Epigraphs in Fiction

An epigraph is a brief quotation placed at the beginning of a book or at the head of a chapter, article, story, or other work. Most epigraphs are ornamental, helping to set the tone or mood of a work but going unmentioned in the text. They can be thought-provoking and profound or funny and frivolous. They don’t even have to be real.

If you’re planning on adding an epigraph to your novel or story, you will want to consider not only what to choose as your source but also whether you will need permission to quote from it. Then you or your publisher can decide where your epigraph will go and how to format it.

To get a better idea of how epigraphs work, let’s start with placement and format.

Epigraph Placement and Format

According to CMOS 1.37, an epigraph is usually placed on the first available page after the copyright page or, if there’s a dedication on that page, on the page after that. That’s for an epigraph that applies to the whole book.

An epigraph may also appear at the head of a chapter or other major division in a book, where it typically follows the chapter number (or other number) and any chapter title or other heading. An epigraph to a story usually follows the story’s title.

The epigraph itself is formatted like a type of block quotation, which means it’s set off from any surrounding text and indented from the left or right (or both). The source usually follows on a new line and may be preceded by an em dash or indented, as in these examples from CMOS 13.36:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
—Sir Walter Scott

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Quotation marks are unnecessary unless they appear in the original text. The examples above aren’t the only options. The source line—or the epigraph itself, or both—may instead be centered on the page or set flush right. Graphic designers will generally choose something in keeping with the design of the text in the rest of the book.

For example, The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World, 2019), a historical novel set before the American Civil War, features three epigraphs—one for each of three numbered parts. These appear below the part numbers, toward the tops of pages that are otherwise empty:

Epigraph to part 1 of the Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I. My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators. Frederick Douglass”

Book designer Caroline Cunningham uses extra line spacing to take advantage of the open page. The source line is in caps and small caps and in a smaller font—and centered below the quote. These choices make it hard to miss the epigraphs, the first of which announces the novel’s point of view: that of Hiram “Hi” Walker, an enslaved man (or in the language of the novel, one of the “Tasked”) who uses the power of memory to transcend space and time.

Something Old, Something Borrowed

An epigraph can come from just about anywhere, but many of them borrow from classic sources. There are two reasons for this: (1) well-known works need little in the way of attribution, and (2) older, out-of-copyright works can be quoted from without permission.

Full source data for the epigraph to part 1 from The Water Dancer might look like this (citing a readily available revised edition of the 1881 original):

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, rev. ed. (Boston, 1892), 581

But all that detail would distract from the quotation and dilute its impact. Unless you need permission to use the source (in which case you may have to include an acknowledgment on the copyright page; see next section), you can keep things minimal.

Thanks to copyright expiration for older works, you won’t need permission for anything published at least a hundred years ago. More specifically, in the United Sates, as of January 1 of this year, works published before 1926 are in the public domain, meaning they’re free to use.*

The Bible, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Frederick Douglass—all of these are fair game. So are, as of this year, the original texts of The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf). Proverbs, too, may be used, as in this example from the novel White Ivy, by Susie Yang (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which uses italics for the quotation, a common design choice for epigraphs:

Epigraph to White Ivy, by Susie Yang: “The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Chinese proverb”

Another safe bet is to quote from your own book. The title page of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, published in 1910, features the elliptical phrase “Only connect . . .” Here’s the title page of the first American edition:

Title page for the first American edition of Howards End, by E. M. Forster, author of “A Room with a View,” etc. “Only connect . . .” G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press, 1910

Those are Forster’s own words, from chapter 22 of the same novel. Forster doesn’t credit himself, so the quotation works more like a movie tagline than an epigraph, but you get the idea.

The title page was also the original location for the epigraph to The Great Gatsby, which quotes a few lines of verse and attributes them to a fictional character from Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920):

Epigraph for the first edition of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 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!” —Thomas Parke D’Invilliers.

Those words do not appear in This Side of Paradise (or anything else by Fitzgerald), but as an inscribed copy in the Rare Book Collections at Princeton University apparently confirms, the verse was written by Fitzgerald. In other words, he invented the epigraph to suit the theme of his new book.

Something New

But can’t I choose lyrics from my favorite song?
—Aspiring Novelist

Song lyrics can make for great epigraphs. But unless your taste runs to George M. Cohan’s “Over There” (from 1917 and therefore in the public domain), there’s a good chance you’ll have to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the lyrics (typically the song’s publisher).

Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, chose two epigraphs for his novel The Marriage Plot. One is from François de La Rochefoucauld—safely in the seventeenth century—but the other is from a song by the twentieth-century American rock band Talking Heads.

The five lines that Eugenides chose for his epigraph, from a 1980 song called “Once in a Lifetime,” are definitely still in copyright. And in general, if you’re quoting from a copyrighted song or poem, you’re more likely to need permission than for a few lines from a novel or a story (songs and poems tend to be short, relatively speaking, so the quotation will usually account for a greater portion of the original).

Still, I could perhaps safely reproduce the Talking Heads epigraph in this post, lyrics and all (“And you may ask yourself,” etc.), because the purpose of this post is to analyze epigraphs, and that example helps make my point. But I’d rather play it safe. Eugenides himself got permission from the rights holder (it should be noted that the lyrics are quoted again in the body of the book), evidence for which can be found on the novel’s copyright page:

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint lyrics from “Once in a Lifetime,” by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Brian Eno. Copyright © 1981 Index Music, Inc., Bleu-Disque Music Co., and E.G. Music Ltd. All rights on behalf of Index Music, Inc., Bleu-Disque Co., Inc., administered by WB Music Corp. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Warner Brothers Publications, U.S. Inc., Miami, Florida 33014.

A Pulitzer-winning author like Eugenides (not to mention a National Book Award winner like Coates) can probably afford whatever the fee was. Most of the rest of us, however, would be better off sticking to Shakespeare—or to prose rather than poetry.

But if the prose is in copyright, it’s still probably best to check with a publisher or a copyright attorney.

“Criticism or Review”

The conventional wisdom is that epigraphs are considered fair use in the context of a work of scholarship or criticism that in turn subjects the epigraph to analysis. An epigraph that merely sets the tone is less likely to be considered fair use.†

This idea is confirmed by a rights and permissions page for the University of Iowa Press, which tells its authors that they must get permission (in writing) for, among other things, “an epigraph or other quotation that is not analyzed in the text.”

That advice is aimed primarily at authors of scholarly monographs. Judging from what other publishers are saying, the bar for epigraphs in a work of fiction is even higher.

Literary publisher Faber and Faber, for example, in its fair-use guidelines for authors looking to borrow from Faber and Faber’s copyrighted books and other works, gives some latitude to publications intended “for a purely academic market and for ‘the purposes of criticism or review.’ ” But its guidelines give no leeway at all for epigraphs or for fiction, both of which “are not fair use under any circumstances.”

In sum, if you’re planning on using copyrighted materials for your epigraph—or anywhere in your novel or story—be prepared to ask the rights holder for permission. A good place to get started is “A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter,” a regularly updated post by publishing guru Jane Friedman.

Disclaimer: This isn’t legal advice. If you’re concerned about needing permission to quote something for an epigraph, consult a publisher or an attorney who specializes in intellectual property—before you get too attached to your choice.

* The basic rule in the United States is that copyright for works published before 1978 (whether in the US or elsewhere) expires ninety-five years after the date of first publication. It’s now 2021, so works published in 1925 or earlier are in the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, works published in 1926 will enter the public domain, and so on. See CMOS 4.27 and 4.29 and table 4.1 for more details (and some exceptions).

† Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for limited use of copyrighted work without permission—for example, allowing the author of a book review to quote freely from that book. For more details, see CMOS 4.84–94.

Top image: Drawing on Parchment, Hilke Kurzke, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

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