To Epigraph or Not to Epigraph?

In literature, an epigraph is a quote, poem, motto, paragraph, or even a religious scripture that’s placed on its own page at the beginning of the book and often sets the novel’s theme.  Sometimes the quote is from a real person, and other times it may be from a fictional character within the story.  Occasionally, epigraphs are used at other places within the book as well as at the beginning.  The practice of using epigraphs became popular during the 1700s and is still widely used today.

I think my favorite epigraph is at the beginning of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s a quote by British author Charles Lamb.  It’s simply, “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”  Before you know the story, it seems like only a dig on attorneys, but after you read the book, you realize how profound those six words really are.

Personally, I like the idea of an epigraph.  In some of my books, I placed a Biblical scripture at the beginning of Thou Shalt Not, and I used a quote by Mahatma Gandhi in the beginning of The Worm Has Turned.  Also, in the story I’m currently writing, The Foreboding, I used a quote by Abraham Lincoln at the beginning.  And after each of those, I have a short introduction which tie them into the stories’ respective themes.  

I think I appreciate an actual epigraph much more as a writer than as a reader.  As a reader, I sometimes tend to skip over the otherwise blank page containing only a quote by someone other than the book’s author.  I think as a reader, I’m more drawn to introductions.

One of my own favorite introductions is from my book The Homecoming. The protagonist, Raven, is anxiously waiting for her Marine husband to come home from his tour in Afghanistan when she starts hearing his voice.  My hope is that the reader will have their appetite whet enough to want to read more.  And then I hope that when they’ve finished the book, they’ll remember the introduction and go back and read it again… and get goosebumps.

And now, my introduction to The Homecoming:

Everybody has a little voice inside them.  Sometimes it whispers.  It tells us things like, “Don’t answer that phone,” or, “You better take an umbrella today.”  Sometimes the little voice inside us screams.  It might tell us, “Don’t cross through that intersection even though the light is green!” or, “Wait for the next elevator; this one will get stuck!”  And just occasionally, the little voice inside us roars a command so loudly, so strongly, and so frequently, that it cannot and will not be ignored…

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8 thoughts on “To Epigraph or Not to Epigraph?

  1. My favourite epigraph: “You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend.”

    It’s by Truman Capote, but adapted for a YA novel.

    Then there’s your Mockingbird example, which has got to be in the top 5 of all time. Foreshadowing is a force to be reckoned with. Keep us updated on your novel!

  2. Pingback: Three Quotes, Three Days, Day One | Rachel Carrera, Novelist

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