Writing stories is great, but what if you were writing a story that’s entirely your protagonist writing newspaper stories? Then you would be entering the venerable epistolary genre, where your story is made up of in-story documents, be they letters, news clippings, emails, journal entries, or even audio recordings. Epistolary stories have a number of advantages, but they also come with serious challenges, and that’s what we’re talking about this week. We discuss what epistolary does well, what it does poorly, and why you can’t just add a translator’s note at the beginning. Or at least, why you shouldn’t.
Generously transcribed by Nikki. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: Did you know that we’re speaking to you from an audio recording?
Chris: It’s a real life piece of media that was told at a specific time for a specific real life purpose.
Oren: I wasn’t informed about this. I’m going to write an angry letter.[Laughing]
Oren: “Dear Chris, how dare you.”
Chris: Okay. Quick. Now we’ve got to say something dramatic. And stop the recording, and then there’s going to be a citation that this was from the Mythcreant podcast.
Oren: Oh, no, a topic I didn’t prepare for!
Chris [whispering]:Crash. [Normal voice] So we are covering epistolary narration this time. Which we’ve mentioned before, but now an entire episode and epistolary episode about epistolary narration.
Oren: Did Stephen King ever write epistolary because I know that with some of his books, he wrote a-pistol-ary.[Groaning]
Chris: No… no, get out.
Wes: You’re banished.
Oren: Look, what are the strengths of epistolary is that you can write the way that people like actually talk and get into the character and learn them more. And I’m just talking the way that I talk, so this is just my character.
Chris: Epistolary narration needs to be credible, so we gotta ask, would somebody who talks that way credibly be on the Mythcreant podcast?
Wes: I also like the idea of somebody doing epistolary narration and filling it with puns. Like how well they landed. Oh my God, I don’t want to think about that. Oren?
Oren: I’m prepared. My body is ready. We’re putting evil ideas and listeners’ heads. We’re supposed to be role models.
Chris: We’re probably too late for that at this point. All right. So what is epistolary harration?
Oren: It’s a normal book that at the end of the book, I have my protagonist say, and that’s why I wrote all this down in a book.
Chris: How dare…
Oren: That’s epistolary
Oren: It’s epistolary now, Chris,
Oren: You have to call it that.
Wes: That has to be like the unforgivable sin for epistolary narration, right? I mean you have to know that it’s epistolary from the start. Otherwise it’s a cheat, and I hate it.
Chris: That’s one type of what I would call fake epistolary stories or fake epistolary narration, where it just feels like the writer wrote whatever they felt like writing and then just added a citation to it. Battlefield earth has this weird translation note, right? It’s like a story that’s taking place on some other planet, I think in the super-distant future or something. And then there’s just this random, oh, by the way, I’m using Earth years to translate this document, or a standard year, which happens to be exactly the same as an Earth year, or something like that. And it’s like, “What?” This is just a regular book.
Oren: Sometimes people put those weird little bits at the beginning instead of the end, but either way, if it’s indistinguishable from a normal book and you just put like, “Hey, this was written by so-and-so,” and so it’s epistolary, the only purpose those things serve is to make fan arguments more insufferable. Because someone will be like, “You know, I’m not sure if this plot point made sense,” and someone else will be like, “But it’s an unreliable narrator because it said so at the beginning,” No, gosh, why would you inflict that on your fans? Why would you intentionally cause that to happen?
Chris: Or what I have been seeing recently is there’s a lot of times epistolary little snippets that are at the beginning of chapters or the beginning of the book, but like the main body of the book is not supposed to be epistolary. And those also can be bad. I was making fun of The Alchemyst, cause I just did a lessons post on the Lessons from the Writing of The Alchemyst.
And it opens with this teaser, “I am legend. Death has no claim over me. Illness can not touch me.” And it goes on, this guy just bragging about his life. “I was acknowledged as the greatest alchemist of all” and, you know, just bragging. And at the end it’s supposed to be from his daily journal He’s immortal. Does he just every day write about how awesome he is?
Wes: I mean, if you were immortal, maybe it’s like his daily pump-up routine. He’s like, “I gotta summon the will to go on. I am immortal.”
Oren: There are two possibilities, and they are both equally hilarious, as laid out in Chris’s post Lessons from the Empty writing of the Alchemyst. One is that his entire journal is that way – and that’s just amazing. And the other option is that every other entry in his journal is normal “May 29th, we went to the garden show and had fun.” May 30th, “We had some trouble with the new assistant.” “May 31st, I am legend. Death has no claim over me illness cannot touch me.”
Chris: Woah, what happened to you, Nicholas?
Oren: Both of those examples are amazing. And we win either way.
Chris: Okay. But you have to use the voice for, I am legend. So it’s, you know, [aggrieved tone] “May 30th. Oh, it would’ve been a productive day. If not for the constant interruptions of my new assistance.” [normal tone] And then [spooky tone] “May 31st. I am legend.”
Oren: Look, Chris, if you have a protagonist who is legend and on whom death has no claim and illness cannot touch, how would you better communicate that to the reader?
Chris: Yep. So that’s what we would call fake epistolary narration. And it is pretty unfortunately way too common.
Wes: I’m sorry. I’m just cracking up at the thought of writing that. Like him sitting down to write that and then just ltimestamping. He’s like, “That’s right, today.”
Oren: There needs to be a record of this event.
Chris: The other scenario of course, is the 10,000 Doors of January where we have the entire book, and then January is like, “Yeah, I totally wrote this for you, love interest.” And it’s like, no, you didn’t, you liar.
Oren: God damn liar. The reason that sort of thing is annoying is that epistolary narration sounds different than standard narration because people write in their journals differently than they write novels. And they recount real events differently than a narrator narrates a novel, right? So when you do that, it’s just obviously fake and contrived.
Chris: Okay. So let’s back up a bit and just talk about the definition, because traditionally epistolary means letters, right? So traditionally was just letter writing. So “Dear so-and-so.” But generally today it’s expanded to mean any kind of real life, supposedly nonfiction communication, told in that format. So you have some kind of document, and it can be a print document. It can be audio or electronic. If you tell a story in the form of chats, you know, like text messages on a phone, that would be considered epistolary. You could have an entire scrapbook of different clippings of media and put them together. The idea is that there’s some kind of real life communication premise – that you’re putting all the narration in that format and making it look like that.
Oren: News articles are also a good one. There’s lots of stuff.
Chris: Lots of different things you can do. But it is role-challenging, which is why we have so much fake epistolary narration. Because people don’t want to have to try to do it, but you also don’t get the benefits of doing it if you don’t actually try, because the big benefit is that it feels more real and that adds credibility to the story. And it can also, depending on the format, add a lot of novelty, but if you don’t actually do that, then you’re not getting the benefits. So why add the citation? What is the purpose?
Oren: Well, it’s to let you know that you are legend and that death has no hold on you, obviously.
Wes: I do like that point, though, about it feeling like more real. I think it’s a nice way to still be in the writer’s head. Like it’s nice and close, but it’s different from unfolding narration, because in theory, your writer has some hindsight to sit down and reflect. Which doesn’t always happen. But, you know, I like the intimacy of it, especially in stories where you might just get one letter from one writer and not the other one back. And it kind of feels like it’s just coming to you. That’s kind of a nice touch that this can offer
Chris: It definitely comes in lots of different types and forms. I would say or all the different narrative premises that we talked about (we had another episode talking about, basically, premises for how the story’s being told) it is one of, perhaps the most difficult. Maybe depending on what form you choose. Omniscient – the all-knowing storyteller – is also difficult. And when I talk about how challenging it is, I’m talking about how do you get to the bar where it is adding more than it is taking away.
Obviously, if you want a fake epistolary story, you can just add a citation; that’s not difficult. We’re talking about how much effort and skill do you need to put in to make it so that it really adds to what you’re doing. The issue is that it’s just very restrictive.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you need to figure out what your premise is and need to try to create a scenario in which it makes sense for characters to be writing things down fairly regularly. Your story we’ll just need that.
Chris: Unless the story is really short. I do think it works better for short stories and novels. Not that there aren’t novels in it successfully; there are. But with a short story, you can be a lot more experimental, and have it be a single moment in time – some text chats back and forth, or what have you. And that takes a lot of the pressure off. To do the things that are really difficult under the restrictions of epistolary narration with the premise you’ve chosen.
Oren: Yep. That’s true. If it’s shorter, it’s less of a problem. Although one of the underappreciated strengths of epistolary is that it is also easier to add in material or what might effectively be considered another point of view, that can cover areas where it just doesn’t make sense for your protagonist to have written stuff down, not in the way you want them to. So for example, one of the weaknesses of epistolary is that your protagonist is not going to be writing in their journal while they are fighting for their life. The closest you can get to that is them writing in their journal and then making it quick “I think I hear something” note.
But in the vast majority of cases, anything, your character is written down has to be something that has already happened. It can’t be something that is in the process of happening. It will seem extremely goofy if you have your protagonists be like, “And then the bad guy came at me and I’m writing this down as I am fighting them.” Or even if it’s another character. “And then protagonist fought the bad guy. And I stood here with my journal making notes as they did that.”
But what you can do is you can fill in the gaps with writing from other people. So you can, for example, have a character who was writing about a creepy thing that happened, where they found these weird symbols in a burned building that they had investigated. And then being like, “You know, it’s, it’s still playing tricks on me now. I almost feel like I can smell smoke.” And then like a quick line, “Wait, I think I can smell smoke.” And then the entry ends. And then the next thing is a newspaper about a house burning down and building suspense about whether or not the hero survived. And then after that you go back to the heroes, journaling. “My house burned down and I barely made it out in time. And I’m glad I was able to grab my journal before I got out.”[Laughing]
Chris: Yeah. Certainly you have to do things a little bit differently, although there’s a lot of works that will start with a little bit more credible narration and then kind of like wander way. And I’m not going to say that you should never do any fudging, right? If it gives people a better experience, if they’re immersed enough, they might not notice when characters do a little bit more blow by blow recounting than they normally would. But there’s certainly a limit on that.
And that’s, that’s the other thing is there’s a limit to, in most forms of epistolary – and journals are generally the most flexible because people are just writing whatever to themselves – but how much do they really want to recount in their journal, even if it’s a past action and you know, they’re okay because they’re writing it. A blow by blow stretches credibility more than a really quick summary. And generally writers have to be pushed to show more, and do more real-time scenes. So a format that encourages them to summarize more often ends up with very much too much summary.
Oren: One thing I will say is that if you want an action packed story, epistolary is not the right format for you. Action packed stories are great, I love them, but they do not work in epistolary. The more action you plan on having in your story, the harder it is going to be to make your epistolary premise work. And the more obvious it will be that your epistolary premise is just being fudged into normal narration.
But epistolary works great for horror stories for the exact same reason, which is that one of the things that makes horror work is keeping the threat mysterious and epistolary makes it so easy to do that. Because in a more traditional narration, once your protagonist fully sees the monster, it just loses a lot of its mystery, and even if it’s a dangerous monster, it’s just not as scary anymore, But is so easy in epistolary to just have the character, leave out certain details, and leave those to the reader’s imagination. That would be really contrived to leave those out in a standard narration.
Chris: It’s worth mentioning that Dracula is an epistolary novel that puts things like news clips in there. And I think HP Lovecraft used a lot of epistolary narration, didn’t he?
Oren: Sometimes. The one that comes to my mind of course, is always going to be Maplecroft, which is Lizzie Borden versus Cthulhu. And that one makes great use of epistolary. It works really well to have entries from different characters’ journals, giving different characters take on the same situation. And because it’s epistolary, it just doesn’t feel as repetitive because the information we’re being given is being much more heavily filtered.
And of course they’re still all part of the same story, right? We don’t have everyone talking about what’s happening in their town and then someone else being like, “Oh yeah. And I’m in San Francisco, sampling the local cuisine.” They still have to be part of the same story, but in a more traditional narration, I would say that splitting between multiple characters like that is probably not a good idea, but in an epistolary novel, like Maplecroft, it worked very well.
Chris: The really interesting one there was the separate quote-unquote viewpoint – not really viewpoints – but a character in there was a doctor who was running down patient reports of patients that were coming down with these really strange ailments. And so the doctor’s report or doctor’s journal was kind of like a perfect match for the threat that the more prominent characters were facing. And so they were linked in that way. And that was also a very novel format, so that was really interesting.
Another interesting intersection between epistolary stories and traditional multiple viewpoints is… I’m currently reading Sorcery & Cecilia right now, which is a kind of classic epistolary novel. And it’s written by two writers that… both women actually wrote to each other, which makes, I think, one of the reasons why it comes off as so authentic is because the process that was used to create it was basically letter writing. So the two writers were role-playing, and going back and forth.
And the interesting thing about it is because the characters are, you know, two characters, writing letters to each other, they are always talking. Right? So unlike many viewpoint characters where they’re in different locations – because they have to be, for writing letters, otherwise why would they write letters? – they are always in a sense interacting and in constant communication with each other, which enables the plot to tie together better. And it’s clear that the authors are also doing a little improv building off of each other, in a kind of fashion.
And so characters will go back and forth from one location to another. So it’s like between London and the countryside. So the same characters will go back and forth and be with one of the cousins or the other. Cause it’s two cousins, and they are facing the same antagonist. And so it’s surprisingly linked together despite the fact that they each have their own romance, and have some separate storylines. But because they’re talking, it encourages that consolidation.
And the interesting thing about that one is talking about the summary issue. I do think that in a lot of epistolary stories, there’s definitely more distance and some immersion lost, similar to omniscient, right, when you’re staying kind of distanced from the story, and summary is less immersive. But I think it works better because this is la Georgian England, society, romance type of thing. Although it’s fantasy, when they relate details, there’s a lot of summarizing, but they’re going to a lot of parties in talking to a lot of not very important people, and there’s a lot of mundane days passing.
And so it’s actually easier to summarize, which I think benefits the story. They can cut right to the good part, right to the important part. If there’s one important line of dialogue at an entire party, they can just mention that and they don’t have to build a whole scene around it. But when they have more important and personal moments, the writers will dive in and directly relate dialogue, which I think is a little more realistic than relating a blow by blow in a fight scene. Because I think a lot of times when people say to you, it sticks with you more, and if you don’t quite remember the words, you’ll just make something up. When you relate it to another person, I do think that there is some chemistry building lost because it’s less immersive when it comes to romance, but at the same time, it still feels fairly natural.
Oren: Yeah, about dialogue. I was going to say that repeating large chunks of dialogue and epistolary is going to start to feel a bit contrived because like, can you really remember exactly what he said? And if not, why are you writing it out like that? But there are definitely some things that you will remember someone saying. And I think it’s just a matter of having some restraint.
Chris: Sorcery & Cecilia has similarity to an omniscient narrator. It has so much commentary by the letter writer, right where it’s like, “You know, here’s a few lines of what we said, and then the journey continued and then, oh, and by the way, Kate,” it kind of breaks in, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, and then when I was getting off, we said this.” So it’s broken up in a way. Again, I think it works very well, but there’s a lot of subjectivity here about how much dialogue would somebody really relate, or how precise would the actions be? And it’s just that the more you push it, the more you want to do those real-time scenes, the more it starts to strain credibility. But if you otherwise do a good job making it credible, I think you’ll probably have more leeway.
Oren: Here’s something to think about when you’re doing epistolary writing is metadata. The thing that you put at the start of a section to indicate what it is being written in. Usually if it’s a journal, it might have a date, or it might not even have that – that might all be at the end. But if it’s an email, very often it’ll have the sender and the recipient and all that. So that’s something to keep in mind.
And there’s two problems I’ve encountered with people using the metadata. One is they assume that readers will catch things in the metadata that they don’t, because readers tend to skim that or skip it entirely. They’ll depend on the reader memorizing what date it is and being able to put together clues because the date was different than something that was being described in the story. And it’s like, I’m sorry, I skipped over the date. And the other problems is that if you have too much metadata, it will be very awkward if your story is recorded in audio, because you can’t skip it. It’s just going to be the whole thing every time.
Chris: So I do have one short story that’s in email. It’s professional emails, and so they have email signatures. They have both a header, and I even picked out like stock images for each person, and then they have their professional email signature. And at one point in time, I asked somebody who worked at corporate, does this look like a typical email signature? They said no, you need to have like more weird formatting. There’s some things need to be bold and other things need to be italicized.
I’m like, okay, well the design doesn’t look as good, but I guess that’s more realistic. And then when it was put in audio, you know, I just made this call to just start to drop it. Cause if you added the email signature to every email in audio, it would just be an absolute nightmare. So as the story continued, I had the narrator just drop more and more of that metadata. And I think at the end it was just like the time and maybe their sign-off name.
Oren: Yeah, that’s the right choice. And I mean, if you’re recording the audio yourself, you can always make those choices. It’s a little unclear to me, how much choice authors have in a traditional publishing situation, when someone is, is contracted to make an audio version of their book.
Chris: Emails are I think especially high in metadata. And then the other question is format; it’s similar. I spend a lot of time formatting, so those emails look like emails, right? Some types of documents just have more credibility if you can make them visually look like what they’re supposed to look like. But again, that’s a big publishing question.
I think it’s worth talking about how to write credible epistolary narration. Cause we’ve been talking about that a lot. So the key is to remember, who is writing it?. For what purpose are they writing it? And to whom are they writing it? Right. You have to always remember those things and keep it consistent with those things. So it’s very similar to writing dialogue. Really, that’s a good way to think about it. So you don’t want to make the person who’s writing it talk out of character.
You got to remember who it is, even if it’s an impersonal news report. Like, this is supposed to be a news reporter or a professional journalist, right? You have to make them say things they would actually say given their purpose and the person they’re talking to. You don’t want to put in, “As you and I both know,” right? So it can also be tricky to work an exposition in epistolary narration for this reason, because if they’re talking to their cousin, why would they say things to their cousin that their cousin already knows?
And so those are the things that you always have to keep in mind and that’s what makes it feel credible. And it also makes it restrictive. But again, on the plus side, you can have a whole scrapbook, right? So it’s really natural for people to imagine, okay, well that page of the journal is done and now I’m getting a news report, right? You can imagine having a premise where those things are thrown together
Wes: For each of those different types of mediums, it’s where’s the line between like authentically portraying that and just ruining somebody’s reading time. It’s like, and now here’s a series of text messages full of, I dunno… should you include emojis and multiple exclamation marks and like all those things that can just get in the way for the sake of being true to that medium?
Chris: Well I think it’s, again, similar to writing dialogue. Where we talked about writing dialogue. Like, you want it to sound natural, but you don’t actually want it to be natural.
Wes: That makes sense. Yeah.
Chris: You kind of clean up what people actually say. It’s similar to that, But like if you were doing texting, then yeah, some emojis would probably be a good idea, but you might limit repetitive emojis or something.
Oren: Yeah, I have no idea how you would translate emojis into an audio format. That is beyond me. You could just say them, I guess. Maybe that’s all you can do. I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t know.
Chris: Winky face, heart, heart, heart.
Oren: Maybe. Maybe that would get across the same. I feel like that wouldn’t have the same effect. You know, you’re trying to make the audio story, give you as much of the same experience as you can.
Chris: That is one of the hard things about it. That if you are delivering the information in a different format than the document. So if it’s supposed to be an audio recording, is it, I guess you’d say a transcript, right? Cause if it’s text, but it’s supposed to be an audio recording, well, you’re not going to put a CD in the book that you published, probably. So an audio transcript is almost a better fit at that point. But yeah, that’s one of the tough things about it.
Oren: I have another question. Since we’re running out of time, this question is very important. How do you decide what fancy cursive-ish font your character is going to write in?
Chris: No, no, no. And just don’t, no, just choose a serif font. You don’t have to, they have a typewriter. They all have a typewriter, regardless of the setting. I mean, it’s, if it’s short, if it’s not the entire novel. If it’s not the entire novel, if it’s short, then I think you could potentially choose a, not a fancy cursive necessarily, but something that’s designed to look handwritten, but the longer the text is the more important it is to just use a regular font for readability purposes.
Oren: What about if I’m trying to simulate the feeling of being pen pals with me, Oren Ashkenazi, and therefore the handwriting is really messy and nearly impossible to read. And how would you translate that into audio?[Laughing]
Chris: The other thing I should mention is a monotype font. For stuff that’s on a computer, it may work well. Again, most computers don’t have Monotype – it’s pretty niche. But it’s associated with computers. But I don’t think we have a font that is equal to your handwriting. Oren.
Oren: Not yet. Just pay someone to make me a custom font, then we’ll see.
All right, wiith that point, or threat maybe, out of the way, we’re going to go ahead and call this podcast to a close. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.[Outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?