How to Write an Epistolary Novel: Tips, Format, and More for Crafting Novels in Letters

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How to Write an Epistolary Novel: Tips, Format, and More for Crafting Novels in Letters

Whether letters, diary entries, or text messages, stories told in alternative formats–also called epistolary novels–have been around for centuries. Many writers have tried their hand using this technique and to varying degrees. But what exactly is an epistolary novel, and how do you write one well?

What is an epistolary novel?

An epistolary novel is a story most commonly told in the form of letters written by one or more characters in the novel. This form of storytelling was popular among 18th and 19th-century novelists. A famous example is Bram Stoker's Dracula. In modern-day literature, in addition to letters, epistolary novels have included other documents in the narrative, including:

  • Texts or instant messages
  • Email
  • Blog posts
  • Podcast interviews
  • Social media posts & comments
  • Journals/diary entries
  • Log entries
  • Police reports
  • Doctor notes or reports

Epistolary novels can be told from one character’s Point of View (POV), or told from two or more POVs.

Novels can be written entirely in epistolary form using just letters or a mix of different document types, or they can be written as a narrative interspersed with other documents. Andy Weir's novel The Martian is told primarily from Mark Watney's log entries while on Mars, but the author also includes chapters written in the third-person POV of other characters, as well as sections of omniscient narration:

Tips for writing an epistolary novel

Decide on your epistolary style

It’s hard to figure out what story you should tell and the method you want to use to tell it at the same time. That’s kind of like writing and revising at the same time. While it’s possible to pants your way through a story like this, it can be much more difficult and will require a lot more revising. You want to think about the shape or form your story will take. What kinds of documents do you want to include? Journal entries only? A mix of diary entries, newspaper articles, doctor notes, and correspondence between two characters?

One way to figure out what documents to use is by determining what you’re trying to communicate about the characters or this world. Think about the time period your characters are in and the world they live in. How do they communicate in this world? What kinds of writing would these characters interact with daily? Does your hero write a letter to their love interest, or is an instant message more appropriate? An archaeologist studying ancient Egypt might interact with text or drawings written on papyrus. You can include images of the papyrus as part of your documents. A clinical psychologist will have files and notes for each of their patients, and that can be included as well.

Taylor Jenkins Reid's novel Daisy Jones & The Six, about a 1960s rock band, is written as a compilation of interview transcripts with the characters years later, which gives the reader the impression of experiencing a documentary film:

This is also great to use when writing a story that has multiple timelines in it. One example of this is Dawn Kurtagich’s The Dead House, which tells the story through diaries, newspaper clippings, doctor notes, transcripts of video footage, and more, and breaks up the novel into two alternating timelines: days before “the incident” and days after. Using these documents, the novel creates a unique storytelling experience that not only adds to the atmosphere of the book, but gives a unique insight into our main character's fragile and vulnerable mental state. This is especially helpful if you have an unreliable narrator like in The Dead House.

Another thing to think about is whether you want your story to be monologic, dialogic, or polylogic. If you want to include other points of view, a dialogic or polylogic approach may be best.

Enhance the narration with purposeful mistakes

One way to play around and experiment with epistolary novels is by including intentional mistakes in the documents. Have you ever sent a text message to the wrong person? Maybe you have a character who likes to send steamy messages to their partner, but this time, they accidentally sent it to a work colleague or even their boss. Yikes! That may be embarrassing for your character, but it is a great way to add conflict and humor to your story, especially if it is a rom-com.

Now, your mistakes don’t always have to be as big as sending a text or email to the wrong person. You can include minor mistakes that we all make, such as typos and grammatical errors. Even one small typo can change the entire meaning of a message. Here’s an example:

“Have you seen the bird?” vs “Have you seen the bride?”

One small mistake will have you either looking for an animal or a person. Also, think about the autocorrect features on your phone or computer and the ways they may change your typos into other words entirely. Play around and have fun with these mistakes and see where it leads you.

Make documents your own

Depending on the type of documents you want to include in your novel, you can find some templates online that you can use. For instance, if you're writing a crime thriller and you want to include a police report, you can look them up online and use them as a template.

Don’t be afraid to omit parts of documents or templates and make them your own. This is still fiction, and you can take liberties. For example, if your novel includes a high-profile trial and you want to include the legal case files in it, those files may include pages and pages of disclaimer information that you just don’t need. Don’t be afraid to cut out the disclaimers. This will help you avoid slowing down your pace with useless information. Your document doesn’t have to look exactly like it would in the real world. Readers will suspend disbelief.

Reveal internal and external conflict

One benefit of writing an epistolary novel is you can use it to reveal something about your character to the reader that they normally wouldn't say. Maybe there’s a secret that your character is holding onto. It may be important to the story, but your character won’t talk about it with anyone. They may not even want to think about it. A diary or journal entry can be a great natural way to reveal that secret to the reader without having the character think or talk about it.

You can reveal external conflict through epistolary writing as well. In Mark Dunn's novel Ella Minnow Pea, the characters face increasing censorship from their government. As the plot progresses, the letters the characters write to one another become shorter and shorter as they are more and more limited in what they can say.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re using this format is you don’t want to repeat the same information twice. If something has already been said or revealed by the character, then use the documents to tell us something new. Remember, these documents should help enhance your story. If they tell us what we already know, it just becomes redundant and detracts from your story instead of making it better.

Study famous epistolary stories

Read and study books in different formats. Epistolary novels have been around for a long time and as we progress in the modern world, they continue to evolve to include modern forms of communication, such as emails or texts, and even transcripts of video footage. Study both current and older novels that use this format. Are there any similarities you notice among them? What are the differences? Is one more effective than the other? How do the documents used enhance the story the author is trying to tell?

Try to identify the structure or beats in these novels as well. How are the foundational beats represented? Do all of those beats use the same type of document or format? Studying other novels that have done this will help you learn how to structure your novel and tell your story in the most effective way.

Ready to explore the epistolary format?

By using the tips above and experimenting with different forms and documents, you’ll be well on your way to creating a story through letters readers will devour!

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