When you think about the epistolary novel, traditionally defined as a novel written in letters, you may instinctively reach way back, maybe to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a mainstay of college literature courses. Perhaps you have fond memories of reading Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw in elementary school or devouring The Perks of a Being Wallflower as a teen.
Are you passionate about books, authors and writing? Sign up for our weekly newsletter, full of tips, reviews, and more.
Epistolary novels have generally been written in a series of letters, complete with dates, salutations, and other conventions of traditional correspondence. Because of this, many readers (and writers) think of epistolary novels as old-fashioned. With Pamela, the titular narrator uses quite formal speech, and in Dear Mr. Henshaw, emails and text messages would be regarded as strange, futuristic concepts to protagonist Leigh Botts. Because of this disconnect, writers often subsequently dismiss the epistolary format as a viable option in our modern age.
However, epistolary novels don’t just involve letters and notes, and they can absolutely belong in our technology-focused world. This form can also encompass journal entries, emails, text messages, conversation transcripts, blog posts, and other ephemera, leaving the writer with a variety of ways to express their creativity – and the inner lives of their characters.
Characteristics of epistolary novels
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.
Entries are often shorter than traditional chapters, which can be especially helpful in books for children and teens (and for adults, this characteristic can earn you that “page turner” review that so many authors long for).
Why choose epistolary?
You need a good reason to choose this particular format or your novel will run the risk of seeming choppy and unnatural. You can’t just include text messages because they make your character seem “modern” or because it’s “easier.” As with everything you use in your writing, it’s vital to consider the logic behind your decisions.
Epistolary novels are a great choice when you’re using a first-person point of view and really want to get inside a character’s head. The form allows for intense emotions while also giving your narrator the option to hold certain details back.
Epistolary novels also emphasize the closeness of a particular relationship. In my debut novel, P.S. I Miss You, my character Evie writes letters to her older sister, Cilla, the only person she feels comfortable confiding her secrets to. The back-and-forth aspect of their letters allows the reader to experience their relationship more deeply.
What are the challenges?
Often, dialogue in epistolary novels can come off as forced, since writers don’t generally recount conversations verbatim in letters and emails. Because of this, you’ll need to figure out how to incorporate dialogue naturally, and many authors find text messages and transcripts are a great way to do this. Make sure to mix up this dialogue with your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, too.
If you’re including other ephemera, such as article snippets, diagrams, maps, text message chains, or scraps of paper, you’ll want to figure out the best place to position and arrange these within the novel so that it helps tell your story.
You’ll also want to think about who your protagonist is writing to. Are you recounting details that the addressee would already know? How can you convey this information in a natural way while still using the epistolary form?
Time and technology
Today, some people still send letters and cards. But for most of us, our communication focus is on text messages and social media posts, all of which can also be included in your novel. There are both pros and cons of using newer forms of technology, however. Even though these media may be current today, you run the risk of dating your book.
On the other hand, the inherent tensions of newer forms of technology can add layers to your plot. “What happens if a letter is lost in the mail?” becomes “How do I know my email was received?” or “Why is this character ignoring my texts?”
Authorial decisions to make
Do you want to use letters, journal entries, ephemera, etc. throughout your book or just in part? Some authors choose to start each chapter with a related email and then shift into prose. This can ground the upcoming scene or add a bit of insight into what is to come.
Do you have one narrator or multiple narrators? One “type” of document or many?
Who is your character speaking to? This can inform the tone of your book. For example, a middle school student would choose quite different language for emails to his best friend versus his grandmother.
How reliable is your narrator? In certain situations, would they lie or self-censor? Why?
Above all, have fun! Epistolary novels are some of the most enjoyable and creative books out there, and as our world evolves, the genre will evolve, too.
Jen Petro-Roy is an author and a former teen and children’s librarian. She is the author of the epistolary novel P.S. I Miss You, along with Good Enough and You Are Enough, all published by Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. Find her at jenpetroroy.com and on Twitter and Instagram.