A Beginner’s Guide to Epistolary Writing

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Many writers have a pet narrative technique they think is underused and underappreciated. For me, it’s epistolary writing. While this framing premise has its challenges, it can also be wonderfully creative and powerful. For those who haven’t tried it, allow me to give you a tour.

Epistolary Writing Comes in Many Forms

Epistolary writing is frequently thought of as narration in the form of letters.  A great example is the novel Sorcery and Cecilia, in which the two protagonists – Cecy and Kate – write letters back and forth to each other. However, these days narration through any document is considered epistolary, even if it’s electronic. That includes:

  • Journal entries
  • Emails
  • Newspaper articles
  • Transcripts
  • Police reports
  • Chats

Each type of document has its own tone and style, allowing for creativity and variety. If you love dialogue, then yes, you can write a story that’s nothing but dialogue – choose a chat. Journal entries lean toward private contemplation, and newspaper articles are great for fleshing out a setting.

Even better, you can mix all of these in the same work. For instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula includes letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and ships’ log entries. It’s helpful if you can find a reason why the documents are in one place. Maybe they’re all pieces of evidence in an investigation, or perhaps a character assembled them into a scrapbook. However, an explanation isn’t necessary. Readers will generally accept an interesting set of documents without further ado.

Epistolary Writing Is Similar to Dialogue

While chats are obviously the closest to dialogue, other forms of epistolary writing are also dialogue-like. You can think of each document as a one-way conversation. And like any dialogue, it needs to feel natural.

To write convincing epistolary stories, you must know whom the document’s author is writing to and why. Is a widower writing what he wishes he could say to his dead husband? Is a police officer writing a report to her superior – trying to sound objective while making herself look good? Once you choose, you have to stick to what the document writer would say, or your narration will feel contrived.

This makes it tricky to convey information for the benefit of your real readers. In dialogue, sneaking in exposition that characters have no reason to state is called “as you and I both know” dialogue. It’s obvious and tacky. The same can happen to your epistolary narration if you aren’t careful.

One way around this issue is for your document writer to address someone that they believe to be ignorant about the basic facts of their life. For instance, in The Martian, Mark Watney writes at the beginning of his journal, “I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.” This “hundred years” bit is important. A person living a century in the future will probably be unfamiliar with his mission, giving him an excuse to describe it in detail.

However, there are downsides to a “whoever reads this” document. Choosing a more specific audience can add valuable flavor to the narration. For instance, when people write to their loved ones, their tone becomes more warm and inviting.

Though information can be difficult to convey in epistolary stories, it’s easy to conceal. If the information would be an obvious part of the document – like a stabbing in a police report – you’ll need a solid character motivation for the omission. However, in general people just don’t tell each other everything.

Epistolary Writing Can Use Multiple Tenses

If you’ve ever had trouble choosing between writing in past, present, or even future tense, now you can have all of them! In most cases, a document author will use whatever tense would work in conversation.

Of course, you need to be thoughtful about how you mix tenses. While a real letter writer might put down whatever comes to mind, your readers will want narration that’s in a sensible order. In epistolary narration, it’s usually most natural to start with present, go into the past to recount a story, and then return to present at the end. After returning to present, your character might also detail their plans going forward.

If your epistolary story is a series of documents like letters, journal entries, or emails, you can choose what points in your story’s timeline will be “present” for a document. That’s when your character will write an entry. For instance, let’s say your story covers the beginning and ending of a war. Your narrator is a character sent off to war who is writing home to her loved ones. She might write the first letter soon after she is drafted and the last letter when she learns she can finally return home. Each of these moments in your timeline will be “present” for one of the letters. Immediately after these moments, a letter will end, creating a break in the story.

By choosing the right moment for each entry, you can create emphasis and raise tension. Most often, you’ll want characters to write documents just before something bad or mysterious might happen. The narrator might be about to face trial, or perhaps while writing they notice the window is open, and they stop to investigate. Since present tense feels more immediate* than past tense, switching to present allows you to create more anticipation. And that anticipation will provide a great hook for the next document in the series.

Similarly, the time jump at the beginning of the next document can be used for fun reveals and teasers. The narrator went to investigate the window, and now they’ve pledged themself to the fairy king. How did that happen? They’ll have to recount everything that happened since they investigated the window. Just keep your teasers genuine; it shouldn’t feel like your document writer is deliberately misleading their reader(s).

Epistolary Writing Leans Toward Summary

While most stories include both fleshed-out scenes and summarized events, writers often need to show more and tell less. Unfortunately, that becomes more challenging in epistolary stories. When people recount events in conversation, they rarely go into the level of detail a writer would when narrating a scene. Similar to oral folklore, they skip right to the big plot points and rarely describe scenes moment by moment. For instance, it would be unusual in a dialogue to have one character fully recount another dialogue they had word for word.

You can have this kind of detail in epistolary writing, but you have to be more careful in how it’s set up. It goes back to having realistic context for the document. One way to make it feel natural for the document writer to go into detail is to make them excited or passionate about something. So if you need blow-by-blow fight scenes in your epistolary work, consider making your viewpoint character a combat enthusiast. They don’t need to be an expert – if they’ve only watched fighting on television previously, that will make them even more excited to relate every detail of their first combat. Your viewpoint character might also write in painstaking detail if the person they’re writing to would want to know everything. For a realistic and detailed account, it’s also essential that the writer isn’t in a hurry.

Even when your character doesn’t have a reason to relate everything they went through word by word or move by move, they can still include description that’s specific and visceral. For instance, they might say a mysterious stranger wore a dusty velvet coat that looked like rats had gnawed on it. They’re just unlikely to also describe the stranger’s hat, hair, eyes, shirt, pants, socks, and shoes in a similar level of detail. That would leave the impression that your narrator stared at each of the stranger’s accessories for a full minute during the encounter. How else could they remember all that?

A focus on summary also has its upsides. It makes epistolary writing ideal for some works – particularly some short stories. To keep the length down, short stories either narrate only a short period in time – such as a single afternoon – or summarize events. In most cases, I still recommend going the short time route; that way the narration feels more immersive and immediate. However, if you do write a short story as a summary, epistolary writing works splendidly. It can add a lot of flavor that makes up for being more removed from events.

Epistolary Stories Feel Real

The distance epistolary writing has from events can be a significant downside of the form, but it has a big upside: credibility. We encounter nonfiction documents that we trust every day. A fiction story that makes itself look like a nonfiction work, or multiple works, feels real in a way that is difficult to replicate through other means.

The realness of epistolary stories can make content more relatable. When we see our stories as emails, it reminds us of all the emails we’ve read or written. It can also create more mystery and wonder. When we read old newspaper clippings that mention strange events, it taps into our curiosity about our own history and what might have been forgotten.

With more credibility, stories have greater emotional impact. Just be careful to maintain your document’s credibility by rigorously following the conventions of whatever form of epistolary writing you’re using. At times, this may feel restrictive, but it will also give your readers another reason to continue.

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  1. Passerby

    Reminds me about this brilliant short:

    • Uschi

      This is great! Sometimes the discussion pages of Wikipedia articles are way more interesting to read than the actual article, not to mention longer thanks for suggesting this story!

  2. Trey Taylor

    Have been following your podcast – really enjoy it.

    In the book “Night Shift: by Stephen King there is a great short story using this technique. The title is “Jerusalem’s Lot” and really reminded me of a Lovecraft story, which I think it was meant to do.

  3. Santa

    “For instance, it would be unusual in a dialogue to have one character fully recount another dialogue they had word for word.”

    Every single epistolary story I’ve ever read does this. Frankenstein: dude 1 writes a letter in which he quotes a story told to him by dude 2, who is somehow able to remember long letters and conversations he had in which those people were also able to remember conversations they had with other people.

    Which is why I would say if you want to write an epistolary story, don’t. Because it will probably suck.

    • Cay Reet

      It depends on who is recounting the dialogue. I would expect a journalist or an investigator to be capable of that. Or someone who is very fastidious about keeping a journal, making entries as soon after an event as they can. Besides, who guarantees that the dialogue recounted at some point actually is word by word? It seems so, because the writer has pierced together what they remember from the conversation and filled up the gaps with details they thought fitting. That works for Dracula as an explanation and that also works for me when it comes to the Sherlock Holmes stories – which are not epistolary as a such, but supposed to be from John Watson’s memories.

      I actually do enjoy rereading Dracula every now and then (and Dracula is a very, very epistolary story). One trick there is that the medical information was gathered by Dr. Seward on a phonograph – meaning he simply recorded it, keeping it word for word. In a more modern setting, a dictaphone or a smartphone could serve as an explanation. And we don’t know what abilities future people might have, stuff like memory implants and suchlike.

      But writing an epistolary story well still is challenging. Perhaps more suited for something short than for something at novel length.

      • Leon

        …future people…
        I’ve always believed that the first elective cybernetic augmentations will be a smart phone directly wired into the users brain. The user could record every experience, and operate the machine entirely by will allowing them to write without their hands or make calls in silence, and view messages and media in their mind (you could even develop notional hands for operating machinery at a distance – but that’s off topic). There would be no excuse not to call your dad or txt your sister. This would make epistolary a perfect fit for any science fiction setting with sophisticated cybernetics.

  4. Zuzu Schmitke

    Recently read a fantasy story written in letters. It’s called The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. It wasn’t brilliant by any means, but it is definitely worth checking out. I am curious to see what you would think if it.

  5. Dave L

    One other advantage:

    The narrator can be unreliable, misinformed, mistaken, or flat out lying, and it doesn’t feel like the author is cheating

  6. Terry M.

    Would audio transcripts between patient and therapist be considered a valid source for epistolary writing? Does epistolary writing have to be non-fiction?

    • Innocent Bystander

      I’d imagine that would work. The point of epistolary writing is to make the audience believe that they’re reading actual records of something. And it definitely doesn’t have to be non-fiction. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is fiction, for example, and it’s far from the only one.

      The Magnus Archives are a good example of epistolary writing with an audio bent. It follows a new archivist trying to bring a mysterious collection up to date via audio logs. Likewise, Welcome to Nightvale is a podcast that’s set up as a radio host giving the news for the day in a strange town. Both could be considered epistolary even though they’re audio.

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