Epistolary novels use fictional letters, tweets, emails and other types of communication to create a story with a unique narrative style. This is not a new form, epistolary novels have been around since the 18th century, but after a downturn in popularity they are enjoying a renaissance and the trend shows no sign of slowing.
Epistolary novels are fun to read, and to write because they capture a behind-the-scenes aesthetic. Reading one is like getting unlimited access to something restricted and they often fuel our sense of adventure. Who wouldn’t want to discover a diary or a trove of old letters and let those crackling pages reveal a long-forgotten story? Best of all this format works with every age group (picture books to adult readers) and for any genre.
Epistolary novels are simple to write as long as you follow a few helpful guidelines.
1. Give the Story Structure:
Whether you choose the full epistolary (the whole novel written in documents) or the partial epistolary form (documents interspersed with a traditional narration), you will need structure. Sure these novels can read like a loose, fun-filled lark of a tale, but don’t let that fool you. You shouldn’t forgo the normal plot elements and character arcs in the name of whimsy. It’s easy to get sidetracked with pointless or repetitive scenes in the epistolary novels. If you’re not super comfortable with story structure, I suggest you start small — opt for the partial epistolary form and include a handful of entries to augment critical points in the story. It might also help to pick one of the masterplot forms, that will add another level of structure and help keep even a full epistolary novel on track.
2. Limit Communication Types:
There are writers who are masters of this form, they can weave letters, newspaper clippings, court testimony and more into a single story, known as the dossier form of epistolary novels. However, for those just starting out, it’s a good idea to stick with one or two forms of communication. True this is not totally realistic — every day we all move from email, to Twitter, to Instagram, and back again without getting lost — but varying the formats opens the door to confusion. This could make the story feel frantic and disjointed. Think about your characters; what mode of communication would they use? Only you know which forms will work best for your story, and target reader age should also factor into that decision. Younger (picture book age) readers might prefer letters. Letters also work great if the person communicating to your protagonist is from the past. A teen protagonist and/or teen readers might prefer something with texting.
3. Find The Right Voice:
Most epistolary novels feature one voice (monologic) such as with a diary based narrative. However, an epistolary novel can contrast two voices (dialogic), or include many voices (polylogic.) In all cases the voice is critical. Diary epistolary novels work best when they dive into raw, uncensored emotions, and expose the character’s inner flaws and aspirations.
Consider the voice in BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY: Bridget’s self deprecating humor and tart zingers reveal volumes about her insecurities and the character explodes off the page. It’s important to remember that diaries are not letters; a diary requires the main character to be candid and vulnerable from page one, while two characters exchanging letters are more likely to start slow and grow in intimacy as the pair builds mutual trust. Although we see the dialogic form in a lot romance novels it works for any two characters involved in a complicated relationship. Obviously the more character perspectives you add, the greater the challenge of finding the right voices. And as with all multiple POVs you should evaluate if you need those contrasting voices first. Heather wrote a post that might help you decide.
4. Get Creative:
The options for communication sources are limitless, and the best epistolary novels use this medium to explore and create truly unique stories.
THIRTEEN REASONS WHY: Audio tapes are mailed to the friends and enemies of a teen girl explaining why she ended her own life.
UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE: The inner drama of a high school as revealed by internal memos, directives from the principal, comments by students, notes between teachers, and papers recovered from wastebaskets
ILLUMINAE: Two interstellar teens work together from separate spaceships to uncover a conspiracy through a collection of hacked documents—including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, and interviews.
5. Evaluate your reasons for writing an Epistolary novel:
Writing the epistolary novel takes planning, and a great timeline. Each document needs a clear objective. Will the email provide a new clue? Can the court transcript prove the killer lied? Will the diary entry shed light on the protagonist’s self doubt? If you can’t make each entry count, you might not have the right story for an epistolary novel. There is no shame in that; writing the best story you can write is always what matters most. But if you have a story that just isn’t coming together, it might be worth giving a few chapters a rewrite in this form. Something wonderful might emerge! As with any new form of writing, a bit of mindful reading is a must. Start here with the 100 Must-Read Epistolary Novels list.
One of my kid’s favorite books growing up was a set of epistolary novels. The books featured an adventure-loving stuffed rabbit named Felix. Felix traveled all over the world and beyond, but he always remembered to write letters home to his beloved owner so she wouldn’t worry about him. Each Felix book included about six to eight pockets and each of these pockets contained a letter with some small maps, cartoon drawings and historical facts about the places Felix visited. My kids opened and reread each letter a million times, it made the story more real and added a tactile component they loved.
As emails, tweets and Facebook pages expand our social networks and redefine our friendships, we should expect the epistolary novel to infiltrate literature in new and exciting ways.
Have you ever read or written an epistolary novel? Love them or hate them, please share your thoughts in the comments.
7 thoughts on “How to Write an Epistolary Novel”
I have a WIP that includes journal enteries from several people at a specific website that tie the victims of a serial killer together. What I am enjoying writing is a specific event seen through the POV of different journalers
At least once a year I read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” And I collect copies at rummage sales and library book sales to share with friends. Every one of them has been touched, amused, astonished and inspired by this true-to-life saga of courage in the face of unspeakable circumstances. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday is a brilliantly written story of a quirky, wealthy sheikh and a mid level English bureaucrat who collaborate to release salmon in a stream in the Yemen so the sheikh can fish – and promote his country’s commercial ventures. It’s also the story of an unraveling marriage, an unlikely romance, and of Arab rebels, all told through emails, news articles, interoffice memos, interviews, and fishing magazine editorials. A pretty decent film was adapted from the book.
Wow. How timely. I’m in the process of writing a novel that has a lot of letters in it. Reason being that the point of the story is how family influences people’s lives even when they’re far from home. the protagonist is on the road during the thirties, looking for work. He writes home a lot, even though he can’t get answers. then he’s in the military, pacific theater, and his sister is in the foreign service in France–then a prisoner in Germany. Plenty of action, the everybody keeps track of everybody by mail.
That sounds interesting, and like it has great potential for including many distinctive voices. I’m glad my post came at a good time to provide some extra support. Good luck with the new novel, and please let me know how the epistolary form works out for you.
I enjoy epistolary novels because of the intimate style of the writing. Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my favourite books. I used some letters in my novel Scarborough Fair to tell the 19th century part of the story. It also meant that the letters could be read in the present day, thus linking the past and present. But the epistolary novel is much older than the 19th century. It became popular in the 18th century with works like Clarissa, Les Liaisons Dangereuses , and Die Leiden des Jungen Werther. A 19th century example would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I came across Les Liaisons Dangereuses during my research on the history of the form and still managed to mess that up. Thanks for the save. I’ve fixed it. I agree, the intimacy you can create with this form is a strong selling point. I almost used a book with letters from the past influencing the present as one of my examples. I think that’s a great way to write the partial epistolary form. It can give the story two fleshed perspectives without going into full alternating POVs.