In a novel, there are different parts to the story – a natural progression to the storytelling. The beginning, also known as exposition, is where the world of the novel is built and the tone of the story is established. Sometimes, though, the exposition can take too long to set everything up. A good way to set the tone or theme of the novel is to include an epigraph.
An epigraph is a short quote set at the beginning of a novel (or, in some cases, at the start of each chapter or section). It is usually pulled from some other work of literature, be it a poem, novel, Bible verse, etc. Sometimes it is a quote from the book itself, a sort of teaser of what’s to come.
What’s the Purpose of an Epigraph?
No matter how an author chooses to use an epigraph, the intent is the same: to establish the mood and theme of the book, or to act as a sort of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a literary tool that acts as an indication or a warning. The epigraph foreshadows what the book is going to be about. The reader can glean a lot from this.
Do All Books Need One?
There’s absolutely no need for an epigraph. If an author doesn’t want to use one, then they don’t have to! While the epigraph depends on the book, the book doesn’t depend on it.
However, any book can use one, if the author desires. Nonfiction books – memoir, historical novels, biographies – can use an epigraph; fiction books – mystery, horror, romance – can use one. Even poetry collections can use them!
Popular Epigraph Examples
Lots of authors use epigraphs. It’s a great way to start the book off with an interesting hook. Here are some great examples if you’re wanting to understand how to use an epigraph in your self-published novel.
Epigraph from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Nonfiction, memoir):
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly
upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves
between the world and me…
-Richard Wright “Between the World and Me”
Example from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Fiction):
The cattle are lowing,
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
Example from God’s Silence by Franz Wright (Poetry collection):
“Paradise may be the time when we can finally turn to our past and see that its beauty was there despite our being there. In fact, its beauty can finally be seen because we aren’t there.”
Any book can use an epigraph – fiction, nonfiction, or poetry – as shown above. It’s entirely the author’s choosing: whether to include one or not and what quote to choose. The important thing is that the epigraph has some kind of impact or relevance to the story. Before the reader reads the book, it should set the scene; after the reader reads the book, it should impart some new wisdom on them.