigraph before my antagonist’s chapters in my Mayhem Series to set the tone. I used a longer quote as the dedication in SILENT MAYHEM …
    May the stars carry your sadness away.
    May the flowers fill your heart with beauty.
    May hope forever wipe away your tears.
    And, above all, may silence make you strong.
    — Chief Dan George

    Whether readers skip quotes/epigraphs or not, I still love ’em. Excellent subject, Jim. Enjoy your Sunday!

  14. Insightful and interesting post, Jim. I do enjoy epigraphs as a reader, but I have yet to use them in my own novels. Feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, though I will say that getting them right, to this reader at least, is tricky–sometimes they can seem overblown. The examples you showed, though, pretty much all get it very right.

    This is something I’m going to think about for my books in the future. I could see it working well, regardless of genre, provided I “choose” wisely 🙂

    Thanks for this! Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • I think you will enjoy the process, Dale. It’s fun for your own creative juices. Maybe pausing in the middle of a draft it’s a way to deepen your view of the material. All sorts of possibilities!

  15. I rarely use epigrams. As someone who is very highly educated and writes in popular genre, I’ve always been overly cautious not to use a five-dollar word when a one-or-two dollar word will do, and references about stuff I and my character know must really fit the plot, give enough info to give the reader a clue, and never be casual. Epigrams fall into that category.

    However, the third book of a sadly unpublished trilogy was an exception because it was more complex in linear structure with sections written at different times in the character’s life, and each section title referenced THE TEMPEST and the sea-changed main character often references “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because it resonates with him. Hence, my two epigrams.
     
    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
    By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown        
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot

    Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    “Ariel’s Song,” THE TEMPEST, William Shakespeare

  16. Jim, your post instantly made me think of the opening to Blackhawk Down where the epigraph “Only the dead have seen an end to war ~Plato” appears on the screen. It’s a powerful statement, and I wondered if it was accurately attributed to the age-old philosopher. I did a quick fact check and found this:

    “Only the dead have seen an end to war.”
    The movie opens with a quote attributed to philosopher Plato. Gen. Douglas MacArthur first misquoted this phrase as being said by Plato, but it was actually written by George Santayana in his book, “The Life of Reason.”

    Bonus: An earlier cut of the movie opened with a quote from poet T.S. Eliot, which said, “All our ignorance brings us closer to death.”

    • Garry, this again points out the worth of tracking down quotes to their true source. It’s tough, because sometimes the quote sounds accurate, and is actually in line with the sentiments of the source, but may be a rephrasing. Neil Gaiman uses a great Chesterton quote in one of his books, but turns out to be his own paraphrase—and a good one at that. I’m of two minds on this. I love accuracy, but maybe a little bit of leeway?

  17. I always read them. They’re part of the author’s intent with the work, so I consider them a part of the work itself. One thing that annoys me about Kindle is that it opens the book on page 1, skipping the epigraph, chapters, etc. I have to go backwards for it, but I do it.

    • That’s a great point for indies, Cat. I noticed that, too, so I put my epigraphs at the top of page 1. Vellum, that great formatting software, has a special page for epigraphs. I don’t use it in the ebook version for the very reason you point out. I do use it in the print version.

  18. Oh, yes. Love ’em and use ’em. Always on Recto page (although CMoS says it could be either). Always after the Dedication. So yeah, I’m a fan.

    Good, pointed topic!

  19. I love epigraphs, and I read them when I start a new book. It’s like a peek through the keyhole. (I especially like “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles”)

    I used an epigraph in each of my two published novels (both mysteries):

    Novel #1 – The Watch on the Fencepost:
    “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” — Albert Einstein

    Novel #2 – Dead Man’s Watch
    “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” — Jerusalem Talmud

  20. I like them but don’t see them often in books, nor did I know the ten dollar word that defines them. LOL!

    In reading your post I can see how, just as we have to take care with crafting the best possible story, we need to choose the best epigraph for the work. Also from your example, I can see that epigraphs can make or break whether a person turns the page and goes further. Example: I’m clearly not a horror fan, as I would have immediately closed the book and moved on after reading those depressing epigraphs used by Stephen King.

    In looking at these examples it’s fun to see what an immediate emotional reaction they bring–instant turn off, like the ones used by King. Or, for your Romeo examples, I groan when reading Homer but am amused by the Tyson quote (and it’s the Tyson quote that would make me read further–if you had ONLY used Homer, and I wasn’t familiar with your work, I might not have continued on because my brain read Homer and instantly said “b-o-r-i-n-g”.

    I think it’s fun to choose an epigraph to represent your work. One of those nerdy things I could totally get into. LOL!

    And thanks for answering my question before I could ask it–that the epigraph should follow the dedication, not precede it.

    I think I’m going to try this with the next manuscript I write. Should be fun. Also a way to keep myself focused.

    • Whoa! You really are a … careful? … reader, BK. I never thought an epigraph could turn someone off from even starting page 1! Yikes!

      Methinks virtually every browser knows the genre they are previewing, so the epigraph itself shouldn’t come as a shock. At least I hope so!

      • Yes, MOST of the time the browser knows the genre they are previewing, but some genres are more tightly consistent than others. Everybody, whether they read horror or not, knows who Stephen King is.

        But take emails I regularly receive offering me a glimpse of books I might like. They take “I might like” very liberally. But some genres, such as historical, are all over the place in content, therefore not all of interest, & I’m sure that’s true for other genres too.

        And book covers are not always indicative of style & genre, though writers are taught to use covers that are right for their genre.

        All that rambling to say, yes, choosing the right epigraph matters and could turn a reader on or off. If the reader already knows the author, it probably isn’t a big deal. Not so if they’re measuring an author for the first time.

        I make lots of assessments about front matter. For example, I just started reading a historical by a new author who is cluttering the front matter with a list of characters and other minutiae. That tells me they think I’m not capable of following along with their story.

        It matters what’s in front of the story.

  21. I linger over epigrams, finding they often set my imagination free; I jot story ideas on slips of paper before settling in to enjoy the book in hand.

    And I yearn for a copy of Dean Koontz’s “The Book of Counted Sorrows” because they added so much to the emotions evoked by each book.

    If I find some that speak to what I’m writing, I will include at least one in the WIP.

  22. I view my life as a novel in progress. As I awoke this morning, I anxiously turned the 27,373rd page to see what happens next. I see epigrams and epigraphs in everyday things. I’ve learned to ignore them at significant risk.

    A funny one comes to mind. In my tumbleweed life, I lived for a while in Pensacola, FL. A place of beautiful fluffy white sand beaches with clear emerald green waters. An sign offered an epigram/epigraph advising, “Please park in designated areas. If not, please call a tow truck. You’ll need it.”

    The fluffy white sand looked like sugar and had about the same consistency. One sunk deeply while walking across it, a great benefit in the hot summer sun. One’s feet were treated more gently by the cooler sand some inches below the surface. I noted the cars of those who did not heed the epigram. Their underbellies were even with the sand, so thoroughly stuck their occupants had great difficulty opening the doors.

    One never dared to smile or laugh at such things. Frustrated, angry people are best dealt with while wearing a plain face with sad eyes.

    Somewhere around page 8,800 I learned not all ignored epigrams/epigraphs resulted in humorous outcomes. “Make sure power is disconnected before opening cabinet.” had fatal consequences to a coworker.

    During my many trips to London, I had occasion to make use of their Underground or Tube. Ignoring their epigram of “Mind the gap” could also result in a nasty outcome. The same holds true for their “Look Right —>” crosswalk signs. They seem to lose lots of tourist who ignore them.

    Yes, I am a fan of epigrams and epigraphs. The epigram opening of my WIP (thus making it also an epigraph by JSB’s definition):
    Successful parties are talked about for days.
    Disastrous ones, gossiped about for months.
    This particular one — years?

    • Lars, I recall clearly the “Mind the Gap” warnings in the tube in London. What I never got right was driving on the left side and going into those roundabouts. It was sheer luck I survived.

      • The trick with the roundabouts it to have a rental car and toss the rental contract onto the dashboard. Most other alert drivers instantly realize they are dealing with an amateur and give you a wide berth. Works just as well when shooting the 6 to 2 lane funnel into Boston’s Logan airport, alerting others to “I’ve got a rental car and won’t be shopping around for 3 repair quotes.”

        I got Mississippi car license tags while stationed there for training during military service. Found them quite useful and renewed them while I was stationed in the LA area. People cut you a lot of slack in big city traffic when they realize they are dealing with a country bumpkin.

    • Lars, I love your idea of each day of your life being the next page of your story. Absolutely true. I do the same thing with my characters.

      I assume their life (and story) is ongoing even when I’m not checking in on them. So when it’s time again, I just open a door on that world, roll off the parapet into the trenches of their story, and run through the story with them for awhile. I repay them by acting as their stenographer, writing down what happens. Great fun!

  23. I love The Portable Curmudgeon! It’s on the shelf behind me, next to Winokur’s W.O.W./Writers On Writing, which has on the dust jacket the truth of my life: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” ~Peter De Vries

  24. I consider epigrams a sub-class of prologues. A poll established that readers DO read prologues. It’s forewords that are read only by people seeing if they’re mentioned therein. I have yet to use an epigram in a novel, a lacuna I must rectify with the final line from a (real) 3-act tragedy:

    𝕺𝖚𝖙 𝖔𝖋 𝖉𝖆𝖗𝖐𝖓𝖊𝖘𝖘 𝖘𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖊 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖙𝖆𝖗𝖘.–𝕻𝖍𝖔𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖔𝖓, 𝖎𝖓 “𝕸𝖎𝖉𝖓𝖎𝖌𝖍𝖙 𝖎𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝕿𝖊𝖒𝖕𝖑𝖊 𝖔𝖋 𝕴𝖘𝖎𝖘”

  25. I enjoy epigraphs and used one in my debut novel. I expect I will also use them in future novels – my goal is at least ten. As a historical novelist who writes in biblical times, my epigraph is from the Bible – Deuteronomy 11:16-17, which is a hint at theme as well as the title, Rain.

    I’m a nerdy reader of everything in a book – if I get past the first ten pages, that is. Too many books, too little time to read books I don’t immediately love. I enjoy intros, author comments, who did the title, drew the maps, and who is the agent. Curious, or maybe nosy. 🙂 Sometimes I don’t read the questions for book clubs at the end. 🙂

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