The art, science, and necessity of epigraphs in novels

Epigraphs are curious little pieces of text. Almost like roses made out of frosting, they feel decorative – and somewhat frivolous.

My dictionary on the Mac offers two recognized meanings:

an inscription on a building, statue, or coin.

short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme

In a novel, epigraphs are used in several places:

at the beginning of the book, a part, or a chapter

as a chapter title

Kinds of epigraphs:

There are two general kinds: your own words, and other people’s words. In other words, you have to either find something apropos, or you make one up.

Sol Stein discusses epigraphs as one way to lend weight to the story’s themes (On Writing, Chapter 31, Increasing the Effect on the Reader through Resonance).

I have always admired two writers who use epigraphs well: Dorothy L. Sayers and Frank Herbert.

DLS gives us, in such favorites as Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, a piece of poetry or a quotation that sets the theme or somehow reflects on the contents of a chapter. Chapter 1 of Busman’s Honeymoon – entitled ‘New-wedded Lord’ – quotes Samuel Johnson: I agree with Dryden, that “Marriage is a noble daring.” So we get Johnson, Dryden, and DLS effectively adding resonance to the subject of the first chapter: the marriage (finally, after several volumes covering five story years and an attraction/avoidance pattern true fans find inimitable) of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.

The epigraph gives a note of solemnity and gravitas appropriate to the consummation of the story. DLS wrote for an audience who would be familiar with the literary sources of her epigraphs, and appreciate the appropriateness of the quotations.

Frank Herbert’s epigraphs construct an outer story: they purport to be from documents of a galactic empire – and they establish this empire – and the story of the planet Arrakis and the Atreides family – by little anchor points that make it seem possible. He created the kinds of documents a real empire would have, and explained an enormous amount of backstory without dropping it anywhere in the story: people don’t think, or tell others, what happened – it’s discovered by the reader because Herbert quoted the Orange Catholic Bible or Leadership Secrets of the Bene Gesserit.

Each one of the ‘documents’ Herbert created sets its own tone, adds its own subtext to the story: if there is one quotation, the reader infers there must be a whole document, a whole SET of documents. Each gives a different view into the Dune universe, its own spin.

Using epigraphs:

In either type of epigraphs, the effect is to create resonance with the story that deepens the story’s reach by showing that its universe extends in directions that the story doesn’t.

Choosing to add epigraphs is a big responsibility and a lot of work. In a novel set in the real world, the APPEARANCE of reality is what pulls the reader in. The epigraphs are one more place where the writer has to get it right to keep the reader involved in the story.

A caveat: Be careful with the original meaning of something in its original context: just because the words seem to fit well doesn’t mean a reader won’t find it profoundly offensive if you use words originally applied to a religious figure to describe your action hero.

Do readers read the epigraphs?

Although DLS and Herbert use epigraphs, it is NOT necessary to read the epigraphs to understand their stories. Epigraphs in their printed books are often in a much-smaller type, sometimes in italics, and set apart from the text. I think they’re hard to read that way, and it encourages a reader to skip them and get on with the story in the regular-size type. And if you skip those epigraphs, you still get most of the story.

I use epigraphs a third way, as well as the quote and the faux document excerpt: a subset of the epigraphs in Pride’s Children are there to carry two Dramatica group characters – loosely ‘Good fans’ and ‘Bad fans’ – who represent a view into the story that is roughly the attitude of the whole world about the central story and the central characters. The ‘world’ is the world of entertainment – movies and books, movie stars and writers, agents and directors and managers. In this universe, fans and critics are necessary characters.

These characters collectively express the view from the outside: the columnists, the gossip-mongers who feel free to comment on what they see and think they see, and often make a living writing about it. There is an element of exaggeration in their words and attitudes: they do not create, but they critique. They are balanced by the people for whom ‘Andrew can do no wrong.’

Instead of bringing these characters into contact with the already-huge list of characters involved in the story, I chose to put their opinions and observations and sometimes near-libelous comments into the epigraphs: if you read them, you get a more distant view of the developing story, one that is not entirely trustworthy or accountable, but one that I hope adds depth and understanding.

And of course it has been great fun writing the epigraphs that are my own creations. And maybe it’s fun for the reader to wonder which are real, and which are just as much fiction as the rest of the story claims to be. It gets a little weird, though: while revising the current chapter, I had to go check to make sure I had actually written one of the epigraphs – and its claimed source. I couldn’t remember – and it seemed awfully real to me. (I had.)

Epigraphs are not frivolous – and not necessarily purely decorative. They can make a novel world more complete, make a story hum with connections, and give the writer a wider canvas.

Happy epigraphs! Do you use them in an even different way? Or do you like the classical styles? And how do they contribute to your story? Share an example.

4 thoughts on “The art, science, and necessity of epigraphs in novels

  1. Rachel6

    I don’t use epigraphs, but I do enjoy them. Isaac Asimov is another who used them quite effectively, in his novel “Foundation”. As I recall, he took the same sort of approach as Frank Herbert: quotes from a fictional encyclopedia that gave a little more information about what was going on, and allowed him to skip over expanses of time without losing information.


  2. MishaBurnett

    I open each chapter with an epigragh from Catskinner, my main character’s homicidal alter ego. They sometimes have some relevance to the events of the chapter, but more often are simply Catskinner’s observations about life, the universe, and everything. I do it mostly to help remind readers that while Catskinner may not manifest often during the novels, he’s always there, watching.


    1. ABE Post author

      And a perfect way it is to do that. A no-fuss way to keep something front and visible.

      I have the same flavor going: the world the fans are in is always there, waiting to pounce, to interpret – but rarely to act. Every once in a great while, the characters interact with the fans – like actors breaking the fourth wall. Just a few times, and with significant consequences.

      Catskinner sounds like a great character. Lurking.



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