At this point, everyone’s seen the Buzzfeed list of books that are going to come out as movies this year, right? Because if you haven’t, you probably should. I went through the list and added anything that sounded interesting to my ever-growing library waitlist, and as luck would have it, I got four of them this week. One of them was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and oh my gosh, it is amazing. I devoured it in about three days.
Before Flynn takes you to the actual text of the novel, however, you’re greeted by a quote from Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, which references love and murder and how the two intertwine. That’s not exactly it, but from reading that one sentence, you instantly have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. This technique of using a quote from another author to introduce a novel’s tone, content, or summary is called an epigraph.
What Is an Epigraph?
An epigraph usually appears on the first page of a novel, before the action begins, but it can also make appearances throughout a story. It can be especially powerful at the end of a work, depending on the denouement. You might also see it pop up in between parts of a book, if a novel is sectioned into acts, in order to aid in the transition of the narrative. Or an epigraph might lead a reader into one train of approach, while the actual content of the story subverts this expectation, and the epigraph is meant to be taken more sardonically.
Where Can an Epigraph Come From?
Quotes that can make up an epigraph can come from other works of fiction, proverbs, religious texts, nonfiction writings, song lyrics, journalistic pieces, or film or television scripts, among other sources. You could even use American Sign Language in your epigraph if it was relevant to the novel’s contents.
The choice of source in addition to the actual content can give the reader a sense of what’s to come, and how to approach the story. An epigraph that cites the writings of Carl Jung might indicate that the work should be approached a bit more clinically than if it had been taken from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
The main thing to keep in mind with an epigraph is that the chosen text should relate back to the story at hand, whether it’s foreshadowing events to come, highlighting a point that the author wants to make, or introducing a new theme to a new section of the work.
A well-chosen epigraph can either set the reader’s expectations, or subvert them completely.
What’s one of your favorite books with an epigraph? Extra credit if you can find the epigraph and share it with us in the comments section!
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Find a quote (or several!) that could serve as an epigraph for your work in progress. If you don’t have a work in progress, find a quote that would fit a classic whodunit.
Post your epigraph(s) in the comments section, letting us know why you chose that quote.
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.