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I have read a few non-fiction works (mostly scientific) where there is a quote at the beginning of each new chapter. Sometimes the quote related to the chapter along with the title, sometimes it was difficult to make out why its there.

I am assuming this is to set-up a mood for the chapter or even summarize.

I had followed suit for my novel. For an e.g. for the chapter where my MC recovers from divorce and starts a new life I have put the following quote at the start of the chapter. This quote I selected after googling quotes, I don't know much about the author but the quote suggests that she will recover in this chapter.

Her fetters burst, and just released from prison, A virgin phoenix from her ashes risen. - Christiana Baldwin

Is this advisable for fiction novels?

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    I agree with the answers so far, so won't repeat them. I will just say that I have seen novels with quotes at the top of every chapter. IME, epigraphs are usually not very relevant to me as a reader, though I assume they are to the author. Sometimes they're very on point, other times I only see the connection on a re-read. If you are imagining a quote in your head as you write your book, consider sharing it with your readers. Otherwise, don't add one in for fashion's sake. And don't summarize chapters in advance. – Cyn Jan 3 at 17:02
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    Could take the Brandon Sanderson route and add quotes from characters and books that are within the universe. – Chris Anderson Jan 4 at 0:06
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    Watership Down is a great work of fiction that does this. I love the book and find some quotes relevant and insightful, others seem to have no relevance until after a chapter is read (which requires an extra step of going back) and some are hard to understand the relevance and in that way are distracting. – David LeBauer Jan 4 at 5:45
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    Dune is an excellent example of epigraphs done right. – user76284 Jan 4 at 6:48
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    Isaac Asimov does this in his Foundation series. Many or all of the quotes (I haven't looked) are all from the Encyclopedia Galactica, which helps establish the world that the novels take place in. – Pete Becker Jan 4 at 17:22
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There are some practical problems to consider:

1) Attribution. I don't know who Christiana Baldwin is, but I think that quotation is from Byron, English Bards and Scots Reviewers.

2) Royalties. You might find that you need to pay for your quotations if still in copyright (which of course Byron isn't, but if you go searching for suitable quotations online then you'll find plenty that are). Since you aren't writing about the material you're quoting, you will not find a broad fair use exemption.

3) Permission. A living author, or the literary estate of a dead author still in copyright, of course can decline your request for permission to use their work. Or just not reply to email. Someone needs to actually do this rights-checking before you can professionally publish, and you may need to replace or remove quotations.

4) Context. It's all very well taking a quotation that seems applicable, but Byron here is talking about Joan of Arc:

First in the ranks see Joan of Arc advance,
The scourge of England, and the boast of France!
Though burnt by wicked BEDFORD for a witch,
Behold her statue placed in glory’s niche;
Her fetters burst, and just released from prison,
A virgin Phoenix from her ashes risen.

Is that the reference you really want to make -- to literal permanent death and recovery only in posthumous glory? Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but generally you should use quotations with which you are at least somewhat familiar (or make yourself familiar), so that you know what they'll mean to a reader who recognises it or looks it up (like I just did).

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    Glad to see an answer that talks about the practicalities and legal issues. Not to mention the larger context of quotes. – Cyn Jan 3 at 20:12
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    This is a good answer. Choosing quotes without being completely aware of the source material is a really bad idea. It will definitely bring in other concepts and connotations, and if you don't know what baggage you're bringing, don't do it. – L.S. Cooper Jan 5 at 3:28
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    Publishers may be legal Chicken Littles, but epigraph quotations are quintessential fair use. – chrylis Jan 5 at 7:27
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    Part #2 is completely inaccurate and shouldn't be in this otherwise-good answer. A very small quotation such as this is covered by fair use and requires neither copyright licensing nor permission, as much as certain publishing interests would like to pretend otherwise. – Mason Wheeler Jan 5 at 20:18
  • There doesn't seem to be an entirely settled legal position on this, certainly not one that covers every jurisdiction in the world you might like to publish. You'll have to follow your publisher's lead -- if they insist on permission then they simply won't publish the work with the epigraphs and without permission. Which might have to be paid for. I stand by my claims that you might find you need to pay, and that "epigraphs in fiction" doesn't exist in law as a broad fair use exemption. Not that you have to write professionally publishable work, of course, if you don't want to. – Steve Jessop Jan 9 at 22:08
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A quote (called an epigraph) is added to the start of a book or a chapter when it adds an insight to the story. What kind of insight is up to you: it might be an additional understanding of events on a meta level, it can be foreshadowing, it can be extra information, etc. It is never a random quote found in google, since that adds no insight. The epigraph is as integral a part of the story you're writing as anything else. If it adds nothing, it shouldn't be there at all.

For example, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls starts with a quotation from John Donne:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of they friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

This epigraph should inform the reader's understanding of Hemingway's novel, convey that it is bigger than the story of one guy named Robert Jordan.

  • At any rate the epigraph saves the reader going away to look up the title, if they don't already know where it's from and hence what it means ;-) – Steve Jessop Jan 3 at 18:26
  • @HenryTaylor Leave it to one of the world's most prolific authors to use an author's tools effectively. :-) – corsiKa Jan 3 at 18:59
  • Might be worth mentioning, most such epigraphs that I've seen are from in-universe sources for the novel, not other real world works or real people. This way they add character to the setting and, if the source is an actual on-page character in the story, can help flesh out that character too. Alternatively, they can give glimpses of off-page events that might be relevant to the story, immediately or as foreshadowing for later. – Douglas Jan 4 at 23:53
  • @Douglas you're thinking fantasy/sci-fi literature. Quite a few literary fiction books also use epigraphs, as per the Hemingway example. The concept of "in-universe" cannot apply to such works. Also, see my second comment to Amadeus's post. – Galastel Jan 5 at 0:11
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The theory of intertextuality assumes that all works of art are created within the artistic tradition or cultural discourse and refer to preceding works or art.

One aspect of this is sometimes called "inspiration", where one artist feels inspired to create a piece of art by another artwork. But intertextuality goes beyond inspiration in that it encompasses "schools" of artists addressing similar topics or artists working in the same age or cultural context and many other phenomena of similarities and relations between "texts" (where "text" is anything using a set of rules to express information, so a film or painting is also a "text" in this sense).

The epigraphs that you ask about are a way for an author to make explicit the connections to other texts that he wants to encourage the reader to consider in their reading.

But epigraphs have also become a fad so you might want to avoid them, especially if you aren't completely sure about how to use them.

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This is a matter of opinion, it is done, but not by most.

In my opinion, I recommend against it. First for all the reasons @SteveJessop has outlined; but just as important, I don't do it because to me it seems pretentious, as if comparing your writing to theirs, and it seems like trying to borrow the fame of other great writers to make your own look better.

The only exception would be something like a quote from a source you invented; a fictional philosopher, politician, religious icon, or military generals or whatever in your own invented world. Then you own the copyright on it.

I always stick to my own writing, I don't try to borrow anybody else's to make mine seem better, my characters never quote anybody I did not also invent in their world.

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    Dune is a famous example of using fictional quotes. – Galastel Jan 3 at 21:27
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    And Dragonrider's of Pern. Most chapters start with a song fragment from the fictional world. – Arluin Jan 3 at 21:40
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    Following the "comparing your writing to theirs" logic, an important exception would be when you're deliberately reinterpreting old material. E.g. Lavinia - Ursula Le Guin's story based on the Aeneid, or Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley's retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur. Both use a quote from the original as an epigraph, as a way to tell the reader that their work is not in fact original, but meant to be read in light of the source material. – Galastel Jan 3 at 21:42
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    Another example is Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents, which quotes from a fictional book that later turns up in the story. – gidds Jan 4 at 11:21
  • @gidds. Terry Pratchett pulls that same trick in The Bromiliad. – TRiG Jan 4 at 16:19
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When this is done well the quotes are almost always made up by the author and are quoting someone in the world of the book or are exerts from a diary or are news bulletins etc.

The purpose of them is to give snippets of insight into the world, show things that are happening or bits of history or character background that help set the scene. It is a way to add flavour and depth for those that care while letting those who don't skip over it. For example the book I just finished reading had a section of the lead character's father's diary or from their holy book or similar at the start of each chapter to help flesh out the world.

If it fits into your personal style then go for it, but don't try to force it if it doesn't.

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Is this advisable for fiction novels?

As with most such questions, that depends entirely on the skills of the author. For what it's worth, I've seen it quite often. For instance, Jack Vance's novels (science-fiction /fantasy) often used entertaining quotes (from, admittedly, fictitious sources) to start chapters. It depends entirely on the effect you want to produce, and whether you have the chops to do it right. It was fairly common in 19th century novels, as well.

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I would disagree with most commenters here (save WhatRoughBeast and user57423), and say it depends entirely on your writing style. Common sense dictates that anything and everything you add should make sense and serve a purpose, so then the only argument left is, "to what degree should it make sense?"

So it becomes a question of style; do you want to cause your readers to ponder, to feel wonder or suspense or about the following paragraphs they are about to read, or are you just trying to add somebody else's cool prose to make yours look better? I would argue that all reasons are valid reasons, after all your novel should be a piece of art, or else why bother?

I really like the way Katherine Neville used quotes to kick off each wonderful chapter of great masterpiece, "The Eight." If your writing style can entertain one half as much as hers does, then you can't go wrong,

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If you are clever enough, do it. I wrote a trilogy where I put a quote at the start of every chapter. The quotes were relevant to the theme or action of the chapter, but also carried a second purpose: they were quotes from works of great literature being read by a literature professor to help her through her grief. She was reading them in the hospital to her comatose husband. Her reading of those words entered into his consciousness and influenced his adventures in the realm of the dead as he fought his way back to the world of the living. I just didn't tell the reader of the connection until near the end of the story. She was his guide to safety, like Beatrice in Dante's Inferno. Since Dante was a major influence on my story, it fit. Don't just do it for stylistic reasons; make sure it fits the tale.

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