I find epigraphs to be curious things. If I open a new book and see an epigraph on the first page I usually read it, forget about it – because at that point, without having read the novel, it has no contextual meaning to me – and then never really think about the quote again. (The exception to this, of course, occurs when one is enrolled in literature courses….Then epigraphs are paper topic goldmines!)
It’s not that I find epigraphs annoying. Some epigraphs are truly brilliant. (See Epigraphic on tumblr for some great examples.) But overall, I find them inessential. In most cases they are meant to get at the heart of the topic or themes of the book or section, but if the book does its job well enough, I don’t really need to see an epigraph to have it all make sense.
However, if as a reader I don’t particularly care about epigraphs, as a writer, I completely see their value.
As writers, we typically need as many organizational tools as we can gather. Epigraphs, in how they provide thematic starting points for an entire novel or individual chapters or sections, become headers and sub-headers for the broad strokes we need to keep in mind for the sake of thematic organization.
Stephen King loves epigraphs. Sometimes he uses real quotes; sometimes he uses fake quotes (ones that exist only in the fictional world he’s created). Sometimes they’re interesting; sometimes I could do without them. But always through the epigraphs I feel I can see a window into a part of his creative process. I can imagine him finding a quote related to the section he’s about to write, thinking: “this is exactly what I’m trying to get at!” and taking inspiration from it. Having some kernel of a thought like that related to history or philosophy or a song lyric can help hone one’s writing into something sharp and precise.
So here’s my suggestion to writers:
Collect epigraphs that help organize your thoughts on various sections of your story. Write them into your outline; jot them down on your Word Doc as you’re about to launch into a new chapter; and hang on to them like benchmarks or mantras. They can be your support structure for keeping you on track.
But when you’re done writing, decide whether or not you still need them or if your story can stand alone without them. Think of epigraphs like training wheels, and be brave enough to remove them when your story becomes a cohesive narrative.
This is not to say you should always remove your epigraphs because they are inherently crutches. I don’t believe that at all. But if you’re a writer who doesn’t use epigraphs and are looking for something to help keep your writing focused and nuanced, consider temporary epigraphs as a useful system to integrate into your drafting process.
What are your feelings on epigraphs as a writer and/or as a reader? Any favorites?