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Advice for writers

Curating Epigraphs for Literary Impact

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Setting the Tone with Quotes

As writers, we constantly seek ways to enhance our stories and captivate our readers from the very first page. One powerful tool to achieve this is the epigraph. An epigraph—a quote placed at the beginning of a book or chapter—can foreshadow themes, set the mood, and provide a lens through which readers interpret the narrative. In this article, I’ll explore the art of using epigraphs, provide examples of effective epigraphs in literature, and discuss the importance of copyright considerations. I’ll also highlight how Atmosphere Press can assist you in effectively incorporating epigraphs into your work.

What is an Epigraph?

An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter intended to suggest its theme or mood. Epigraphs can come from a variety of sources, including literature, poetry, religious texts, and even songs or movies. The right book epigraph can serve as a thematic guide, offering readers a glimpse into the book’s deeper layers before they dive into the story.

The Power of a Book Epigraph

Epigraphs are more than just decorative flourishes; they can profoundly influence how a reader engages with a text. Here are a few reasons why epigraphs are such a valuable tool for writers.

Foreshadowing Themes

Epigraphs can subtly hint at the central themes of your story. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the epigraph is a fictional poem:

“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!’”

This epigraph foreshadows the themes of love, wealth, and ambition that permeate the novel.

Setting the Mood

An epigraph can instantly set the tone for the narrative. Consider the haunting epigraph in Stephen King’s The Shining:

“The world is full of things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – W.B. Yeats

This quote primes readers for the eerie and supernatural elements that follow, creating a sense of anticipation and unease.

Providing Context

Epigraphs can provide context or background that enhances the reader’s understanding. In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the epigraph from Paradise Lost sets the stage for themes of creation and rebellion:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man, did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?”

This reference to Milton’s epic poem deepens the reader’s grasp of Victor Frankenstein’s god-like ambitions and the Creature’s subsequent anguish.

Examples of an Effective Book Epigraph

Many authors have used epigraphs to great effect. Here are a few notable examples:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

The epigraph is a simple but profound quote from Charles Lamb:

“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”

This quote resonates throughout the novel, reflecting the themes of innocence, justice, and moral growth.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

The epigraph from William Faulkner’s The Road succinctly captures the novel’s bleak and introspective mood:

“The things you own end up owning you.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

The epigraphs include a quote from the Bible, a Sufi proverb, and a historical anecdote, collectively setting the stage for the novel’s exploration of religious extremism and the subjugation of women.

the handmaid's tale book epigraph

Using Epigraphs in Your Writing

Incorporating epigraphs into your writing can be a rewarding process. Here are some tips to help you choose and use epigraphs effectively:

Choose Relevant Quotes

Select quotes that resonate with the themes, tone, and mood of your story. The quote should add depth and insight, enhancing the reader’s experience rather than merely decorating the page.

Be Concise

A book epigraph should be brief and impactful. Lengthy quotes can overwhelm the reader and detract from the story. Aim for a succinct quote that delivers a powerful message.

Consider the Source

The source of the epigraph can add layers of meaning. Quotes from well-known literary works, historical figures, or religious texts can carry significant weight and influence how readers perceive your story.

Copyright Considerations

While epigraphs can greatly enhance a book, it’s important to be mindful of copyright issues. Here are some key points to consider:

Public Domain

Works published before 1923 are generally in the public domain and can be used freely. For example, quotes from Shakespeare, Dickens, and other classic authors can be used without permission.

Fair Use

Short quotes may fall under fair use, especially if they are used for commentary or criticism. However, fair use is a complex legal doctrine and may not always apply. It’s best to consult a legal expert if you’re unsure.

Seeking Permission

If you wish to use a quote from a modern work, it’s prudent to seek permission from the copyright holder. This process can take time, so plan accordingly.

Epigraphs are a powerful tool for writers, offering a way to set the tone, foreshadow themes, and provide context for your narrative. By carefully selecting and incorporating epigraphs, you can enrich your story and engage your readers from the very first page. Remember to consider copyright implications and seek permissions when necessary to ensure your use of epigraphs is both legal and impactful. Whether you’re a seasoned author or just starting your writing journey, Atmosphere Press is here to help you navigate the complexities of publishing. Let us assist you in creating a book that not only tells a compelling story but also captivates readers with its thoughtful details, including those all-important epigraphs. Happy writing!

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Erin K. Larson-Burnett, Production Manager at Atmosphere Press (submit your manuscript here!), is a born-and-raised Southerner currently living in Katy, Texas, with her husband and their small domestic zoo. She is an avid ink drinker who lives and breathes books—during the day, she works remotely with authors around the world, honing and perfecting books published through Atmosphere Press. By night, she crafts her own stories…or at least tries to. The Bear & the Rose is her debut novel.

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