Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

Troy, with walls still far from old

Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town

And many a man full worthy of renown

Had last his life—that no man can gainsay—

And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay,

When a thing’s done, it may then be no other.

John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

This quote begins Margaret George’s excellent novel, Helen of Troy. She doesn’t put it in the body of her writing. Instead, it’s on a page by itself, right before the Prologue. There’s a word for such quotes—epigraph.

An epigraph can come at the beginning of a book, like George’s, or at the beginning of each section of a book, or introduce a chapter. They can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction. In a book I’m working on about the Creek War (1813-1814) in Alabama, I use epigraphs to bring historical context to my story. In my epigraphs, I briefly quote historians and others to help these readers follow and understand my tale’s historical events and tie my various plotlines together.

Chief William McIntosh (c. 1775-1825), one of the leaders of the Creek War.

Epigraphs can be funny, serious, taken from the Bible, a philosopher or theologian, or even from one of the book’s characters. Also in my Creek War novel, I’m using quotes from a character’s fictional journal.

Using Epigraphs

  • Under copyright law, if the epigraph comes from a source published after 1923, writers must get permission to use it. Before 1923, a work is in the public domain—free for everyone to use without permission. Although copyright law has a Fair Use Doctrine giving authors a little freedom to quote from copyrighted sources without permission, it also has certain guidelines to follow. We won’t get into that here. But in my opinion, it’s always best to “play it safe” and request permission from a copyrighted source.
  • The epigraph must have a connection to the book’s, section’s, or chapter’s content. In other words, epigraphs cannot be used randomly. So if you use epigraphs, choose them carefully.

A Few Novels That Use Epigraphs

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

6 thoughts on “Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

  1. Thank you for that nugget–1923 the cutoff date! I’ll just stay in my century. 😊

    On Wed, Sep 14, 2022 at 8:32 AM The Author’s Cove: John Jack Cunningham

    Like

    1. That’s a good idea. Another option is to quote from a fictional character’s journal. I’m doing this with one of my characters. You’d just need to write in that character’s voice. I’ve seen similar things like this done in epigraphs.

      Like

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