In this post, we look at seven points to consider when you write an epistolary-ish novel.
I have been doing research into books that use letters (epistolary novels), because I want to do something similar in my novel. It is interesting to note that it works better in some stories than in others.
Wikipedia says, ‘An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic “documents” such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter (see epistle). The epistolary form can add greater realism to a story, because it mimics the workings of real life. It is thus able to demonstrate differing points of view without recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator.’
Some books use letters to tell the whole story, some use it as a device to depict a secondary storyline or events that happened in the past. It can, of course also be diary entries, post-it notes or text messages.
7 Points To Consider When You Write An Epistolary-ish Novel
Consider this from the examples I have recently read:
- Letters and diaries give us unique insights; they offer interior monologues of the most intimate kind. Your character’s thoughts and viewpoint written by their ‘own hand’, as it were, and we all know the writing never lies. People put things into writing that they wouldn’t say to anyone else. But, in a letter, your thoughts are especially crafted and written for the benefit of the reader.
- Unless you are using multiple letter writers, you are limited to only one viewpoint. If you are using multiple writers, you have to be able to change your writing to create separate identities. In The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric, she uses different fonts, different writing skills and vocabularies to separate the characters. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, also use multiple letter writers who all reveal bits of themselves and the story as the telling progresses.
- It makes you tell. We don’t use action and dialogue in letters or diaries. You can, but mostly we don’t write letters and diary entries like that. Even though you can’t show, some writers can pull off ‘the telling’, if they have an entertaining, engaging style. Consider the old favourites like Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones, and Spud.
- Using social media on the other hand, is all about sharing personal information. It is almost the ultimate showing tool. Consider Lauren Beukes’s use of social media in Broken Monsters. She uses text messages and even call-logs to show the story. In Night Film by Marisha Pessl, she even uses screenshots to show her story.
- Unreliable narrators exist. SPOILER: Gillian Flynn used Amy’s fake diary to frame Nick in Gone Girl. Everyone believes the written word. No one would lie in his or her own diary, surely?
- The unreliable narrators come in many shapes and sizes. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick, a naïve narrator writes and confesses to an unknown or unresponsive receiver. Events are told through not only the limited perspective of a letter, but by a naïve narrator. This is hard to do, but obviously not impossible as both of them certainly did it well.
- You can be funny. In her memoir Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson even uses a series of Post-it Notes to tell a part of her story. It is funny and ridiculous and over the top.
These are only a few examples of what you can do with letters and text. Facebook updates, tweets, and even fridge poetry, can help you.
What is your favourite epistolary-ish novel?
by Mia Botha
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