What Is An Epistolary Novel? & Tips For Writing One

What Is An Epistolary Novel? & Tips For Writing One


In this post we answer the question: What Is An Epistolary Novel? We give you tips for writing an epistolary novel and examples of epistolary novels.

One of my favourite novels of all time is The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. It is an epistolary novel. Our hero, Bartholomew Neil has just lost his mother and he writes a series of letters to Richard Gere (his mother’s favourite) about his life, his loss, and how he moves forward. It is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is another famous epistolary novel. After her son Kevin is imprisoned for a school shooting, Eva writes to her husband, Franklin. She wants to know if their son was born bad, or if it was their fault that he turned out that way.

You can use the literary device of this type of novel in any genre.

What Is An Epistolary Novel?

The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word epistolē, meaning a letter.

An epistolary novel is ‘a novel told through the medium of letters written by one or more of the characters… it was one of the earliest forms of novel to be developed and remained one of the most popular up to the 19th century. The epistolary novel’s reliance on subjective points of view makes it the forerunner of the modern psychological novel.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

In its modern form, it can be any series of documents, including letters, telegrams, diary entries, newspaper clippings, blog posts, emails, and even podcasts.

It can be told from one person’s viewpoint (monologic), or from two (dialogic), or more (polylogic) people’s viewpoints. There could be a series of correspondence between two or more characters. You could even mix up the types of documents each character uses to communicate.

If you write it from one viewpoint, remember that you are dealing with the viewpoint character as an unreliable narrator. We only get to see the world through that character’s viewpoint and, more importantly, what they choose to include in the story.

The Pros Of Using This Device

  1. Writing in this format makes the story seem more realistic than most novels. It is intimate. The author of the letter seems like a real life person letting you into their lives.
  2. We do not need a narrator to explain anything. The viewpoint characters tell us what they think, feel, and do in their own words.
  3. It is a great way to tell the story of introverted characters who may not interact much with the outside world.

How To Write An Epistolary Novel

According to Writer Mag: ‘Novels written in an epistolary format are often less dialogue-driven, with more emphasis on thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Instead of being in the action with the protagonist, most ‘scenes’ are filtered through the character and presented as memories.’

This means that you may be doing more telling and less showing in this type of novel. However, this is up to you. Your characters could write their letters like fiction, including scenes with dialogue.

Tips For Writing An Epistolary Novel

  1. Get used to writing in first person.
  2. Decide on whether you are going to use one document type or many.
  3. Decide on whether you are going to use one or more viewpoints.
  4. Develop the voices of each viewpoint character in your novel. This is especially important if you are using a dialogic letter writing format. The two characters must have different personalities that shine through their voices on paper.
  5. Never explain the format you’re using. Just use it. Write an email using email formatting. Write a letter using a letter format. Make it seem as natural as you can.
  6. Make sure you still have a story to tell. Work out a plot for your novel.
  7. Create a timeline.

15 Examples of Epistolary Novels

  1. Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740) is the story of a servant girl’s struggle against her master’s attempts to seduce her, written in a series of letters.
  2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1823) is presented through the letters of a sea captain who encounters Victor Frankenstein and records the dying man’s narrative and confessions.
  3. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) uses narratives and statements contributed by various characters to solve a mystery.
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) uses not only letters and diaries, but also dictation cylinders, and newspaper accounts.
  5. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970) is a 20-year correspondence between the author and Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co antiquarian booksellers.
  6. Carrie by Stephen King (1974) is written in an epistolary structure through newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters, and book excerpts.
  7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982) is told through letters Celie has written to God, and later to her sister.
  8. Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding is written in the form of a personal diary.
  9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999) is written in the form of letters from an anonymous character to a secret role model.
  10. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003) is written as a series of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her husband Franklin.
  11. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006) is a series of interviews from various survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
  12. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008) is written as a series of letters and telegraphs sent and received by the protagonist.
  13. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008) is a novel in the form of letters written by an Indian villager to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. the novel won the 40th Man Booker Prize in 2008.
  14. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011) is written as a collection of video journal entries for each Martian day (sol) by the protagonist on Mars, and sometimes by main characters on Earth and on the space station Hermes.
  15. The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick (2014) is written as a series of letters from the protagonist to Richard Gere.

If you want more examples, click here: 100 Epistolary Novels

If you liked this post, you may enjoy: What Is A Bildungsroman And How Do I Write One? and What Is A Vignette & How Do I Write One?

© Amanda Patterson

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