What? Is that even a word? It sounds like a word that would get your mouth washed out with soap if you say it in front of your mother. Is it one of those words?
Absolutely not. It’s a beautiful word that inspires beautiful writing. Epistolary writing is the act of writing in letters, diary entries, emails, or anything that would be direct contact from one individual (or character) to another one.
I love the epistolary format so much that my current WIP (work in progress) is in this style. I recently finished the third draft, and I’m on my way to the next round of revisions.
The big question is, how do you know if this format will work for you? Well, the best way to know anything in writing is to try it yourself and see. Other than that, I can offer you a few tips to help you decide…
1. Where do I even start?
When was the last time you wrote a letter or sent a detailed email? When was the last time you sent one for personal reasons instead of business?
Did you enjoy it?
If you said yes, then you’re off to a great start. If you said no, then maybe it’s time to pick up a pen and give it another try. Even if letters won’t be in your novel, you can use them to help you get through numerous writing struggles and help you brainstorm.
- Write a letter to yourself from your MC (main character)
- Let him/her tell you what they think of your story/where it’s going/etc.
- Write a letter to your MC from your antagonist (or vice-versa)
- They may not converse in your novel until near the end, but you can find out their goals for one another this way.
- Write a letter of recommendation for one of your characters
- Find out what kind of qualities they have from someone’s view other than your own.
- Write a diary entry for your MC
- Who knows what she/he will say when no one is looking. What is truly going on?
- Create the news broadcast for the town
- Not many characters care about the local or even national news, but sometimes the things going on around them cause unforeseen conflict.
- Create a store receipt for your MC
- This is a great way to figure out what matters when it comes to shopping, which can also give you another setting in your novel.
2. What are some ways I can use letters in my novel?
First you have to figure out if you even want letters in your book. Does the format work with your storytelling?
If so, there are two ways you can go from there…
A — A novel composed completely of letters (etc.)
- Each entry is a letter or some other form of correspondence.
- The main plot line is laced within the details of the letters.
- You can have your MC write every letter in the novel, or you can change up the point of view by using multiple letter-writers.
- Be sure to make the writer clear.
My all-time favorite epistolary novel uses this format: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The point of view changed back and forth between several characters creating a story-line that stretches the continent.
Another novel I enjoyed in this format was I’ll be seeing you by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan. This one was unique in that it was co-written. Each author took on the role of one of the two main characters, which offers readers a chance to catch voice and technique changes.
B — A novel that includes a few letters (etc.)
- Most chapters are written in the traditional format.
- Correspondence is every few chapters in the form of a diary entry, letter, or something.
- These entries serve a specific purpose:
- develop characterization
- provide insight to an event or circumstance
- offer something that the MC needs to move the plot forward
I recently finished a novel in this format: Dear Martin by Nic Stone. Justyce, the main character, writes a series of letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. during the course of the novel in between the main story line. This provides insight into how the actions of the story impact the main character and how he deals with everything going on in his life.
3. How would my story change if I used the epistolary format?
Have you already written a first draft, but you think it might better fit as an epistolary novel?
Don’t worry, I had that same issue. The majority of my first round of revisions was changing the format and adjusting point of view. I’m now having to consider other changes, too…
- timeline — we all consider this already, but using dates on your letters makes it imperative.
- chapters — letters tend to create their own chapters, so some authors separate their epistolary novel into parts or leave it as is.
- letter-writers — you’ll need to consider if you want a back-and-forth style, a diary style, or many different perspectives style.
- voice — we already know that each character needs their own voice, so making sure each character’s letter sounds different from one another is vital.
- importance — this works the same as a traditional novel… if it’s not moving the plot forward, then it should probably be rewritten or reconsidered.
All in all, the epistolary format isn’t for everyone, but it can be fun to try on your own (maybe a writer’s notebook experiment?). The thing is, you’ll never know until you try!
In case you want a bit more information from various sources, feel free to check these out!
- “5 Favorite Epistolary Novels” by Sarah, an academic librarian
- “7 Variations on the Epistolary Novel” by Jonathan Russell Clark
- “6 Tips for Writing an Epistolary Novel” by Tracy Marchini
Please feel free to share your thoughts on or your resources for epistolary writing in the comments!
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