How To: Write an Epistolary Novel

Epistolary novels are among the oldest types of fiction. While they’re traditionally comprised of letters from one person to another, modern adaptations of the genre have included journal entries (Bridget Jones’s Diary), texts (ttyl), encyclopedia articles (Wisdom’s Kiss), and letters to an imaginary best friend-slash-alien (The Saver).

The epistolary form can present a challenge to writers, because it’s often all dialogue–there’s no interiority. For example, if one of your characters is writing a letter to her friend, you can’t insert the following bit of narration: “Although Susie hated Diana’s new hat, she’d never say so. ‘It looks great!’ Susie said.” If you’re writing in epistolary format and you want to covey Susie’s true feelings about Diana’s hat, you have to be pretty crafty. Maybe Susie writes, “Your new hat is stunning! Most people wouldn’t be able to pull off such a bold combination of seemingly disparate colors, but the red/pink/lime-green thing works on you! And the three-foot feather plume? An inspired touch.”

On the other hand, some epistolary novels, like The Saver by Edeet Ravel–which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment–actually manage to offer deeper insight into a character’s psychology than more traditional forms of storytelling do. When Fern’s mother dies, Fern starts writing letters to her imaginary alien friend, Xanoth. These letters reveal a lot about Fern’s feelings because Xanoth just listens and never judges. The epistolary format ensures that Fern’s narration occurs in a completely private, intimate place, so she’s able to say so much more than she normally would. It’s a first-person story, but with the uncensored dial turned up to 11.

How do you know if the epistolary format is right for you? Well, ask yourself: Are the documents organic to the story? If your main character is an eight-year-old wood sprite, composing a novel in text messages might be pushing it. Why is your character writing? Are the letters/journals/tweets public or private? Even if you decide not to go whole-hog with the multimedia aspect, writing a letter or an email from your character’s point of view is a great opportunity to get inside his or her head and spend some time writing in his or her distinct voice (which you are a total master at, now, thanks to Junot Díaz).

And so, a challenge, if you will: Take a scene from one of your favorite books and rewrite it as a chapter in an epistolary novel. That could mean a series of live tweets from the 74th Annual Hunger Games, or a letter from Hermione to her parents during her first year at Hogwarts. Tag your re-written scene “epistolarious.” Our four favorite submissions will be featured on the figment.com homepage as Handpicked Figs! No word limit, but get your story up and tagged by 7 p.m. on December 4.

6 thoughts on “How To: Write an Epistolary Novel

  1. This isn’t related to the contest, but I had a question about the epstolary novel idea. I started writing a story on here (Letters) and I guess it’s kind of like this. It’s basically a guy is on trial for murdering someone, and the story alternates between the courtroom, which is like a normal story, and a series of documents (ie texts, diary entries, letters, etc…) that are being presented as exhibits in the trial, and through the documents its shown/proved who was the real killer. Anyways, I was just wondering if that counted as an epstolary story or a different catergory entirely.

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