The epistolary style is defined as a story which unfolds through documents such as: letters, newspaper articles, diary entries; even emails and blog posts!
Despite its limitations, 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.
A Bit of Background Stuff
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that reading the words of another creates 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 style had been in existence for many hundreds of years, Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson was the first to make it fashionable. It was considered an 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!).
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 conducive 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 someone will hear. This expression allows us to truly empathise with them and see the world through their eyes.
When a protagonist addresses one person it’s:
When there’s two letter writing protagonists it’s:
When there’s more than two:
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, the switching between documents creating an 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 the novel Where or When, author Anita Shreve uses the epistolary form when 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 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.
Epistolary of the Future
Another benefit to using the epistolary form is that it promotes realism and explicitly reveals a character’s personality. 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…
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.
My message was more formal than the text sent to me and I noticed that I never shorten words even in text messages. Maybe I could surmise from that that as a writer I like to treat words with respect?
So even from two short texts I was able to glean quite a lot of information about the personalities of the authors. Conclusion? We all have a distinct way of writing that reveals who we are without even realising. This is the beauty of revealing character in the epistolary style.
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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,