‘Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls’ -John Donne
The epistolary style is defined as a story which unfolds through a series of letters and other documents, such as newspaper articles, diary entries; even emails and blog posts!
It’s a topical subject for me as I’m currently reading Where or When (1993) by the late Anita Shreve which in part makes use of this style as well as having recently finished a short story entitled The Care Plan that I’m in the process of editing.
When I used to work in a care home, staff had to keep a running diary entry for each resident and at the end of each shift we wrote a little paragraph about how they were feeling; who’d visited them, what they’d eaten, which medications they’d taken and so forth.
It occurred to me at the time that it would be great to use this material as the basis for a story; not only could I build tension through each new entry —writing about an elderly man suffering with dementia allowed me to explore the imaginative feelings I’d experienced firsthand, such as: Can he really see something that I can’t?
Epistolary novels and short stories no doubt have their limitations and yet there are many interesting benefits, some of which I’ve outlined below. So read on and enjoy, in honour of the precursor to the novels we love today, the electronic innovations that have revolutionised the form and of course; the long lost art of letter writing.
It doesn’t take an epistolary novel to prove that reading the words of another creates a certain intimacy with the writer. Whether this be a letter or a tweet, we experience something directly of that person, their thoughts and emotions in a way that can’t be transmitted through an omniscient narrator.
Although the epistolary form had been in existence for many hundred of years; Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson, considered the most important work in the development of the novel (and also the earliest occasion I’ve heard of merchandising a book —apparently the people of the mid-eighteenth century were all about the Pamela T—shirts and Pamela pencil cases:D) was the first to make it fashionable.
The story’s about a young servant girl who works for a wealthy landowner: Mr. B — a man in constant pursuit of the pious Pamela who makes inappropriate advances towards her and is seemingly for the first volume at least, an all-round creepy guy. Pamela writes letters to her parents (which Mr. B intercepts) revealing her strong religious beliefs that eventually convert Mr. B into a man of propriety.
Pamela is thought by some to be an early feminist work because through the protagonist’s letters, readers got a sense of a woman’s emotions from her perspective and what it felt like to be in constant fear of sexual harassment.
You might be wondering: why can’t I just write in the first person and not bother with the letter part?
I wondered about this too and then it hit me.
The letter-writing form is conductive to protagonists who suffer from any kind of oppression because it’s a way for them to express how they’re feeling in the hope that someone will hear, even if they know nobody will read it (kind of like my blog at the moment:D). This expression allows us to truly empathise with them and see the world through their eyes.
When a protagonist addresses one person only it is —monologic, two letter writing protagonists— dialogic, or more—polylogic.
The first is well suited to reflective pieces or as I mentioned before, to emphasise the plight of a character. The latter two however allow for differing points of view and the switching between documents creates a really interesting effect. Perhaps we become acquainted with a character and feel comfortable with their perspective until another document proves we can’t trust them. Perhaps we become concerned for their safety after discovering a piece of information of which they’re unaware.
In Where or When, author Anita Shreve uses the epistolary form for the part of the novel where two lovers reach out to each other after many decades. The switching between letters creates a steady rise in tension as each fills in the foggy, unreliable memories of the other, deepening something they know as married people they can’t pursue; but ultimately can’t resist.
Turning to a different genre, we can look to one of the most famous epistolary novels of all time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although there are long passages of monologic letter writing, as a whole, the tale can be defined as polylogic because it also contains newspaper articles and one very creepy ship’s log.
Entry by entry we discover that there’s something not quite right aboard the Demeter—the crew are unsettled by something they can’t explain, disappearing one by one until only the captain remains. A mysterious ‘dog’ runs away from the ship as it runs aground in Whitby Harbour, Mina Harker recording the event in the form of a newspaper cutting that she pastes in her journal.
Dracula is officially in England; and while Mina is unaware of the danger she and her loved ones are in, as readers we’ve been privy to information that allows us to see the bigger picture, making us fearful for the protagonists’ safety.
Another benefit to using the epistolary form is that it promotes realism and reveals a character’s personality in terms of the way they write. I’ve spoken a lot about letter writing so far but let’s extend that now to electronic messaging.
As an exercise, I’d like you to pick up your mobile and look at the last message that you sent to somebody, then look at the last message that somebody sent to you. What’s similar about them? What’s different? What assumptions can you make about the people from their texts? I’m going to do the same…here are the results:D
I’ve realised that I always use a X at the end of a text message because I don’t want the other person to take something I’ve written in a negative light and be hurt by it. Hopefully that means I’m a person who cares for other people’s feelings.
I also think I overcompensate with X’s and smiley faces because I don’t want the recipient to think badly of me or come across as cold. My text was a lot more formal than the text sent to me and I noticed that I never shorten words even in text messages which maybe is a reflection of the way I feel about treating words properly:D —I don’t know. Maybe I could surmise from that that I’m a person who likes to do things properly.
So it shows that even from two short texts I was able to glean quite a lot of information. I’m sure that the first time we sit down and write as a particular character their distinct way of putting pen to page or finger to button is not going to reveal itself straight away, but after spending some time with them and getting to know their personality, their idiosyncrasies will begin to shine through.
We all have a distinct way of writing that reveals a lot about who we are without even realising.
When I’ve finished The Care Plan, I’m hoping to send it away to either a writing competition or a short story podcast. After this I might try a correspondence between two or more people, put the computer away and dip nip into ink and pen to paper. After all, what could be more wonderful than rediscovering the art of letter-writing?:)
So what do you think of the epistolary style? Is it something that has or hasn’t worked for you? Please feel free to let me know in the comments section below. I would love to hear about your experiences.
Until next time, ^^