How to Empower Your Writing With a Brilliant Epigraph


Frankly, I didn’t know much about epigraphs until Amanda Forbes Silva, a gifted essayist who gave a little talk about them at a writing workshop, brought them to life for me. Had I been asked, I would have likely confused epigraphs with epitaphs and epigrams, and maybe even the epiglottis, which is apparently some kind of valve that covers the glottis during swallowing, and once malfunctioned somewhere in my throat a few years ago, nearly taking me out.

After a short primer, just to get us on the same page with a working understanding of the epigraph, and a little confessional angst, you will have a couple of practice challenges to engage your new friends.

An Introduction to the Epigraph

The epigraph is simply a well-chosen quotation, set at the beginning of a text. Epigraphs can open essays, books, chapters of a book, or even each story in a book—any writing, really, which suggests its theme.

They can, however, do so much more.

Chosen well, an epigraph offers the writer a kind of “power” to grab the reader quickly, and efficiently. If editors give the writer just a few opening paragraphs to “sell” their work, it seems to me that the perfect epigraph—short, surgical, brilliant, the very first thing seen in the work—is a terrific first contact.

Someone (and I believe it was Toby Lichtig, in The Guardian) put it this way: a good epigraph will make the reader want to “open the door” to the writing inside. It will act as a kind of “shadowy third figure,” somewhere between the author and the reader, drawing the reader in by raising interest, expectations, even questions as to what lies ahead.

One of my favorite authors does just that.

In his Bright Lights, Bright City, Jay McInerney writes the story of the dissipation of a young man in Manhattan. Here is the epigraph that opens the work, from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said.
“Gradually and then suddenly.”

In her book, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, Rosemary Ahern finds that many authors seem to follow at least one fairly common strategy in deploying epigraphs, and often all three together: be brief, be funny, be wise. I think McInerney hits all three. His epigraph is brief (and sets the text in motion), it is funny (darkly) and it is insightful (ask any bankruptcy attorney).

Epigraphs With Creative Twists

There are many very interesting, and even tricky, deployments of an epigraph. One of my favorites is F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. He takes a fictional character named D’Invilliers from his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and then quotes that fictional character as the author of the poem he then uses as the epigraph at the beginning of The Great Gatsby.

It sounds complicated, but here it is:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too.
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

As Dennis Johnson, co-founder of Melville House publishers, put it, there is something “devastatingly mischievous” about the subverted power and authority of the fictional epigraph.

Very cool. And while there are certain conventions, even “rules,” which the writer should understand, the larger point is simply how much fun a writer can have with the epigraph.

But they can also serve important structural needs, as I discovered in my recent writing. Here’s the angst part of the story, the dreaded roadblock along the way, and how we tried to break through.

Epigraphic Choices: A Case Study

I recently collaborated with two other authors to write a series of short stories. Although we had more than enough material for the collection, we soon had a problem.

Our collection of “mostly, mostly true” short stories is about the haphazard misadventures of a bunch of boys, the collection stuffed, as we say in our introduction, with “too much fun.” Although we added some language in our forward warning the readers that “too much” is a concept we didn’t understand then, or even now, we felt we needed something else—something to bring a little more order to the collection.

After all, one of our early readers suggested we might want to sell the book by the pound. Ouch.

So we did a little trimming, then more. That was necessary, but, as they say, not sufficient.

We next set out to organize the stories into several sections, or logical groupings, like disciplined courses in a fine restaurant. This was good, too.

But the book still cried out for a little creative “epigraphic power.” Something to ease the way into lots of stories.

Finding the Perfect Epigraphs

We began by asking the kind of questions which, when calling on the epigraph, you should, too. A single, book-wide epigraph? Or how about section epigraphs? Or maybe an epigraph for each story?

The answer for us was pretty easy: we needed to harness our epigraphic power to build focus, so we chose to flag each of our six sections with an epigraph. After all, the whole idea was to build a little focus, and not continue our tradition of “too much.”

We thought six a good balance: a single epigraph better suited a novel, which this wasn’t, and an epigraph per story seemed (once again) too much. But we also thought our very first epigraph, which flags our “By Way of Introduction” section, would really do the heaviest lifting, as would any “solo” epigraph. Here it is:

“It was an especially wonderful time to be a noisy moron.”

Bill Bryson said this in his wonderful book about growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s (which is our setting) called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. We thought it really hit the mark.

Brief, funny, and a great thematic gateway, this epigraph lets the reader know that this will not be a book about boy geniuses. It served, we think, as a pretty good overall “thematic gatekeeper” for the book, giving the reader an honest hint as to what this journey would be all about, but still leaving room for a few more in succeeding sections. And it also seemed to give the reader another clue: the “feel” of the book would be pretty PG-13, a signal we wanted.

I will share just one more epigraph from the book. School was a target-rich place for us to find stupid, and our stories in this section prove it. Of course, rather than actually reading things which would make us smarter, we figured MAD Magazine would be the better ticket. This seemed a good epigraphic sectional choice:

“MAD has been a chronicler of American life unlike any other publication. In fact, I would argue that you can use this book as the text for teaching 20th Century American history—providing, of course, you were being home-schooled by circus clowns.”

Well, we thought that was just about perfect. This quote is from John Facarra in his introduction to MAD for Decades.

Did These Choices Work?

Take a few minutes, and think about our choices critically. Did they draw you in, and make you want to “open the door” to our stories? Did they create interest? In short, were they an effective “gatekeeper?”

In your own work, you may be dealing with story ideas similar to ours, stories about the everyday “writ small” which could use a little boost from a few well-chosen epigraphs. Or maybe you’re working on the next great American novel, and just one muscular epigraphic gem, well-chosen for the beginning of your book, will do the trick.

Whatever your writing, try a few out, and see what they can do for you. In our case, the book was effectively “a done deal,” the epigraphs conscripted to save the day, after the fact. But a powerful quote can also serve at the beginning of a writer’s journey, as an epigraphic inspiration.

However (and whenever) epigraphs come to your writing desk, just have fun with these little miracles. Maybe these two practice challenges will stir your interest.

Have you ever used epigraphs in your writing? How did you choose the perfect ones? Let us know in the comments.


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