An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme. Epigraphs usually come from other artists, such as poets, authors, painters, or musicians.
For example, here’s the famous epigraph, written by D’Invilliers from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, then you’re familiar with how the quote kisses upon (but doesn’t tell) what is to come (foreshadowing) and the tragic theme of gaining the superficial love of a woman — no matter what the price.
I noticed that some of my favorite fantasy novels contain quotes in the beginning or at the ending of each chapter, which are both entertaining to read and build onto the story. I also noticed that one of my favorite role-playing games — Dragon Age: Origins — includes epigraphs, which though not immediately relevant to the story, entertain me with something to read while I wait for the game to load.
What both of these mediums have in common is that these quotes come from fictitious works within the story’s or game’s universe. These quotes, or what TV Tropes brilliantly calls Encyclopedia Exposita, are excerpts from other fictional books “being used as an epigraph or part of the frame of the story”.
As I mentioned before, epigraphs usually come from other artists. However, since I’m writing fantasy, I want my own quotes from my own fictitious text. It took me a couple of days to create six texts for the first book in this trilogy and draft five decent quotes with imaginary authors, which makes a nice round number of 30 total quotes. I enjoyed writing the quotes and focusing each one on specific themes of music, immortality, religion, fairy tales, and so much more. Stuff I actually love, love, love to discuss! Seriously, if I’m going to be stuck with these pseudo-encyclopedias, I need to like it. Even a little, yes?
Oh, yes. In order to write epigraphs for your novel or short story, think about the underlying themes. Reflect on the conflict. Once you’re able to write one solid sentence that encapsulates what the main character wants, you’ll be able to start drafting your own mini-poems, quotes, religions tenants, or whatever it is your literary heart desires.
I had specific goals for the epigraphs that I noticed in books I’ve read and what my personal desired outcome was.
In a nutshell, an epigraph can and should relate back to the story by:
- foreshadowing what’s to come
- highlighting a point the author made
- introduce a new theme or turning point (which will hopefully increase tension and suspense)
- set reader’s expectations
All of these points should keep readers engaged, deepen the complex “reality” of your fantasy world, and perhaps even answer some questions you didn’t realize you needed answering as author and literary god.
Another great outcome of this kind of writing is that I realized how more three-dimensional I could make this world with its own encyclopedia of musicians, historians, and artists. These artistic individuals wouldn’t only need names, but backgrounds of their own. And even though these mini-biographies will most likely not appear in the story, this necessary information is essential for me while I write.
So, if you’ve fallen into a rut with your fantasy story, consider using epigraphs — your own or someone else’s — to spice up your novel.