What is an Epigraph and How to Write One

“…The beginning is the most important part of any work…”

-Plato

As a writer, you have the option to do many things with the front matter of your book, and an epigraph is one of those. An epigraph, not to be confused with an epitaph (an inscription on a tombstone) or an epithet (a descriptive phrase or adjective), can be a powerful way to start your story. But, what exactly is an epigraph and how do you write one? (Hint: It's not an epilogue.)

Want to know more? This post is part of a series of posts all about the different parts of a book. We highly recommend you check them out.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What an epigraph is
  2. Some examples of an epigraph
  3. How you can create epigraphs for your own books

What Is an Epigraph?

In short, an epigraph is a quote, phrase, or poem that appears at the beginning of a text. Some authors also use epigraphs before sections or even chapters. The best epigraphs give the reader a glimpse into the tone or theme of the book or provide some context for the work.

This literary device can be used in literature, academic writing, or even to open a short story or an essay.

Epigraph vs Epigram

These two literary terms are often confused — and with good reason. But, they are different, as you'll see below.

An epigram is a brief humorous statement expressing a single thought. Epigrams are often satirical in nature and may be considered poetry since they're often written in verse.

An epigram can be used as an epigraph when placed in quotation marks after the title page of a book or at the beginning of a text.

What are Some Epigraph Examples?

The following examples glimpse the wide range of unique epigraphs various authors use for their books.

The Stand by Stephen King

Stephen King uses epigraphs in many of his books, usually before each new section. However, in The Stand, King doesn’t just quote existing books, he quotes song lyrics.

Stephen King's The Stand book cover.

The book begins with quotes from songs by Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Country Joe and the Fish. But he doesn’t end there; he also quotes the poet Edward Dorn.

All four quotes add their own flair to the novel and provide the reader a glimpse into the theme of the book. Another epigraph later in the novel quotes a Larry Underwood song. If you’ve read the book, you know that Larry Underwood is a major character in the novel, a musician in the fictional world King has created.

So, your epigraph doesn’t have to be from a real person; it can be fictional. And this brings us to our next example.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson’s fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen features fictional quotations in the form of poems written by fictional characters in his expansive universe. Erikson’s fictional epigraphs use poetry to set the mood and give the reader a more textured vision of the world he has created.

Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, book cover

Long before Erikson wrote The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, J.R.R. Tolkien did something similar in the Lord of the Rings books, starting each book with the same poem, featuring the famous lines:

“…One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them…”

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the Vietnam-born author and professor is a great traditional epigraph example. This powerful and gripping novel begins with a brief quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word ‘torture’: In this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word – even something to laugh at.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Even if you aren’t sure what The Sympathizer is about, the short quotation gives you a glimpse at the tone of the story to follow. It helps to prepare the reader for what is to come and even piques a little curiosity by referencing this well-known literary work.

How to Write an Epigraph

As you know by now, utilizing an epigraph is usually a matter of choosing the right one, not so much writing one. If you’re writing fantasy novels, you could write your own epigraph, but it’s by no means required.

If you do decide to use (or write) one, allow the tips below to help you.

  • Consider quoting any works that have influenced you as a writer and whose theme matches that of your book.
  • Epigraphs in nonfiction often choose a short phrase or quotation from a work that is referenced later in the book.
  • Decide if you want a single epigraph or multiple. If your work is split into parts, you may want to use an epigraph before each one.
An Epigraph, formatted in Atticus.
Made in Atticus.io

Epigraph Rules

There aren’t really any concrete rules when it comes to the use of epigraphs in literature. It’s ultimately up to you whether you use one or not. As King, Erikson, and Tolkien have shown us in their books, you can write your own poetry, quote a song, or make up an epigraph.

You can quote a speech, an ancient text, a play, or just about anything you want. But it’s a good idea to get permission to use the quotation and to format the epigraph properly.

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Formatting Epigraphs

When formatting your epigraph, indent it from the left just like you would a block quotation. Make sure to use quotation marks around the phrase.

Under the block quote, flush right and with an em dash, should be the author's name. Literary epigraphs mostly follow this formatting, but there are always exceptions.

Getting Permission to Use a Quote

While most people probably won’t mind (and may even be flattered) that you chose a quote from their work, it’s always best to get permission. You’ll need to seek out the holder of the copyright to ask for permission.

However, if the work you wish to quote is in the public domain, you should be in the clear to use it in your book. Laws vary from country to country, so it’s a good idea to do a bit of research before putting the quote in your book.

What is an Epigraph and How to Write One: Conclusion

Many books do fine without the use of epigraphs. Most authors use them as a way to provide texture to the story while also giving homage to their influences. The right epigraph can pull the reader in and prepare them for what they’re about to read.

Using an epigraph is totally up to you as a writer. But if you do decide to use one, make sure to get permission first so you don’t run into any legal issues. Of course, you can always make one up if it works for your particular book.



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