What is an Epistolary Book?
Epistolary derives from the Greek word of epistole, meaning a letter.
In an epistolary book, you’ll find a unique narrative style of storytelling through letters, emails, diary entries or any other type of written correspondence.
Essentially, this type of novel focuses on more telling and less showing to place more emphasis on the character’s thoughts and emotions.
The reader is not a viewer of any kind of action, but instead is with the character in their mind and understanding their inner feelings.
From ‘Dracula’ to Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ there are a ton of famous epistolary novels that we’ll look at throughout this guide. If you’re intrigued by this genre then join us as we take you through the process of writing a compelling narrative in the form of a letter…
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Why Do Writers Choose Epistolary Narration?
The most prominent reason why writers may choose to explore the format of letters or diary entries to tell their story is to present an intimate view of the character’s thoughts and emotions without the author interfering.
It can also be an effective method of showcasing events from different points of views (for example, first-person and second-person POV) if there is back and forth dialogue between characters.
Another advantage to using this storytelling style is that it allows for multiple layers of meaning. Not only do we read what the character is saying, but we also understand how they are saying it through word choice, grammar or font styling.
A Step by Step Guide to Writing an Epistolary Book
Now that we know the benefits of taking on an epistolary format, you might be interested in how exactly you can go about writing one. Well, we've got you covered! Let’s dive straight in..
1. Choose Your Epistolary Format
You’ll want to first consider which form of communication will best serve your narrative and characters.
Each format, from journals and diary entries to letters and chats, all have their own tone and style that allow for different levels of creativity.
While journal entries can help your reader connect with your character more intimately and invite moments of private contemplation, chats and text messages can build the tension between two people while evoking themes of love and friendship.
Think about what format is most appropriate for your narrative and the character development you want to portray.
2. Consider the Time Period
A letter from the 1800’s is going to sound a lot different to modern-day email, right? Think about your word choices, sign-offs, and use of punctuation and make it relevant to the time period in which your novel is set.
For example, more modern communication will make use of snappier, shortened sentence structures (especially for texts and chats), while traditional letters will be pretty correct with all things grammar and punctuation.
This is also key in establishing your character’s voice which will talk more about further down!
3. Balance Show and Tell
The common challenge with epistolary-style is the lack of detail that can be conveyed through letters or entries.
Typically, if someone is writing a letter, they’re talking more about how they feel rather than what the sky looked like. You’ll want to find a way of giving the reader all the necessary details to create imagery in their mind, without steering away from your narrative style!
As much as you want the reader to delve deeply into the character’s inner emotions, you don’t want to neglect external actions or events as they are what helps keep the story going.
4. Create a Consistent yet Distinct Voice
In order to keep readers engaged with your character, think about how you want them to be conveyed.
It can be tough to maintain a certain tone or style when using letters or journal entries but building an image of who your character is and what they desire is key in epistolaries.
Is your protagonist stubborn or quick-tempered? Are they observant and quiet? Consider how their inner voice can reflect their personality and distinguish them from other characters throughout the novel.
Once you have the authentic voice on lock, the next challenge is to maintain this voice all throughout so that the reader knows when we are hearing their point of view. Consistency helps characters evolve throughout the story while retaining their unique traits!
Hint: Have a list of words that are a part of your character’s language bank that you can constantly use – consider historical and cultural references, too!
Examples of Famous Epistolary Novels
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
- Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Alternative Narrative Forms to Epistolary
While epistolary novels captivate readers and immerse them into the character’s deepest thoughts, there are alternative narrative forms that offer fresh perspectives and innovative storytelling.
Let’s explore some other ways you can create that personal connection through your story:
- Formal, Found Documents: These refer to sources like newspaper clippings, interview scripts, and even photographs to help construct a narrative. Typically used in crime-based and mystery genres, such documents can help the reader piece together information and immerse themselves into accounts of particular events.
- Diary format: This is a similar approach to letters whereby readers can explore the inner emotions of a character, allowing for authenticity and relatability. As diary entries are not meant to be published as such, this form gives a lot of freedom to the character in terms of word choice, grammar and description.
- Multiple Point of Views: As one of those most intriguing forms of storytelling, multi-perspective approaches allow you to shift between characters as they all tell the narrative from their lens.This creates a great picture in the mind of the reader and lets them derive different meanings and theories.
Crafting Epistolary Excellence: Summary
Epistolary writing stands as a unique narrative technique that enables you, as the writer, to make use of letters, diary entries, and journal pieces to connect the reader to the character.
By sharing the most intimate of experiences, thoughts and emotions, your epistolary novel has the potential to show diverse viewpoints, create tension and offer distinct authentic voices, all while telling an epic story.
Are you inspired to get into your epistolary groove? We hope so!