- Karina Sokulski
To Epigraph or Not to Epigraph?
Not too long ago, a much respected fellow writer wrote a blog post on how to write author biographies for their books (link here). Her fabulous post inspired me to share some learned wisdom of my own on a topic several members of my critique circles are unsure about:
Some of you right off the bat will know what they are and what other authors will use them for. Some of you are like me and jump to the opportunity to stick one at the beginning of your novels while others are a bit more hesitant due to the indecisive nature that can come from picking just the right quote. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, stick around and I'll ramble on them long enough to get you contemplating if they're worth your time.
Which ever category you fall under, I feel the need to dive into the indulgence many authors nowadays dabble in and explain why, perhaps, they may be a good idea. Before I even begin though, here's what an epigraph even is: an epigraph is a quote or phrase that is usually placed to appear in a book before the beginning of your first chapter.
This in no way is such a set-in-stone rule, as I have seen authors who have one epigraph per section of a short story, or per several chapters of a novel. It's rare to see, and in my opinion is a little overwhelming, but as in the writing world: there's no set rule on anything.
You can probably assume my personal preference is to simply have one epigraph in the very beginning of the book alone. It's simpler and much less exhausting to attach to your novel. The purpose of having a single epigraph makes much more sense when you understand the reasoning behind why an epigraph can be a good idea to add to your book--which we will discuss now.
An epigraph sets the mood. It's the first line your readers will read before they start the prologue or chapter 1. An epigraph is the first taste your readers will get of what's to come in terms of expectation towards your story's tone and enticement of how the reader should be approaching the content of your story.
An epigraph can communicate several aspects of your story to your readers, even before they begin to read it. An epigraph should always connect in some way to the your story. Whether the epigraph of your choosing is foreshadowing the events to come, or honing in on what you are trying to say to your audience, an epigraph should be chosen carefully.
Here are a couple of examples of my favorite epigraphs used by authors I love:
In Libba Bray's novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, she begins by utilizing the second part of the great Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem, The Lady of Shalott (click the title if you're not familiar with it). The use of this half of the poem is scintillatingly clever as the poem makes mention of the curse upon the Lady of Shalott (of which the Lady is aware she will surely be doomed to suffer) and can be directly paralleled with Bray's main character of the series, Gemma Doyle.
I refuse to spoil much of this plot as it is definitely a wonderful read, so I'll keep this simple: Tennyson's poem sets the tone for the entirety of this book in both the circumstances our heroin will face and the sense of doom that imposes upon her journey. This was one of the books that definitely peaked my curiosity towards the use of epigraphs, as it left an impression on me to have such a clear grasp of how the story was going to feel even before I started reading it.
The same can be said for Lauren Kate's novel, Fallen. Kate begins this novel with the more traditional selection of a quote as an epigraph rather than several stanzas of a poem on a page. Both, of course, are valid choices but both choices were made based upon what was best for their stories. The quote below is what appears as Kate's epigraph for her book:
"But paradise is locked and bolted...
We must make a journey around the world
to see if a back door has perhaps been left open."
--Heinrich Von Kleist, "On the Puppet Theater"
This particular quote again works to set the tone of the story much like Tennyson's poem did in Bray's book. The difference here however, is instead of Kate providing a quote that communicates the themes of her story, it actually communicates more of the story's plot than we realize on the surface. Again, I refuse to spoil how as this is yet another great read you should add to your list, but I assume you understand the example.
In historical fiction and nonfiction, many authors will use actual news articles from the time periods their stories are based in, or quotes from great people of history related to their time period. An example of this is, say, the story of a girl living during the revolutionary war who briefly comes in contact with George Washington when her family offer their farm to the general and his army. Most likely you will see a famous quote from George Washington himself on the first page as the epigraph, or maybe a quote by Benjamin Franklin. It would of course, depend on what aspect of the war the writer is intending to focus on, but you see where I'm going with this.
Now there are downsides to utilizing epigraphs in novels as well. There are several in fact, but the most significant is perhaps choosing to have an epigraph because you see other authors doing it. As authors, by nature, we are imitators. We imitate authors we love because it is how we learn to write. We imitate until we generate our own unique voice. I'll readily admit part of why I choose to use epigraphs in my stories is because my favorite authors inspired me to do the same. I admit it.
Even so though, I implore others as I was implored by others, to always think carefully if undergoing the process of adding this detail to my novels.
There's honestly nothing stranger than seeing a novel with an unfitting epigraph at the beginning because as you can imagine, such a circumstance will only confuse the reader from the very first page.
On the topic of the first page, the epigraph is one of the "Big Three" when it comes to the three aspects of your book that can capture a potential reader's attention. Those "Big Three" are the cover, the summary on the back and (if your book possesses it) the epigraph. As I mentioned earlier, the epigraph is the first taste of the rest of your story. Maybe I'm part of a small group of people who partake in this particular form of "flavoring" when it comes to looking for a new read, but this is the order in which I look at the "Big Three." The cover, the summary and then the epigraph.
Book covers, as we know, are so important and need to be eye-catching. If you're book has gotten me to stop walking in the isle, you've got two more steps to go to get me to take it to the register. Next step will obviously be the summary. Here's where I begin to sample what you're serving. If the summary you have on the back has gotten my attention enough to flip your book open, what's the first thing you think I'm going to look at?
The first page.
For me, the epigraph is the cream-filling to that sweet donut you put on the plate. You've given me something to glance at without having to read the first chapter to decide if I'm swiping a credit card for your book. Now, this will be where many authors divide on the use of an epigraph. Which is fair.
Some authors prefer the first chapter be that epigraph readers read. They prefer not to offer a quote from another work that matches well enough to the content of their book, because they feel it isn't necessary. The story will speak for itself without the use. Again, that is totally valid.
I on the other hand, whole-heartedly prefer utilizing epigraphs for my writing if I can manage it because it's my way of offering convenience to my readers. Especially potentially knew audience members. An epigraph really is just an extra hook you can dangle before your other hook in your first chapter comes.
Now this analysis of whether or not to use an epigraph is admittedly going back and forth but the truth is there's no clear-cut answer to whether you should use one for your novel or not. Its entirely up to you as the author. As many examples as I can pull from my bookshelf of books that sport fancy epigraphs, I can also pull an equal amount of books that skipped the use of an epigraph entirely.
In the end, it'll be up to you to decide whether or not an epigraph is worth your trouble, but from one author to another: I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for epigraphs that will make the perfect fit for my writing.