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To Epigraph or not to Epigraph

From a review by Mark Medley in the National Post:

“Call Me Ishmael” may be one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature, but it actually comes a dozen-odd pages into Moby-Dick. Herman Melville prefaces his novel with a staggering 80 epigraphs, with references to whales in the Bible (“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah”), Shakespeare (“Very like a whale,” Polonius says to Hamlet) and Milton (“That sea beast/Leviathan, which God of all his works/Created hugest that swim the ocean stream”), among other sources.

Most writers limit themselves to one or two, and choosing which ones to use is a particular skill, argues Rosemary Ahern in her new book, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin.

The book sounds wonderful. If you’re planning to self-publish your novel and plan to use an epigraph (but hopefully not eighty of them!), be sure to put the epigraph in the right place.

You want to make sure your epigraph is relevant to the novel’s themes, of course, and that relevance needs to be clear to the reader and not just an inside joke with yourself.

Also, think twice about beginning each chapter of your book with an epigraph. Again quoting the Ahern book referenced above:

Speaking as an editor, Ahern says epigraphs are usually left to the author’s discretion. “I really always felt that was the author’s privilege,” she says. On the other hand, “I think that when you start to have like five, six, seven epigraphs, they start to cancel each other out,” she says. “You can get a little epigraph-happy.”

As is the case with misplaced flashbacks, unrelated subplots, and unnecessary exposition, an epigraph at the start of every chapter makes your reader stop reading your story — and quite possibly put the book down altogether.

Featured image by nitpix via morgueFile

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